Brenda Barnes, who led a vast restructuring of Sara Lee Corp. as chief executive officer for the past five years, resigned from the company and the board of directors, where she was chairwoman. The board members for the Downers Grove, Ill.-based producer will consider internal and external candidates to succeed Barnes, who suffered a stroke in May.

Likely internal candidates to take over her post are Marcel Smits, chief financial officer, who led the company during her absence, and Christopher John Fraleigh, head of the North American retail unit. Fraleigh is part of the new office of the chairman, established to help Smits during Barnes's absence.

"We fully support Brenda's decision to step down as chairman and CEO so she can devote all of her time and energy toward improving her health," says James Crown, who assumed the role of chairman when Barnes's leave of absence began. "We will conduct a thorough process to identify a CEO successor in a timely manner, and look forward to sustaining the momentum begun under Brenda's leadership."

Barnes sold off more than 40% of the company's business and focused Sara Lee on its food and beverage sales. She centralized many of the company's operations, which had been running as near-separate businesses, outsourced various functions, and concentrated marketing dollars on its largest brands, including Sara Lee baked goods. She also launched a cost-cutting drive and moderated commodity costs, which have helped Sara Lee boost its operating margins in the last year.

Sara Lee's share price also has jumped substantially in recent months, prompted by the company's share-repurchase plan of as much as $3 billion. The new chief executive officer will face heavy promotions at the grocery store and weak consumer spending on food in the United States and Europe, along with revived competition from private label foods.