DOWNERS GROVE, Ill. — Brenda C. Barnes is permanently stepping down as chairman and chief executive officer of Sara Lee Corp. as she continues to recover after having a stroke on May 14.

“We fully support Brenda’s decision to step down as chairman and c.e.o. so she can devote all of her time and energy toward improving her health,” said James S. Crown, chairman of the board. “She is a remarkable leader who is admired by those inside and outside of the Sara Lee family, and we fully understand and respect her decision. We will conduct a thorough process to identify a c.e.o. successor in a timely manner and look forward to sustaining the momentum begun under Brenda’s leadership.

“During Brenda’s six-year tenure as c.e.o., she successfully transformed Sara Lee into a strong global food and beverage company with a focused portfolio of leading brands. She exited low-margin businesses and dramatically increased the company’s investment in innovation, while strengthening its position in high-growth emerging markets. She invested in world-class technology platforms that are driving continuous improvement, cost reduction and improved efficiencies across the company. She was instrumental in assembling an outstanding, experienced senior management team, and worked tirelessly to build a high-performance culture internally and enhance the company’s reputation among all of its stakeholders.”

Barnes also has resigned from the board of directors and will not seek re-election at the company’s annual stockholders meeting in October.

During the search for a new leader, Marcel Smits will continue to be interim chief executive officer and Mark Garvey will continue to be interim chief financial officer.