Breaking a self-imposed silence since his ouster as CEO of J.C. Penney (JCP) last April, Ron Johnson finally shared some of his thoughts about his executive experience while speaking at the Stanford Arts Institute in California.
Johnson said that he has avoided public comment for fear of interfering in JCP’s current turnaround efforts. “I have chosen to remain quiet about my time at J.C. Penney simply because I in no way want to impact the team and their efforts to fulfill their strategy for the company which seems to be to reconnect with their core customer,” he said.
Johnson’s tenure at JCP was a controversial and embattled one. He pinned the future success of JCP on the reinvention of its home department, abandoning the previous focus on coupons and regular store sales in favor of showcasing hipper designers like Betsy Johnson and Levi’s. In place of rows of discounted apparel, Johnson installed a series of specialty shops intended to attract younger, wealthier shoppers.
At least initially, Johnson’s plans were received enthusiastically by the business community, pushing JCP’s stock up 24 percent to $43 in January 2012. However, JCP’s hopes soon soured, its stock plummeted more than 60 percent, and credit agencies downgraded the company, once a benchmark of retail success, to junk status. After only eighteen months on the job, Johnson was given his walking papers.
Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University in 1980 and joined its board in August 2011. Explaining why he chose the university as the site of his first speaking engagement since he left JCP, he said, “I spoke at the Stanford event regarding a variety of topics, which included my first public comments on J.C. Penney. I did this because it was for Stanford and for the students.”
Johnson struck a positive note when he spoke of his time at the ailing retailer, saying, “I wish only the best for Mike [Ullman] and the employees of J.C. Penney.”
However, his biography on the website for Melt, a California restaurant chain for which Johnson serves as a board member, seems to revealingly tell a different story. It reads, “He most recently served as CEO of J.C. Penney and led an attempt to revitalize the company which was aborted by the board of directors after 12 months of transformation.”