Former J.C. Penney CEO: “I Was a Terrible Fit”

Former J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson now believes he “was a terrible fit” for the department store chain and that “a kind of arrogance” undid his tenure.

“I am a creative person,” the former head of the Apple stores told students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of its View From the Top series. “This is a company that isn’t über creative. I believe in change, and this is a company that is much more comfortable, like many people are, with the status quo.”

He said his 17-month tenure was “very painful,” and he admitted that he tried to do too much too soon.

“The biggest mistake is we went way too fast,” he said. “We went way too fast for our board, way too fast for our customers, way too fast for our employees, way too fast for our shareholders.”

He said that he learned “you have to go slow when you take over a new company. You have to build trust. And I moved way too quickly assuming I had the trust of the whole company. And I think you have to earn it.” 

His original goal was to “take a 109-year-old company and try to see if we couldn’t find a way for it to survive for the next 100 years,” noting the chain had an aging customer base.

“I believed if you’re going to change the model to succeed you have to change the model to get a younger customer base and a more profitable base,” he said. “I concluded, which in hindsight was an error, the best way to make a move was to jump-start the change and be willing to go through a very difficult period of down sales, but over the course of time we would get to our place faster.” 

He resigned three times, and the board finally accepted his resignation in April 2013, he said. 

Asked for his thoughts on retail in general, he said that while brick-and-mortar stores will survive, people will look at them differently. 

“I think we are going to look at stores pretty soon as just public warehouses,” he continued. “You think about a department store, it’s just lot of stuff that we go pick out of. But it’s not tailored, it’s not personal, there is nothing special about it. The world is going to get intensely personal…. You have to figure out how to create more intimacy and more relationships and more experience through stores. But it doesn’t mean that you have to buy.”

JCK News Director