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J.C. Penney seeking another leader after CEO’s abrupt exit


May 23. 2018 11:53PM
Marvin Ellison, chairman and chief executive officer of J.C. Penny Co., right, speaks with Greg Sandfort, chief executive officer of Tractor Supply Co., in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 15. (ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG)

Big Texas-based department-store chain seeks new leader: must be willing to tackle sluggish sales, failed fashion and $4 billion in long-term debt.

J.C. Penney Co., once again, is searching for a new chief executive after Marvin Ellison was poached by home-improvement retailer Lowe’s on Tuesday, a surprise exit that sent J.C. Penney’s stock down to historic lows.

Whoever takes the job will need to do more than fix J.C. Penney’s clothing offerings. Ellison, who became CEO in 2015, tried many initiatives to revive the department-store chain, including improving the online experience, adding big-ticket items like appliances and signing brand partnerships with celebrities. The moves failed to dramatically improve results, and, like his predecessors, Ellison had to slash prices to clear out inventory.

“J.C. Penney doesn’t stand for anything but discounting,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consultancy A Line Partners. “There’s no identity attached to any of these brands.”

On Tuesday, shares of the Plano, Texas-based retailer dropped to $2.35, their lowest since at least 1980, when Bloomberg started tracking the data. At just under $740 million, J.C. Penney’s market capitalization is worth less than a quarter of the value of its inventory.

Ellison’s departure took investors by surprise. Chuck Grom, an analyst for Gordon Haskett, said in a note that it was “pretty evident” that J.C. Penney was unaware of Ellison’s plans as of late last week, when the company reported earnings and the CEO was active in discussing long-term strategy.

In a video message to J.C. Penney employees posted on the company’s website, Ellison said the decision to leave was “gut-wrenching,” but it was time to let the board bring in a new leader “with fresh ideas.”

“The one thing I did not do as chairman and CEO was grow the stock price and generate wealth for you and your associates and the shareholders,” Ellison said. “This is the number one responsibility of a CEO and something that I did not deliver on.”

On such a short notice, there’s no obvious outside candidate to replace Ellison, who joined J.C. Penney in 2014 after 12 years in leadership roles at Home Depot Inc. Before Ellison, the company had to call on former CEO Mike Ullman to return after dramatic transformation efforts during the short tenure of former Apple executive Ron Johnson left the chain in tatters.

Bloomberg’s Brandon Kochkodin contributed.


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