jcpenney CEO Ron Johnson announces the new jcpenney strategy at the jcpenney launch event at Pier 57 on January 25, 2012 in New York City. Courtesy Getty Images.
It's back to the future for troubled retailer J.C. Penney, which announced late Monday that CEO Ron Johnson would be replaced on an interim basis by Mike Ullman, the retailer's former chief executive.
Johnson, 54, was hired in late 2011 from Apple, where he led the company's highly successful retail store chain. But his plans to reinvigorate the chain from staid retail dinosaur into a fashion-forward, hipper brand stumbled early when he decided that the chain would abandon sales and coupons for an every day low price strategy - alienating long-time customers. His last few months were marked by slumping holiday sales, a battle with rival Macy's over home fashion maven Martha Stewart and increasing shareholder unrest over Penney's slumping stock price.
J.C Penney shares sank 44% last year -- Johnson's first full year as CEO -- and had slumped another 25% through last week. Word of his departure pushed the stock up 9% in after hours trading. But that was before news that Ullman -- CEO from 2004 to 2011 -- was returning. The stock was down 6% to $15.25 in later after-hours trading.
In a Monday filing, the retailer said Jonson was "stepping down" and was being replaced by Ullman, 66, effective immediately.
Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, a Penney director and the company's largest shareholder, recruited Johnson from Apple. But Ackman had been increasingly critical of Johnson's strategy, saying he had made critical moves without adequately testing their potential.
Ullman is not viewed as a long term replacement. He has no employment contract, but will be paid $1 million a year. It's also unclear what will happen to key execs Johnson hired after becoming CEO in October 2011.
In a company filing released last week, it was revealed that Johnson's pay package at the beleaguered company had plunged 96%.
Johnson received a 2011 stock grant worth $52.7 million when he was hired to reinvigorate the retailer. But he received just $1.9 million in his first full year at the company.
J.C.Penney is in a protracted legal fight with rival Macy's and its CEO Terry Lundgren over selling goods under Martha Stewart's brand. Earlier Monday, attorneys for the squabbling chains were in court for mediation after three weeks of testimony from witnesses including the domestic diva herself, Johnson and Lundgren.
In February, the company reported an adjusted fourth-quarter loss of $427 million, or $1.95 a share, far below Wall Street estimates. For the full year, Penney lost $985 million, or $4.49 a share.
In last week's proxy filing the company's board acknowledged tough times.
"The company underwent tremendous change as we began shifting our business model from a promotional department store to a specialty department store," Penney said in its proxy. "Fiscal 2012 was tougher than expected."
Penney had said its turnaround strategy under Johnson was a multi-year process. But now, it appears will be searching for a new CEO with a different approach.
Retail guru Kathy Gersch of Kotter International says "the patience ran out and the money ran out" for Johnson's strategies.
"He pulled some bold moves pretty quickly. Most were taking them in the wrong direction without a clear sign of when they might get traction," Gersch said.
Johnson's decision on everyday pricing was misguided, critics say.
"This was one large test that failed and we all learned something in retail we already knew, that the consumer is ultimately in control of this process and you can't disregard her," says Ellis Verdi, president of ad agency Devito/Verdi. "He took away the control. The consumer wants that control, to know they're getting a great deal.
Now, the struggling retailer needs to work on reestablishing consumer value, a strategy it has begun returning to. But it remains in a tough spot, Verdi says.
"JC Penney at its best is still not great," Verdi says. "That's the bigger issue. It's still an old brand."
So who will eventually step in long term?
Retail analyst Jennifer Black won't venture a guess, but says it is likely Penney will seek a seasoned veteran with big store management expertise.
"These big box stores aren't the same as these smaller Apple stores," Black says. The company will "look for somebody who has experience in running a big box store that's multi-faceted with all these different kinds of departments."
George Bradt of PrimeGenesis, which helps executives transition into new jobs, says he wouldn't recommend anyone take the job of CEO.
"I think it's over for them,'' Bradt says. "I'm not sure the brand name has any value. If someone came to me and said what advice do you have, I'd tell them not to take the job. The best thing Ullman can do is get rid of the company and sell the assets."