By  on November 15, 2004

NEW YORK — As expected, Vanessa Castagna, chairman and chief executive officer of J.C. Penney stores, catalogue and Internet, has decided to leave the company.

“It was an intense and a difficult decision, but the time is right,” Castagna said Friday, confirming a WWD report the day before that her decision to leave was imminent. “They really wanted me to stay.”

Ken Hicks, president and chief operating officer of stores and merchandise operations, will take on Castagna’s responsibilities as a transitional step, the company said. Hicks is a member of the company’s executive committee, and has been with Penney’s since 2002, coming from Payless Shoe Source, where he was president. Before that, he held key merchandise and operational slots at Home Shopping Network, Foley’s Department Stores and May Merchandising Co.

A search to consider candidates to succeed the 55-year-old Castagna could begin next month, after Myron Ullman 3rd becomes chairman and ceo of the corporation, succeeding Allen Questrom. Castagna, as the number two executive in the department store chain, had for months been a leading candidate to succeed Questrom. But three weeks ago, Penney’s announced that Ullman, who held top executive spots at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the DFS Group and Macy’s, got the job. With a new leader on board, other executive changes are a possibility.

Castagna, under the terms of her contract with Penney’s, is free and clear to work with any retailer that she finds a job with, and is not bound by noncompete restrictions companies often write into executive contracts. However, Castagna said she won’t think about starting a new job until after the holidays and that she wanted to spend some time relaxing in Naples, Fla., where she has a home, and visiting friends.

Castagna is likely to be heavily recruited, given her experience and because there are plenty of struggling retailers in need of talent. She denied a report that Kohl’s had previously tried to lure her, but added that, in the past 10 days, she’s been contacted by several people from big and small retailers, as well as investor groups. She’s considered a team builder, collaborative and has a balance of merchandising and operational skills.Castagna joined Penney’s as executive vice president and chief operating officer of its stores, merchandising and catalogue in August 1999, after having served as Wal-Mart’s senior vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s. Her appointment marked a departure from Penney’s usual practice of promoting from within its own ranks, and signaled that the retailer was serious about fixing its women’s business and ready to battle against market share winners, such as Target and department stores, that were out-promoting Penney’s.

Prior to Wal-Mart, Castagna was a gmm at Target and held posts at Federated Department Stores.

“She was there night and day for Questrom,” observed Walter Loeb, the retail analyst. “She’s a merchant who effectively executed Allen’s initiatives. She brought a lot to the table at Penney’s, based on her experiences at Wal-Mart and Target, where she shaped the assortments.”

“Vanessa has made an important contribution to J.C. Penney and its turnaround, and I am confident she will excel in whatever she does next,” Questrom said in a statement. “She has clearly played a pivotal role in improving Penney’s merchandise, stores and operations, and in building a strong management team.”

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