By  on March 28, 2005

NEW YORK — After being wooed by several top retailers, Vanessa Castagna has decided to join the New York-based private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management as a senior member of the operations team.

“This is very exciting,’’ she said in an interview. “I will be involved in a multitude of opportunities and businesses. I’ve never worked on the private financial sector. I’ve always worked on the public side of corporate America.”

The former second-in-command at J.C. Penney Co., Castagna also will hold the post of executive chairwoman of Mervyn’s, the promotional, low-priced department store chain purchased last year by a Cerberus-led investment group. Sun Capital Partners Inc. and Lubert-Adler/Klaff Partners participated in the deal.

Castagna, who starts at Cerberus on April 4, said she will develop a team to work with her, and search for a chief executive officer for Mervyn’s, which is based in Hayward, Calif. The ceo will report to Castagna.

“I will also be available for other Cerberus investment opportunities,” Castagna said.

The announcement confirmed a report in WWD on Thursday.

As far as her central role at Cerberus, Castagna was not given an official title in keeping with the low-profile character of the company. Cerberus and its affiliates manage funds and businesses representing more than $14 billion in capital.

Cerberus also has invested in Fila, Esprit, Guilford Mills and Frederick’s of Hollywood and has been the focus of speculation that it is interested in Versace. Generally, Cerberus pursues distressed companies and is becoming a bigger player in the retail and fashion sectors.

“Throughout my 32 years as a retail executive, at Federated Department Stores, Target Stores, Wal-Mart and, most recently, as chairman and chief executive officer of J.C. Penney stores, catalogue and Internet, I have had the privilege to lead winning teams in merchandising, marketing, sourcing and operations within many diverse business formats,” Castagna said in a statement. “I am really excited to be able to leverage my retail expertise and passion for this industry in this new business environment.”

Sears, Roebuck and Kohl’s were said to be among the companies that were interested in Castagna. She was instrumental in turning around J.C. Penney, which she left in November after she wasn’t picked to succeed Allen Questrom as chairman and ceo. Earlier, she played a major role in cleaning up much of the apparel clutter at Wal-Mart, where she served as senior vice president and general merchandise manager.

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