Questrom said he would split his time living in Aspen, Colo., and Dallas, where Penney’s is based. He loves to travel, ski, bicycle and keeps a busy social calendar. “This is not bittersweet,” he said. “There’s sadness only in that I enjoyed working with the J.C. Penney people. I believe the company can go on to new heights. We’ve gotten so much accomplished.”
Questrom, prior to running Penney’s, was chairman of Barneys New York and, before that, headed Federated and Neiman Marcus. While both Ullman and Questrom are considered visionary and very smart, their skill sets are different, Questrom being more the meticulously dressed, suave merchant prince, Ullman, a driven, hard-working and largely financial and operations executive, adept at streamlinings, exuding a cool, confident demeanor and an analytical mind.
Still, at various jobs, he has been to some degree involved in merchandising and marketing, which he once called “the fun sides of retailing.” He also has experience in the mergers and acquisitions arena at Macy’s and LVMH, which could be useful if Penney’s one day decides to pursue an acquisitions strategy.
“Mike Ullman can lead [Penney’s] to a new level now that it has achieved its merchandising savvy,” observed Walter Loeb, the retail analyst. “It’s an interesting choice. Mike has always had a vision in everything he has done. It’s now really about getting more young people to shop the store. Penney’s has got to be more competitive in this environment.”
Ullman began his career as an international account manager at IBM, where he was responsible for consumer and retail clients. He later was vice president for business affairs at the University of Cincinnati, his alma mater, and in 1981, became a White House Fellow, serving as executive assistant to the U.S. trade representative.
From 1982 to 1986, he was executive vice president at what was then Federated’s Sanger Harris division. It’s since been consolidated into May Department Stores’ Foley’s division. From 1986 to 1988, he was managing director of Wharf Holdings, a diversified holding company in Hong Kong, where he was discovered by Edward Finkelstein, the legendary former Macy’s chairman. Finkelstein brought him on board in November 1988 as executive vice president to shore up Macy’s balance sheet. After a couple of promotions, he became co-chairman and co-ceo in April 1992, deposing Finkelstein just two and a half months after the company went bankrupt. At Macy’s, Ullman took a merchandising-centric company into the computer age by installing new technologies to track and reorder goods. He tackled shortage and operational problems, cut debt and slashed the staff from 70,000 to 50,000. He also is credited with implementing the store’s buyer-planner system and keeping cash flow positive for a good stretch, though sales were difficult and debt was high, leading to the 1992 bankruptcy filing.