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Business

April 11, 2013

Penney CEO's challenge: Can it be fixed?

NEW YORK — There won't be an easy fix for J.C. Penney — if it can be fixed at all.

As Mike Ullman takes the reins again less than two years after his departure, he faces a Herculean task to undo the mess left by CEO Ron Johnson, who was ousted Monday. With the department store retailer in the middle of a disastrous overhaul that has driven away shoppers, the 66-year-old Ullman has to quickly figure out what parts of Johnson's legacy to keep and what to trash.

The overarching question is whether the century-old company can be saved at all. Very few retailers have recovered from a 25 percent sales drop in a single year, like that suffered by Penney under Johnson's watch. On Tuesday, the retailer's stock price dropped more than 12 percent to a 12-year-low of $13.93 as investors' worries escalated about Penney's future.

"Ullman can't go back to the old ways, but he can't do what Ron Johnson did," said Ron Friedman, head of the retail and consumer products group at Marcum LLP, a national accounting and consulting firm. "I think there will be a combination of the two. But he has to make some quick moves."

Apparently, the company's board of directors felt Ullman, who served as Penney's CEO for seven years and is known for strong relationships with suppliers and calm, steady execution, would be the best choice right now to secure the company's future. But it could take Ullman 18 months to stabilize the business, says Burt Flickinger III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. He gives the chain a 50-50 chance to survive.

"The odds are declining every day," said Flickinger, noting that rivals like Macy's are taking away market share. "Competitors see blood in the water."

Johnson, the mastermind behind Apple Inc.'s successful retail stores, lasted just 17 months. He faced an ever-growing chorus of critics calling for his resignation as they lost faith in the aggressive overhaul. The rapid-fire changes included getting rid of coupons and most discounts in favor of everyday low prices, bringing in new brands and remaking its outdated stores. Johnson's goal was to reinvent the stodgy retailer into a mini-mall of hip specialty shops.

Instead, Penney's loyal shoppers went in search of deals elsewhere, and the chain didn't attract the younger and more affluent shoppers that Johnson coveted. Now the 1,100-store chain is burning through cash. In the past year, the company lost nearly a billion dollars and saw its revenue tumble by nearly $4.3 billion to $12.98 billion. Customer traffic dropped 13 percent. Steep sales declines have continued, say analysts, even though Johnson added back some sales events and coupons early this year.

Some speculate that Ullman may ditch the everyday price strategy and instead ramp up the return to discounting and coupons to get shoppers back in the stores. But that will still be an expensive move. Michael Binetti, an analyst at UBS Investment Research, and others believe that Ullman also will temporarily suspend the rollout of the mini-shops, which started late last year and feature such brands as Joe Fresh and Levi's.

When the overhaul of its home area is completed next month, the company will have carved up 30 percent of its store space into mini-boutiques. But after that, Ullman is expected to pull back the pace of the rollout as Penney tries to conserve cash. That means that some suppliers who expected to have mini-shops could be left in the lurch.

Ullman also will have to find ways to boost employee morale amid severe cuts that have slashed the work force by nearly 30 percent. As of February, Penney employed 116,000 full- and part-time workers, down from 159,000 a year ago.

Whatever Ullman ends up doing, analysts expect him to be thoughtful and deliberate in his moves. That's a big difference from Johnson, who was criticized for not testing his strategies in a few stores, particularly the pricing plan.

In a statement released by Penney on Monday, Ullman said he plans to immediately "engage with the company's customers, team members, vendors and shareholders, to understand their needs, view and insights" and then work with the management team and the board to develop a game plan.

"(The board) chose stability and experience, in my mind," said Antony Karabus, president of SD Retail Consulting. "Instead of big, grandiose ideas, what they need now is someone to stabilize and execute effectively. He has a calm way about him. If anyone can do it, he can, because he knows the business. He knows the customers."

Bud Konheim, president of designer fashion brand Nicole Miller, which has sold an affordable version to Penney since 2005, agrees.

"(Ullman) is very smart. Everybody loves him. He's a strong executive but he's not a bull in the china shop," he said. "He's not as much show biz as Ron Johnson. He flies under the radar."

Still, there are concerns. Penney struggled under Ullman's first regime, though the company was still profitable. Ullman brought in Penney's first mini-shops, including beauty company Sephora and exclusive names like MNG by Mango, a European clothing brand. But he didn't do much to transform the store's shopping experience or to attract new customers.

That showed up in the sales figures. During Ullman's previous tenure, from December 2004 to October 2011, sales declined from $18.18 billion in 2004 to $17.6 billion in 2010, his last full year at the company. Sales per square foot dropped to $155 from $177, according to Deborah Weinswig, an analyst at Citi Research.

When Ullman left Penney in November 2011, the situation wasn't great. But it also wasn't the crisis it is now. The company's credit ratings are deep into junk status. Its stock has lost 67 percent of its value since February 2012 when investors bullish on Johnson's grand plans drove the price up around $43. That makes it that much harder for Ullman to turn business around.

History also dictates that the odds are against a sales recovery. Last fall, Credit Suisse surveyed 17 retailers that reported annual declines of anywhere from 15 percent to 25 percent in a single year from 2000 to 2011. Of that group, only four retailers recovered the lost revenue — Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Ann Inc., Guess Inc. and Barnes & Noble Inc. — and it took an average of three years to do so. The rest were either acquired by a private equity company, went bankrupt or merged with another public company.

Ultimately, Penney's fate lies in once-loyal shoppers like Beth Williams, 39, who deserted the chain early last year.

Williams, a writer and mother of a 3-year-old from Plum, Pa., said she used to shop at Penney once a month for her family. But that changed when her local store got rid of coupons and sales events. She also doesn't like the new styles that she believes only target customers in their teens and 20s.

Williams says she would go back if Penney had more sales and brought back more traditional clothing like khaki shorts with forgiving fits.

"I would go back," she said. "I miss it. That was my go-to store for a long time, and then it changed."

 

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