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Gap's 'saving grace' is now in jeopardy

Gap's turnaround plan just got a whole lot trickier.

The company's shares fell more than 5 percent on Wednesday, after it announced late Tuesday that Old Navy global president Stefan Larsson will be leaving the brand for Ralph Lauren.

Analysts agreed that Larsson's exit is a huge loss for Old Navy, a brand he is credited with turning around during his three-year tenure. His departure also raises a question mark about the future of the overall Gap company, whose results have largely relied on robust growth from the low-price brand.

Old Navy store in Broomfield, Colorado.
Rick Wilking | Reuters
Old Navy store in Broomfield, Colorado.

"Old Navy has been the company's only saving grace since the start of fiscal year 2014," Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Laura Champine told investors.

According to Champine, Old Navy has reported year-over-year same-store sales gains in 15 of the last 19 months, averaging 4 percent growth.

Over the same period, the Gap brand has only once posted a year-over-year increase, instead averaging a 6 percent decline. Banana Republic, meanwhile, has generated growth during seven of these 19 months, though it still averaged a 3 percent decline.

"We believe Larsson was Gap's strongest leader and viewed him as a top candidate to lead the company given his relative youth, at 41 years old, and established background with over 15 years at H&M," she wrote.

Champine, who has a "hold" rating on the company's stock, lowered her price target to $29 from $35.

Also following the announcement, Mizuho Securities analyst Betty Chen downgraded Gap shares from "neutral" to "underperform," saying she views Larsson's departure as a "bad omen" for Old Navy's future performance, especially as it faces tougher compares.

In the fourth quarter last year, Old Navy's same-store sales rose 11 percent.

BMO Capital Markets analyst John Morris, who has a "market perform" rating on Gap, agreed that Larsson's exit is a loss, saying the executive has that "rare combination of merchandising creativity and operational discipline that is difficult to find in retail."

Regardless, Morris said many of the operational improvements Larsson made while at Old Navy should continue after his departure. These include producing more on-trend, quality products at low prices.

For his part, Gap CEO Art Peck said on the company's most recent earnings call that the Banana Republic and Gap brands will tap into Old Navy's learnings moving forward, so they too can speed up product delivery and create a consistent fit.

"I'm very encouraged by what these capabilities will be able to deliver for us as we get into 2016," he said.