News comes out of J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP) every day, making it one of the longest running dramas in American businesses — one that is now more than three-years old. The retailer’s management has been accused of incompetence, particularly former CEO Ron Johnson. Perhaps the incidence of trouble since then is a matter of bad luck, or at the very least luck that flows from mistakes that are now quarters old.
Thursday, J.C. Penney was buffeted by two pieces of bad news. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission wanted and got details on how the retailer disclosed details of its financial situation in September. The inquest hardly seems fair. Everyone who followed the company then knew it was desperate for cash, on the brink of bankruptcy most likely. J.C. Penney sold stock and debt. Caveat emptor for anyone who held the stock.
Earlier Thursday, hedge fund manager J. Kyle Bass said he sold his position in J.C. Penney. Like hundreds of investors before him, both large and small, his patience had run out.
But the week had started so well. J.C. Penney disclosed that same-store sales rose 10.1% in November. Shares soared. Then shares fell because the improvement was not great enough.
Myron E. (Mike) Ullman III, J.C. Penney’s chief executive officer, does not deserve to be treated so shabbily. He was, after all, fired to bring in Johnson, and then was good enough to return once Johnson stumbled. He swallowed his dignity. By some measures, he already has saved the retailer from its near-death experience. Whatever money he has raised came by way of a sales job by Ullman to investors, which must have been an extraordinary performance in believability. His new merchandising plans might have sent same-store sales down, as they have been down for more than two years, but they did not. Ullman came up with a mix of inventory and marketing that brought in customers who might well have decided not to shop at a retailer that would be out of business by year’s end. There are so many other alternative retail chains.
J.C. Penney has been abandoned and joined by investors and customers. At this point, customers, at least, are somewhat happy with what they see. Large investors, on the other hand, are not. Ullman started with a bad set of cards. No matter what he did, they could have gotten worse. His management so far has mostly trumped his desperate beginnings.