J.C. Penney hires former Zale chief

Beryl Raff, former chairman of Zale Corp., North America’s largest fine jewelry retailer, is the new senior vice president and general merchandise manager of fine jewelry for the J.C. Penney Co., one of the largest U.S. retailers.

The appointment, effective May 21, was announced May 8 at Penney’s headquarters in Plano, Tex., by Vanessa Castagna, Penney’s executive vice president, and president and chief operating officer of stores, catalog and Internet. Raff will report to Charles Chinni, Senior Vice President and General Merchandise Manager of Home and Fine Jewelry.

Castagna called Raff, who resigned suddenly from Zale in February, ”a retail industry leader who brings to JCPenney a balanced blend of merchandising instinct and analytical sharpness.” She cited Raff’s ”established track record for creating aggressive business growth through strong merchandise strategy and innovative approaches,” and said she expects “many great contributions” from her at JCPenney.

For her part, Raff said Penney has ”historically has been an industry leader in fine jewelry. Restoring and building on this history is a tremendous opportunity.”

Raff, 50, was the first woman to head Zale Corp., North America’s largest fine jewelry specialty retailer; one of the few top women executives in the retail jewelry industry, and one of the few in charge of a publicly traded company. She began her career at R.H. Macy & Co. in 1975, moving up from buyer and merchandise manager to eventually becoming senior vice president and general merchandise manager for Macy’s fine jewelry business in the eastern United States, covering a 12-state region.

Raff joined Zale in late 1994 as president of Zales Jewelers, the company’s flagship chain. Raff’s friend and mentor Robert J. DiNicola-who was named Zale chairman that same year to restore Zales’ fortunes after its bankruptcy reorganization-recruited her. In July 1997, she became Zale Corp.’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, and a year later, president and COO.

In September 1999-the same year the Women’s Jewelry Association named her to its Lifetime Hall of Fame-she became chief executive officer. Last year, on Sept. 6, Raff was named chairman, succeeding DiNicola, who retired.

The first half of fiscal 2001 (Sept. 1, 2000 to Jan. 31)-following Zale’s best year ever in fiscal 2000-saw drops in sales and earnings because of a new strategy that emphasized aggressive promotions of fashion- and lower-priced jewelry, despite the slowdown in the economy and consumer spending. The new strategy also divided Sale’s executive team. Raff reportedly disagreed with Zale’s board of directors’ intent to change the strategy and, as DiNicola later put it, put the company ”back on track.” She resigned as Zale’s chairman and CEO on Feb. 12, only six months after her appointment.

DiNicola, 53, architect of Zale’s profitability and industry leadership in the 1990s, returned to Zale on Feb. 21 as its chairman and chief executive officer for a three-year term.

J. C. Penney Company, Raff’s new employer, is one of America’s largest department store, drugstore, catalog, and e-commerce retailers, employing about 270,000 people. It operates approximately 1,100 JCPenney department stores in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, plus 50 Renner department stores in Brazil. Its Eckerd division operates about 2,650 drugstores throughout the Southeast, Sunbelt, and Northeast regions of the U.S. J.C. Penney Catalog, including e-commerce, is the nation’s largest catalog merchant of general merchandise.

Penney, which in fiscal 2001 reported net income of $705 million on sales of $31.8 billion, has been stuck in recent years by competition from upscale competitors and major discounts like Wal-Mart. Last year. It slimmed down its operations, closing hundreds of department stores and drug stores.