The chief executive of outdoor and boardwear chain Blacks Leisure left the company yesterday after a period of difficult trading for the firm.

Russell Hardy, formerly head of Birmingham-based Dolland & Aitchison opticians, took charge in 2004 but endured challenging conditions for much of that time.

Blacks, which operates from more than 450 sites, recently posted a series of profit warnings along with underlying pre-tax profits of £100,000 for the year to March 3 - down from £22.4 million the prior year.

In February it announced it was to shut around 45 stores, cutting around 100 jobs in the process.

The company said much had been achieved under Mr Hardy's leadership, adding it was confident it had the correct approach in place. Blacks also announced it had appointed advisers to carry out a review of its strategic options for board-wear chain Freespirit.

Blacks said the review would assess all options for maximising the growth potential of Freespirit, which operates from 49 stores in the UK.

Across the group, current trading has been in line with the trend seen at the time of annual results last month, when Blacks said recent like-for-like like sales increased by 0.8 per cent and margins recovered after aggressive stock clearances in March. The Northampton-based company also has the Millets, O'Neill and Mambo labels.

It added: "The outlook for the first half will depend on the key summer season and the success of the new camping and summer clothing lines, which have started well."

Under Mr Hardy, Blacks launched new ranges to "weather proof" the business against generally warmer conditions, with products including lighter, more breathable fabrics to appeal to the likes of festival-goers as well as the traditional

outdoor market. Blacks said Mr Hardy's departure was by "mutual agreement", with a deal reached regarding compensation. This is understood to be less than the £307,000 he made in salary and benefits last year.

His role will be taken in the interim by finance director Keith Fleming.

However it is believed chairman David Bernstein presented Mr Hardy with a fait accompli.

It is understood Mr Bernstein wants to speed up the group's recovery - something he indicated in his official statement.

He said: "The priority going forward is to implement with urgency the necessary actions for Blacks Leisure to prosper as the leading specialist retailer in the growing outdoor and boardwear markets."

The board is instigating a search process and will also consider external candidates, the retailer said. However Mr Fleming could keep the job.

Mr Bernstein paid tribute to Mr Hardy, saying: "Under his leadership much has been achieved and we are confident that the right strategy is in place."

A graduate of Warwick University, where he read economics, Mr Hardy entered the business world in 1983 when he joined Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group, as a management trainee. Three years later he joined Coopers & Lybrand - which subsequently merged with Price Waterhouse to form PricewaterhouseCoopers - as a senior manager.

He moved to Kingfisher in 1989, where he worked his way up the ranks to become finance director of Comet, the electricals retailer that is now held by Kesa Electricals. In 1994, he joined Safeway, over-seeing the freshfoods section, before moving to Dolland & Aitchison in 1996.

Blacks - valued at around £108 million - is scheduled to hold its AGM and issue a trading statement on July 19.

Some 29.4 per cent of the group is owned by Sports Direct, which said on February 14 it had no plans to make a full bid for the company - a statement that prevents it from making an offer until mid-August at the earliest.