DOWNERS GROVE, ILL. ¬ — James W. Nolan has resigned as chief executive officer of the Fresh Bakery division of Sara Lee Corp. The 54-year old executive had led the baking unit since 2007.

The company said he is leaving Sara Lee to join a private equity firm, effective April 9. In addition to serving as c.e.o. of Sara Lee Fresh Bakery, Mr. Nolan was a corporate executive vice-president, one of nine members of Sara Lee’s executive leadership team.

The departure of Mr. Nolan extends a period now dating back a decade in which the top post at the Sara Lee baking business has lacked continuity. He was the fourth chief executive of the fresh baking unit of Sara Lee since the company acquired Earthgrains in 2001. His predecessors included Barry H. Beracha, who retired in June 2003; Richard A. Noll, who left the company to run Sara Lee’s spun off apparel business in July 2005; and William J. Nictakis, who left the company in 2007 to join Mr. Noll at the apparel business, Hanesbrand, Inc.

Mr. Nolan first came to Sara Lee in February 2005. Immediately before taking the helm of the baking unit, he was c.e.o. of Sara Lee Foodservice and executive vice-president of Sara Lee Corp. Earlier, he was executive vice-president of U.S. operations for PepsiAmericas, the second-largest PepsiCola bottling operation. Before joining PepsiAmericas in 2001, he held a range of positions at PepsiCo, Inc. during 21 years there. He spent two years at Procter & Gamble prior to joining PepsiCo.

During Mr. Nolan’s tenure, the baking business continued to build the Sara Lee brand in bread and rolls. Profitability improved as well with operating income of $16 million in the second quarter ended Dec. 26, 2009, double the $8 million in adjusted operating income in the same period in 2007, just before he joined the company.

From a sales volume perspective, the company struggled in 2009. According to data from Information Resources, Inc., the company’s unit volume was down 7% in the 52 weeks ended Jan. 24 and dollar sales fell 9%. During the year, Flowers Foods Inc. climbed past Sara Lee as the second largest baking company in the United States.