Penney CEO's Challenge: Is It Even Fixable?

By ANNE D'INNOCENZIO

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ There won't be an easy fix for J.C. Penney â¿¿ 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getting rid of coupons and most discounts in favor of everyday low prices, bringing in new brands and remaking its outdated stores.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.

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