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CEO exits soared in October, setting up record year for departures

McDonald's fires CEO
McDonald's fires CEO 01:56

If it seems like a lot of CEOs are heading for the exits lately, it's because they are.

From McDonald's to Under Armour to Nike, a record number of chief executives left their jobs last month, according to executive coaching firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. Indeed, 2019 is now on course to produce the most CEO exits for one year since the firm began tracking such numbers in 2002.      

At this point during the Great Recession in 2008 -- expected to soon become the second-highest year for CEO turnover -- 1,257 chief executives had announced exits, according to Challenger. So far this year it's 1,332 announced departures through October, which saw 172 CEOs leave their positions. That's a 6% increase. It's also 13% higher than last year's 1,176 such announcements through October.

"October was marked by a number of high-profile CEO exits, with many being held accountable for various missteps, whether in their professional handling of the company or in their personal lives," the outplacement firm vice president, Andrew Challenger, said in a note to clients.

The most spectacular sacking probably was at McDonald's, where CEO Steve Easterbrook was fired this past weekend for having what was termed a "consensual relationship" with an employee. The fast-food chain's board of directors classified his exit as a termination as "without cause," meaning the forced departure came with a $70 million payout to Easterbrook. 

Another CEO change that generated controversy: Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, who two weeks ago said he'd step down as CEO of the athletic-wear company next year yet remain its executive chairman and brand chief. The company this week acknowledged a two-year federal probe of its accounting practices, while saying it believes it had not done anything wrong.

Mark Parker is also stepping down from the helm of a sporting-goods giant. The Nike CEO will relinquish the top spot in early 2020 and chair its board. Parker told CNBC his decision had nothing to do with an anti-doping scandal involving renowned track coach Alberto Salazar, banned for four years from the sport for running experiments with supplements and testosterone. Salazar kept Parker abreast of the tests, according to reports from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Other recent high-profile CEO departures include WeWork ousting founder Adam Neumann as its CEO as the office space-sharing company struggled to raise cash. As with many others, Neumann will remain to chair WeWork's board.

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