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BERLIN (Reuters) - The board of Adidas (ADSGn.DE) has launched a formal search for a successor to Chief Executive Herbert Hainer who has faced criticism as the German sportswear company has lost ground to U.S. rival Nike (NKE.N).
Hainer, 60, in the job since 2001 and the longest-serving CEO of a German blue-chip company, wrote to staff confirming the move after Manager Magazin reported the world's second-biggest sportswear group was looking for his successor.
Hainer, whose contract was extended until 2017 last year with a mandate to work on a succession plan, said the search for a new CEO was a "long-term process" that would involve both internal and external candidates.
He is due to launch a new long-term strategic plan on March 26 together with his two most likely successors, global brand chief Eric Liedtke and sales boss Roland Auschel.
Hainer said he wants to get the plan off to a "great start", without saying if he will see out his existing contract.
Ingo Speich, a fund manager at Union Investment which has a 0.9 percent stake in Adidas, said the CEO should go as quickly as possible.
"A new strategy will only be credible with a new leadership," Speich, who has been Hainer's most outspoken critic, told journalists in an email.
"The sooner Mr Hainer hands the baton on to a successor, the better."
Manager Magazin said Hainer would target 20 billion euros ($22.7 billion) of annual sales and an operating margin of at least 10 percent by 2020, up from 14.8 billion and 8.3 percent last year respectively. Nike is targeting revenue of $36 billion by fiscal 2017.
Hainer said the plan would show the ambition of Adidas to be the best sports company in the world, but declined to give further details.
He said Adidas had made a "fantastic start" to 2015 after he restructured the struggling golf business, sold the non-core Rockport brand and launched a big marketing drive, including campaigns with singers Pharrell Williams and Kanye West.
Hainer started out as a sales manager for consumer goods firm Procter & Gamble, joining Adidas in 1987 and rising rapidly through the ranks to take over as CEO in 2001.
Sales have more than doubled during his 14-year tenure, but those of Nike and other rivals have grown even faster as Adidas failed to crack the U.S. market despite buying the Reebok brand in 2006. It recently slipped into third place in the United States behind Nike and relative newcomer Under Armour (UA.N).
Hainer's woes were compounded last year by a sudden slowdown in the golf market and the firm's deep exposure to Russia, where the tumbling rouble has scaled back new store openings.
A series of profit warnings prompted rumblings from shareholders, with hedge funds reported to be considering buying stakes in Adidas to force Hainer out.
The company's shares were up 3.4 percent by 1410 GMT (09:10 a.m. EST) on Thursday, making them the biggest gainer on the German blue-chip index DAX .GDAXI.
Additional reporting by Joern Poltz; Editing by Harro ten Wolde, Pravin Char and Liisa Tuhkanen