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November 15, 2011 6:10 PM

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Enter the Era of Ron Johnson

Ron Johnson's tenure as chief cheerleader and chief executive officer at J.C. Penney Co. Inc. got its public start in the most scripted of forums this week -- the prepared remarks portion of the company's third-quarter conference call....

Ron Johnson's tenure as chief cheerleader and chief executive officer at J.C. Penney Co. Inc. got its public start in the most scripted of forums this week -- the prepared remarks portion of the company's third-quarter conference call.

He took no questions and offered few specifics, but the former Apple Inc. retail star -- the head mixologist at the genius bar, as it were -- acknowledged his arrival, thanked his predecessor, Myron E. "Mike" Ullman 3rd, and said "J.C. Penney has great people. People who I know will be able to think differently and work creatively to take the company into the future."

He also said he and the all-star team he's building (including marketing hotshot Michael Francis from Target Corp. and Kellwood Co. ceo Michael Kramer) would be helping them to "rethink every aspect of our business."

In short, the message to employees, at least as it was tweaked for Wall Street's ears, was: "You're doing everything wrong and that has to change and we're going to help." "I'm not here to improve, I am here to transform," Johnson said. "I'm investing considerable energy in a strategic review of our product, our pricing and our promotional strategies in order to create an exceptional, a new, a better way for people to shop."

All of this has shades of Apple. The ambition. The brave charge to not just face the future, but create it. The mandate to employees to "think differently" even plays on the famous Apple marketing campaign.

This is all an exceptionally heavy serving of corporate rhetoric, especially given the challenge of reversing the market share losses at a company the size of Penney's, which has more than 1,100 stores.

But there's this, "What if?" thing.

What if the success of the Apple stores isn't mostly about the insanely cool products?

What if some of the genius of Steve Jobs rubbed off on Johnson, or was already present when he joined Apple and made retail history?

It also cuts the other way.

What if Johnson learned the spiel at Apple and did amazing things there, but falls short when it comes to reinventing such a large business with so many moving parts and an audience no smaller than half of all American households?

Francis and Kramer appear to be betting that won't be the case. And their presence lends Johnson's rhetoric a kind of intriguing credibility.

Reinventing anything as big as Penney's is going to be incredibly tough, but what if when he talks about creating "a new, a better way for people to shop" he actually means it? And what if he pulls it off?
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