Michael R. Francis is J.C. Penney’s $12 million man.

This story first appeared in the October 4, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That’s how much the former Target Corp. executive vice president and chief marketing officer is getting as a signing bonus to join J.C. Penney Co. Inc. as president — plus a $1.2 million-a-year base salary and 1 million restricted stock units on Nov. 16. The bonus covers loss of benefits and compensation upon leaving Target.

Francis was critical in shaping Target’s mass-with-class aura and innovative marketing campaigns.

Francis, who starts his new job today, will be responsible for Penney’s merchandising, marketing, planning and allocation, product development and sourcing functions. He will report to Ron C. Johnson, who becomes Penney’s chief executive officer in November after heading up Apple retail.

The two are expected to bring sweeping changes to Penney’s, which has been striving to cast a younger, hipper fashion image with such merchandising as Sephora, Olsenboye by the Olsen twins and MNG by Mango, yet still lacks sufficient buzz.

Johnson and Francis’ careers overlapped at Target for 15 years. While they didn’t work directly with one another — Johnson was a senior merchant and Francis was a senior marketing executive — they developed a mutual respect, Penney’s said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for me to get back to department store retail,” Francis said. “I began my career working on the sales floor of the State Street Marshall Field’s in Chicago. It was there where my passion for retail began and my understanding of the power and potential of the department store was formed.”

Johnson recently reached out to another executive he’s familiar with, Daniel Walker, the former chief talent officer at Apple Inc., who earlier worked at Gap Inc. and had his own search firm. Walker is now a consultant to Penney’s, which raises speculation that the Plano, Tex.-based department store chain might seek talent from the West Coast, where Walker is based.

Penney’s hasn’t had a president since June 2009 when Ken Hicks, the former president and chief merchandising officer, left to become ceo of Foot Locker Inc. Francis also helps fill the void left by Mike Boylson, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, who exited Penney’s in July.

Target did not name a successor to Francis, whose role there grew significantly since he became evp of marketing in 2001. He became chief marketing officer in 2008, responsible for all marketing and advertising operations. Target spent $1.5 billion on advertising and marketing last year, up 12 percent from 2009, whereas Penney’s budget has exceeded $1 billion in recent years.

Francis set the tone for Target’s advertising and events, which could be irreverent, humorous, edgy and clever. One of its most popular campaigns was “Hello Goodbuy,” set to the Beatles song, “Hello Goodbye,” with graphic images of household products morphing into one another. Under his leadership, Target orchestrated partnerships with Michael Graves, Liberty of London and, most recently, Missoni. He had a strong hand in developing the Missoni commercials, which were based on Italian caper films from the Fifties and Sixties. Francis was also involved in Target’s experiential marketing, such as a 2005 vertical fashion show at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York, where models traversed the side of the building.

Francis was also responsible for target.com, corporate strategy, corporate reputation management, the Target Foundation, community relations, corporate communications and events. In January, he also became the executive committee sponsor of Target’s entrance into Canada, the retailer’s first international expansion. “In addition to just moving stores into Canada, the idea was, how do we extend our brand internationally, and Michael was in charge of our brand internationally,” a Target spokeswoman said.

“Michael Francis made Target cool when it wasn’t cool and he’s going to do the same at J.C. Penney,” said Les Berglass, founder of Berglass + Associates executive search firm. “Michael Francis is a superstar.”

“Michael is very dynamic, very creative and strategic. He’s always looking for new, risk-taking ideas,” said Minda Gralnek, former vice president/creative director at Target, now a consultant, who worked for Francis.

“He’s an industry person with a track record who also thinks outside the box,” added Jaimee Marshall, senior vice president, Kirk Palmer & Associates.

Given some changes at Target on the creative side, including changing agencies to Wieden + Kennedy from Peterson Milla Hooks, the timing seems right for a move by Francis. One source said Target’s marketing focus has become less image and more product-focused “to get down to the core customer.…The advertising was bigger in-house before, now there’s more outsourcing. With Johnson joining Penney’s to reinvent it, Francis might have found that appealing.”

“Target’s changes may present a more homogenized marketing message,” said one retail expert.

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