Commentary

Penney Looks To Jill Soltau To Lead It Out Of The Doldrums

After an extensive four-month search following Marvin Ellison’s sudden departure for Lowe’s in May, JCPenney yesterday named Jill Soltau, the former CEO of Joann Stores, as its CEO starting Oct. 15.

"Soltau, 51, will be the 25th woman currently leading a Fortune 500 company, according to Fortune magazine. She will become Penney’s fifth chief executive in the past decade,” Nathaniel Meyersohn writes for CNNMoney

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“Since [Ellison left], Penney, whose shares have plummeted this year on concerns about its paltry sales growth in a strong consumer environment, has contended with more turmoil in its c-suite,” Fortune’s Phil Wahba reports.

CFO Jeffrey Davis announced his departure from the Plano, Texas-based company Thursday. Chief customer officer Joe McFarland left Penney in July to join Ellison at Lowe’s.

“During her tenure at Joann Stores, Ms. Soltau helped to revitalize branding, refresh the company’s merchandising strategy and expand its digital capabilities, the closely held fabric and crafts retailer said Tuesday. Before joining Joann Stores, Ms. Soltau worked for five years at ShopKo, where she rose to president. She also held senior level positions at Sears Holdings and Kohl’s after starting her career with Carson Pirie Scott, Penney said,” Maria Armental reports for the Wall Street Journal.

“JoAnn, founded in Cleveland, has been around for almost 75 years and remained relevant to customers as other fabric stores went out of business,” Maria Halkias writes for the Dallas Morning News. “[Soltau] was recently vocal about the impact tariffs on Chinese goods will have on JoAnn's customers, many of whom are crafters who buy fabrics and supplies from JoAnn to make their finished goods,” she adds.

“Soltau spoke about the downsides of the tariffs at the Section 301 hearing in Washington, DC, as part of an anti-tariff media blitz. Joann Stores also created an online petition for customers to sign, calling the tariffs a ‘made in America tax.’ Soltau will likely continue her battle against the tariffs at the helm of JCPenney, another retailer that has opposed the tariffs,” Kate Taylor writes for Insider.

“No retailer will be able to simply absorb the cost of a 10% tariff, much less a 25% tariff in today's ultra-competitive retail environment,” JCPenney counsel David M. Spooner wrote in a Sept. 6 letter to U.S. trade representative Robert E. Lighthizer, Taylor continues.

“Soltau comes to Penney at a crucial time -- ahead of the all-important holiday season. The company has had a hard time keeping inventory levels low, as unsold and outdated merchandise has piled up in stores. When Ellison left, the retailer's board assured shareholders it would find someone with merchandise experience to fill the CEO role,” CNBC’s Lauren Thomas writes.

“The department store has struggled to revive sales amid a broader consumer shift to online shopping, despite strong consumer spending that helped others in the industry report upbeat results last quarter. The company in August lowered its full-year outlook following disappointing quarterly sales and widening losses. JCPenney also has more than $4 billion of debt on its balance sheet versus a market capitalization of $491 million,” writes Mamta Badkar for Financial Times

“JCPenney is a quintessential American brand with a strong and loyal customer base, and I couldn’t be prouder to lead such an iconic retailer,” Soltau states in the news release announcing her appointment. “I am highly passionate about the customer and I spent my entire career focused on the needs of a value-based consumer by researching, understanding and meeting her expectations for style, quality and inspiration.”

“As JCPenney knows all too well, there are worse things than not having a CEO -- starting with having the wrong one,” Dallas Morning News’ Mitchell Schnurman writes in a hard-hitting column published shortly before yesterday’s announcement.

“Seven years ago, the company hired an acclaimed Apple executive who was determined to reinvent the department store business and Penney. Instead, Ron Johnson oversaw a devastating decline in sales, profits and cash, and was pushed out after 17 months on the job.

“That history still haunts Penney, whose financial results and stock price haven’t come close to recovering. Annual sales are $5 billion lower than the pre-Johnson era and Penney’s market cap is almost $6 billion lower. Penney also has 60,000 fewer employees,” Schnurman continues.

But one new one at the top -- who is, at least initially, making investors gleeful.

“Shares of the company, which hit a record low last week when its chief financial officer quit, rose about 10% in after-market trading,” Reuters reports.

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