Heidrick & Struggles: Reinventing a Retail Giant: An Interview with J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison

J.C. Penney encountered challenges trying to evolve from a traditional brick-and-mortar company to one that could hold its own in an increasingly digital world. That ended up alienating traditional customers and sending its stock prices plunging.

Then enter Marvin Ellison, who arrived in November 2014 as president – and, eventually, CEO and chairman- gave investors, customers, and J.C. Penney employees cause for optimism.

Heidrick & Struggles sat down with Marvin Ellison to learn more about J.C. Penney’s turnaround effort.

As an incoming CEO, where did you start to ensure everyone was aligned on the strategy and direction?

Marvin Ellison: One of the first things I did when I took over was to give all my direct reports a pop quiz. I call it the “alignment quiz.” One of the questions was to describe J. C. Penney’s core customer. We had about six different definitions. This was from our leadership team—very intelligent, very capable people. But we had six different versions of “what the customer wants.” That tells you it’s a problem.

As you try to get the company moving in the right direction, how do you bring your associates along?

Marvin Ellison: It is the most difficult part of the job because, man, these folks have been through a lot. They’ve heard the song and dance, and they’ve heard it from some good singers and good dancers. This is going to sound overly simplistic, but it’s really about being authentic. Every month, I do a live broadcast town hall where I’m taking live questions that I have not seen in advance. Associates can e-mail and ask me anything. That’s one piece of it.

The other piece of it is on a weekly basis, I do at least two town halls in a store where I’m sitting in a room with associates at a lunch or dinner. I’m seeking feedback, and I’m answering them candidly on some of the things that they’re concerned about. That’s my way of being in touch, but it’s also my way of sending a message that I’m trying to listen and communicate the strategy.

Given what the company has been through, there’s no shortage of issues to address. With everything you’re trying to accomplish, how do you measure success?

Marvin Ellison: We’ve been very focused on the results. This is a results-oriented business. I could have a long list of meetings and events, but if we’re missing the sales plan and not making our profit target, then it’s all for naught. So results matter.

But I also think that you’ve got to inspect what you expect. And part of the issue we had here is that so much was going on that there was no closed-loop process to determine if anything was actually being completed. I mean, everybody was working hard, but they were not working in a very collaborative, collegial fashion. It was like, “Go to your silo and get it fixed.”

Read the full interview.


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