By  on March 24, 2005

NEW YORK — Vanessa Castagna, the former second-in-command at J.C. Penney Co., is close to accepting a top job at Cerberus Capital Management, people familiar with the situation said.

She was said to be negotiating for a position that would involve broad responsibilities over several holdings at Cerberus, a New York-based private equity firm that has been aggressively investing in distressed companies and building a retail and fashion portfolio.

The people familiar with the talks cautioned that Castagna hadn’t signed on yet. Cerberus officials could not be reached for comment.

Castagna left Penney’s, where she was instrumental in turning around the company, after being passed over last year to replace Allen Questrom as chairman and chief executive officer of the company. The job went to Myron Ullman 3rd. Castagna had been chairman and ceo of J.C. Penney stores, catalogue and Internet.

Before Penney’s, Castagna was a senior vice president and general merchandise manager for Wal-Mart’s women’s business and a gmm at Target.

She was being recruited by several companies, including Sears, because of her strong experience and track record and because many retailers need talent.

Cerberus was part of a consortium that acquired Mervyn’s for $1.2 billion from Target Corp. Sun Capital Partners Inc. and Lubert-Adler/Klaff Partners participated in the deal. Cerberus also has invested in Fila, Esprit, Guilford Mills and Frederick’s of Hollywood, and is said to be a potential investor in Versace.

Cerberus — a three-headed dog in Greek mythology — and its affiliates manage businesses with capital in excess of $14 billion, according to company information.

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