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J.C. Penney: On the Road to Recovery

Editor's note: This story was part of TheStreet's 10-part Top Business Leaders of Tomorrow series.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Department store consolidation has run rampant over the past decade, narrowing down the field to just a handful of major players.

J.C. Penney (JCP) withstood this shrinkage and is now leading this remaining pack. Witnessing the consolidation first-hand is Steven Lawrence, 43, executive vice president and senior general merchandising manager of Men's, Children and Home section at the mid-priced department store.

Steve Lawrence
Steve Lawrence

Lawrence has grown up in the department store space, starting his career at Foley's, a now obsolete regional department store based out of Texas. Owned by May Department Stores, with locations in Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, Arizona, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, Foley's stores were rebranded as Macy's (M) back in fall of 2006 after May was purchased by what was then Federated.

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He had entered the retail by happenstance -- less because of what he wanted to be than what he didn't want to be. Graduating with a bachelor's of business administration degree from Notre Dame in 1990, Lawrence was uninterested in going into banking, a path being taken by most of his classmates. He interviewed at May Company, and wanting to be closer to his family in Texas, took a position as an assistant buyer responsible for men's ties at Foley's.

Over the following decade, he climbed the ranks at Foley's, holding nearly every position in the men's department, including divisional merchandising manager.

At the time, technology in the retail world was practically non-existent. "Coming out of college I knew how to use a computer a little bit, and it was like I was bringing fire," Lawrence says.

Prior to computerized inventory systems, merchandising was extremely labor intensive. Lawrence would spend full weeks writing orders by hand after sales associates manually counted inventory and sizes.

"Technology really allowed for the consolidation of department stores," he says. "There was less need for regional players, as national department stores were now able to address individual store needs from headquarters across the country."

By 2000, J.C. Penney had entered the early stages of its turnaround after several years of sales declines due to rising competition from specialty retailers Target (TGT) and Wal-Mart's (WMT)move into trendier apparel, and the expansion of rival Kohl's (KSS).

"I was doing well at May, but was ready to take on a challenge," Lawrence says.

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