J.C. Penney Needs a New CEO ASAP

Former J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP) chief Marvin Ellison can't really be blamed for jumping ship earlier this year. As a 12-year veteran of The Home Depot, he naturally saw the position he was offered as CEO of Lowe's as his dream job. (The fact that J.C. Penney's turnaround strategy has sputtered over the past couple of years presumably added to the appeal of moving on.)

Nevertheless, Ellison picked an unfortunate time to leave J.C. Penney. The storied department store chain's turnaround effort has been losing steam, making it more vital than ever to have stable leadership.

An "Office of the CEO" consisting of four top executives took over day-to-day management of J.C. Penney in June. However, two of those four people have now left the struggling retailer, including -- as of this week -- the company's CFO. With the critical holiday season fast approaching and its executive ranks thinning, J.C. Penney needs to expedite the CEO-hiring process if at all possible.

The turnaround is in jeopardy

In the early days of Ellison's tenure at J.C. Penney, the company seemed to be on the road to recovery, following a disastrous plunge in sales under former CEO Ron Johnson. During fiscal 2015, comp sales rose 4.5%, while profitability and free cash flow improved dramatically.

As CEO, Ellison emphasized a more rigorous use of data for decision making. One result was that he pushed the company into new merchandise categories such as appliances and toys where there was market share up for grabs.

This strategy has had mixed results. However, any benefits from adding new categories at J.C. Penney has been more than offset by a loss of focus in its core apparel business. Apparel still accounts for about half of J.C. Penney's sales and the vast majority of its gross profit, but a series of merchandise planning and inventory management errors have led to weak results in that area. As a result, J.C. Penney has missed its sales and earnings forecasts repeatedly since 2016.

Ellison may not have been the best person to revitalize J.C. Penney's apparel business, as he didn't have a deep background in that category. But at least he was a stable hand on the tiller.

Other executives are bailing, too

After Ellison announced his departure, J.C. Penney offered retention bonuses of up to $500,000 in cash and stock to five top executives in an effort to limit turnover. It named four of them to the temporary Office of the CEO: CFO Jeff Davis, Chief Customer Officer Joe McFarland, CIO and Chief Digital Officer Therace Risch, and EVP of Supply Chain Mike Robbins.

However, some of these high-ranking executives have followed Ellison out the door. In mid-July, Ellison hired McFarland to serve as one of his top deputies at Lowe's. McFarland left J.C. Penney at the beginning of August.

Last Thursday, J.C. Penney suffered an even bigger blow as Davis (the CFO) resigned, effective Oct. 1. Davis was appointed CFO of Qurate Retail Group, owner of QVC, HSN, and Zulily, among other brands.

J.C. Penney needs a leader

Since mid-May, J.C. Penney has lost three of its top five executives, including its CEO and CFO. Furthermore, chief merchant John Tighe left the company last fall after Ellison eliminated that role. In other words, the top of J.C. Penney's leadership hierarchy has been decimated over the past year.

Meanwhile, J.C. Penney took a hatchet to its 2018 guidance in conjunction with its Q2 earnings report in August. Many of its peers posted strong results for the second quarter, but J.C. Penney continued to suffer from a combination of overly aggressive inventory planning and merchandise that didn't resonate with customers.

The only piece of good news in the earnings report was Chairman Ron Tysoe's statement that "the Board has met with highly qualified candidates who have expressed a strong desire to become the next leader of JCPenney." Yet a month and a half later -- and more than four months after Ellison announced his departure -- J.C. Penney still hasn't hired a new CEO.

CEO searches can take a long time. And it is important to pick a candidate with the right skills to succeed. That said, J.C. Penney isn't exactly coasting along right now. The longer it takes to make a hire, the worse the situation the new CEO may inherit.

Thus, J.C. Penney's board faces a delicate balancing act. It wouldn't make sense to hire someone who was a bad fit just to complete the process faster. But the board should recognize that time is of the essence for turning the company around.

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Adam Levine-Weinberg owns shares of J.C. Penney. The Motley Fool is short February 2019 $185 calls on Home Depot and long January 2020 $110 calls on Home Depot. The Motley Fool recommends Home Depot and Lowe's. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.