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Despite excuse's stigma, sometimes execs' departure truly is personal

| Sunday, March 11, 2012

CHICAGO — When executives cite "personal reasons" for leaving jobs, it often comes across as spin.

Sometimes, skepticism over the news turns out to be justified. Other times, it really appears to be true. Deeper digging to get that the truth is almost always required.

Consider the Jan. 30 news release from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based sushi bar chain Kona Grill Inc.

The chain said Chief Executive Mike Nahkunst was "leaving the company for personal reasons" and thanked him for his service.

Kona Grill's filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, however, suggested a different story.

"If asked, Mr. Nahkunst will say that he resigned for personal reasons," said the severance agreement between the former CEO and the company. "Only if he is asked to elaborate, he may state only that it was not health related and that he had a personal disagreement with the board."

Kona Grill didn't respond to a phone call or email to discuss the matter. A corporate governance expert said of the filing, "The fact that it was scripted as to what a person would say suggests that it was a rather complex story."

Then there's the news release from 2001 when CEO Jeff Skilling resigned from Enron, calling his departure a "purely personal decision." He was later convicted in the company's accounting scandal.

So imaginations ran amok Feb. 27 when Allstate Corp. disclosed that its chief marketing officer, Mark LaNeve, had resigned, citing that catch-all excuse in the process. The Northbrook-based home and auto insurer, after all, has been roiling with intrigue: It was the second recent executive departure at a company experiencing shrinking market share and worsening relations with agents.

Allstate observers were skeptical about the reason given for the marketer's departure.

Typically, using the personal-reasons phrase "raises questions, because what is a 'personal reason?'" said Charles Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. "Any time you see that phrase, rather than put the issue to rest, because it's used so often and in a sometimes confusing way, it raises more questions than provides answers."

Public companies are required by the SEC to disclose the departure or appointment of certain executive officers, and they have a duty to furnish truthful, non-misleading information, said a spokesman for the National Investor Relations Institute, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group.

In the case of Allstate's LaNeve, however, what's often considered corporate boilerplate appears to be true.

And when he was contacted by a Chicago Tribune reporter, LaNeve was more transparent about his reasons for departure.

LaNeve, who in 2009 left a high-level sales job at General Motors to join Allstate, disclosed last week that he left Allstate because of ongoing challenges related to his twin autistic sons.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

In LaNeve's case, he had kept his home in the Detroit area, where his sons continued to live because of their relationships with doctors and schools. LaNeve had bought a condominium near Allstate but said he considered himself a commuter because his family never moved from Michigan.

He's on the board of New York-based Autism Speaks, which has held fundraising walks in Chicago. Allstate and GM have supported various autism causes. Autism is a disorder that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and socialize, and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges.

In a 2008 interview with USA Today, LaNeve said children with autism have "learning deficits, real problems with social awareness and adaptability, erratic or bizarre behavior and odd interests."

"But they also have many strengths. My children have great memories, great artistic abilities, and they're great Rollerbladers," he said. They've had "literally thousands and thousands of hours of speech, occupational and social therapy."

LaNeve spoke of the difficulty of trying to raise autistic children while holding down a job with long hours and frequent travel.

"I feel horrible when I can't see them and usually do everything possible to cut trips short and at least make it home before they go to bed," he told the newspaper. He and his wife "celebrate even the tiniest victories and don't let little issues bother us," including workplace drama.

LaNeve told the Chicago Tribune last week that he's not leaving Allstate over any disagreement with the company. He expressed "love" for several top Allstate executives, including Chief Executive Tom Wilson, and said he enjoyed his job there.

"No business reasons whatsoever were involved," LaNeve said of his departure. "I regretted having to leave, but I had to attend to these personal issues."

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