Just two years ago, it seemed that J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP) would have disappeared by now. The company, many analysts argued, was on the way to bankruptcy and massive store closings. Wall Street views the retailer very differently today. Its stock has rallied during the past three months as it moves, along with its competitors, into the most critical period of the year.
J.C. Penney had to go through three stages to reach its current incarnation. First, it had to drag itself from the disaster of 20% drops in revenue and same-store sales, brought on by the turnaround plans of former Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) retailer chief Ron Johnson. J.C. Penney’s balance sheet was weak enough that, without an infusion of cash, it would have been ruined. It sold stock in September 2013 to buy time.
The second stage in the J.C. Penney recovery was to steady the ship. The company brought back former CEO Maurice Ullman and that decision was risky. He was blamed for J.C. Penney’s problems before Johnson was hired. But at least he knew what had to be fixed. Could he fix it?
The answer about Ullman’s ability to keep J.C. Penney from failing was yes. At the same time he repaired the balance sheet, he slowed the decrease in same-stores sales. The company was still a candidate for bankruptcy, but the odds had turned more in its favor. In early 2014, same-store sales moved up a bit, but not enough to offset Johnson’s damage. Its holiday sales in 2014 were slightly above flat.
J.C. Penney had recovered enough that in late 2014 it was able to get a CEO with a pedigree. Marvin Ellison was brought on board from Home Depot Inc. (NYSE: HD). Same-store sales have started to move up. It was Ellison’s job to accelerate that. J.C. Penney’s same-store sales have improved to 5% in the past two quarters. The company says that trend will continue.
After nearly disappearing, J.C. Penney has made it back to the point at which one good holiday period will put it in that part of the retail sector where companies have the chance for multiyear success. It may not be a miracle, but is just shy of one.