Listening to Mike Ullman lead JCPenney's quarterly conference call for the first time since returning to the big chair, I was struck by the comparison to recently departed chief Ron Johnson's inaugural call as the retailer's ceo in November 2011.
"I am not here to improve," declared Johnson. "I am here to transform."
Ullman took a different tack in his opening remarks to analysts on May 16. After noting that a bond tender in progress would limit what executives could say about forward-looking business, he said he was also constrained by "my own instinct to not get ahead of ourselves as we talk about the future."
It wasn't Ullman's first go-around on a quarterly conference call, of course. He was Penney's ceo for seven years before Johnson took the reins in fall 2011. He conducted the recent call in his usual flat, unemotional monotone. He even managed to praise a few of the changes that took place during his 18-month absence at the retailer's helm. But...
But between the lines, he made several points that had more than a frisson of vindication.
For starters, his remarks about the the shop-in-shops that were the centerpiece of Johnson's vision for a 21st Century JCPenney. Ullman repeatedly characterized them as "attractions" - and in a way that made clear this is the new company terminology for the branded areas.
Customers see them "more as features," he said. "Things that when they turn around from shopping the core, they see a Sephora or they see Liz Claiborne or a Joe Fresh."
Please note, gentle reader, Sephora and Liz Claiborne were brought into the company during the first Ullman era.
Ullman placed "attractions" third in importance to driving the business, with Penney private label brands leading the way, followed by national brands. While the core brands are the most promotional, "they also tend to be the most profitable," he said.
He also emphasized the importance of listening - both to the store associates on the front lines and to JCPenney's customers. This stands in vivid contrast to Johnson, who elicited a great deal of guff from store workers for not soliciting their feedback and an even more severe load of criticism from executives in the trade for not testing new ideas before rolling them out across the store.
In another example of implicit criticism, Ullman said: "Well, the way I would characterize the merchandise structure across the store, the core of our business is the private label business, private brand business. And we diminished several of the key brands during this phase [i.e., the Johnson period]. And we lost a lot of traffic, so that customer told us loud and clear - St. John's Bay maybe being the best example - that they would visit again if we had the products that they enjoyed, and they could buy it at the price promotion and calculus that they were used to. That's how they want to shop."
Nonetheless, the company is not "going back" entirely to the pre-Johnson strategy, said Ullman, nor is it abandoning some of the programs put in place during Ullman's interregnum.
And therein lies the rub. The story of Penney's transformation - or reclamation - remains far from over.