Commentary

Penney Heads Back To Future With Ullman At Helm

As happy as existing shareholders may be that Ron Johnson has been axed as J.C. Penney’s CEO, as Sarah Mahoney reports below, feelings are mixed about the man who will be taking his place. Myron E. Ullman III has not only been there and done that, he did it with such lackluster results that he was nudged aside for Johnson 17 months ago.

“It is important to remember that the J.C. Penney that Mr. Johnson joined in 2011 -- the one Mr. Ullman presided over for seven years -- really was in need of repair,” writes Justin Lahart in the Wall Street Journal’s “Heard on the Street” column. “There was a reason that Penney's shares jumped 17.5% on the day in June 2011 the retailer announced Mr. Johnson would take over.”

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Johnson soon announced a revitalization plan but the honeymoon was quickly over and squabbling began. In after-hours trading following the announcement of Johnson’s departure yesterday, the stock price initially “spiked by more than 10%” from the dismal depths it has fallen to. But when Ullman was named to step back into the shoes he had stepped out of, it quickly “tanked,” Business Insider’s Sam Ro reports, tracking MarketWatch. A chart accompanying Ro’s story shows the stock down 14.9% shortly after 6 p.m. yesterday.

Ullman “brushed off criticism” that the retailer “had stagnated on his watch, Financial Times’ Barney Jopson writes, noting that he had introduced Sephora and Mango shop-in-shops to its stores, He blamed “sluggish mall traffic and the economic downturn” for the weak results. 

When asked about his (presumably new) game plan for the retailer, Ullman replied: “Tomorrow morning the journey begins,” telling Jopson that “his objectives were ‘profitable growth,’ winning back the customers J.C. Penney had lost and attracting new shoppers” -- pretty much what he said in the company’s official release. And pretty much what anyone with an attachment to reality would say. 

Ullman also told the New York Times’ Stephanie Clifford that it is  “premature” to discuss where he would re-lead the retailer.

“Some things are working well, others maybe not, but I deserve a chance to be on the ground,” he said. “Nobody ever wins by going back in retail because the customers’ expectations change all the time.” 

Ullman told Clifford he got first got a call from Penney chairman Thomas Engibous last weekend, asking if he would be interested in returning. “His immediate answer was ‘absolutely,’” Clifford reports. “Mr. Engibous advised him to confer with his wife, which he did. ‘She was enthusiastic -- she knows that it’s been painful to watch from afar,’” Ullman said. 

Perhaps Johnson’s most ambitious initiative was to create shops within the shop for the likes of Joe Fresh, Jonathan Adler and –- litigiously -- Martha Stewart. (Doing away with discounts deserves a different adjective than ambitious.)  

“Ullman told Reuters in an interview that his first step as returning CEO would be to take a close look at Penney's books before making any decisions about whether he would forge ahead with Johnson's shop plan or stop it,” Phil Wahba reports.

"What's worked well so far is having some attractions within each area," Ullman said.

“I wouldn't recommend that we go back to the way J.C. Penney was when I left. Things change,” Ullman told the Wall Street Journal’s Joann S. Lublin and Dana Mattoili. “But, he added, ‘There's no reason to try and alienate customers who want to try and shop at J.C. Penney.’

That’s a start, one guesses. 

Not just Penney, of course, is experiencing sluggish sales and waning relevance against the rising fortunes of online stores and specialty retailers. 

“Department stores took in $198 billion in revenue in 2012, down from $210 billion in 2008, according to research group IBISWorld,” Tiffany Hsu and Walter Hamilton report in the Los Angeles Times

The retailer “probably is looking for a sense of familiarity,” Anthony Dukes, an associate professor of marketing at USC Marshall School of Business, tells Tsu and Hamilton.  

And that’s exactly the sentiment expressed by chairman Engibous, who says in a statement that Ullman “is well-positioned to quickly analyze the situation J.C. Penney faces and take steps to improve the company's performance.” For his part, Ullman states he will “work with the leadership team and the board to develop and clearly articulate a game plan to establish a foundation for future success.”

Once he’s on the ground and the journey has begun and he can get off the phone with all those reporters, of course.

3 comments about "Penney Heads Back To Future With Ullman At Helm".
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  1. Steve Nilsen from Private, April 9, 2013 at 8:41 a.m.

    where are the real owners? get busy, shareholders!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 9, 2013 at 11:28 a.m.

    Blah blah blah. This means there is nobody else in the world that can do better for Penney's. What does that say about Penney's and why bother ? There cannot be real owners or the real owners like mutual fund owners do not know they own it and can't do anything about it. The bloodsuckers will make a bundle sucking the rest of its life out of it the "owners" will either take a loss on their taxes or be sucked.

  3. Walter Sabo from SABO media, April 9, 2013 at 10:42 p.m.

    Uh do you ever go to this store? Do they have a website?

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