JC Penney

The J.C. Penney Co., acting swiftly to get turnaround efforts back on track, has named Jill Soltau chief executive officer, effective Oct. 15.

Soltau, a 30-year retail veteran, most recently served as president and ceo of JoAnn Stores, the nation’s largest fabric and crafts retailer with over 850 stores. Earlier, she was president of Shopko Stores.

Though Penney’s is a distressed company, Paul J. Brown, Penney’s board director and chairman of the search committee, said, “Jill stood out from the start among an incredibly strong slate of candidates.

“As we looked for the right person to lead this iconic company, we wanted someone with rich apparel and merchandising experience and found Jill to be an ideal fit,” Brown said. “Not only is she an established ceo and former chief merchant, her depth of experience in product development, marketing, e-commerce and store operations has been an important basis for the turnaround work she spearheaded at prior companies.”

Jill Soltau 

At the $12.5 billion Penney’s, Soltau will have a tough assignment to turn around the struggling department store, which targets middle-class mothers and their families. She succeeds Marvin Ellison, who abruptly left the chain last May to join Lowe’s. Considering it’s only been about four months since Ellison left, Penney’s seemed to move expeditiously to find a successor.

Soltau becomes one of a handful of women ceos of major retail companies, though the list has been growing, including Jane Elfers at The Children’s Place; Helena Foulkes of the Hudson’s Bay Co.; Michelle Gass of Kohl’s; Katrina Lake of Stitch Fix; Fran Horowitz of Abercrombie & Fitch, and Virginia Drosos of Signet Jewelers.

Penney’s said Soltau has experience invigorating retail brands and working in apparel and accessories at Shopko and other department stores.

“She was always an ‘under the radar’ candidate who had it all — leadership, vision, track record of success and people will do anything for her,” said Kirk Palmer, of the executive search bearing his name. “I’m a little sad that she is now off the active candidate list, but Penney’s just got a terrific executive.”

For the last couple of years, Penney’s has been working to pump up its apparel and accessory offerings across men’s, women’s and children’s categories, as well as extended sizes, and executives have indicated that improving its fashion offerings is key to a successful turnaround of the business.

The Plano, Tex.-based retailer has been aggressively rolling out new private brands while forging stronger partnerships with market brands such as Adidas, Levi’s and Nike. The company also a few seasons ago started to showroom large appliances, and has put most of its needed store closings behind, though more are likely to occur.

Still, recent results at the chain indicate there’s a long way to go to get out of the woods, and some retail experts believe the company may lack the cash and time needed to right itself. For the second quarter ended Aug. 4, the company did cite gains in women’s and children’s apparel, but its net loss widened to $101 million versus $48 million in the year-ago quarter. The adjusted net loss was $120 million in the three months ended Aug. 4 compared to $23 million in the year-ago period.

Net sales decreased 7.5 percent to $2.76 billion compared to $2.99 billion in the year-ago quarter due to store closings. Comparable sales increased 0.3 percent with children’s, jewelry, Sephora, women’s apparel and salon performing the best, though the comp gain was noticeably smaller than several of Penney’s competitors. Last year, Penney’s had a net loss of $116 million.

When the announcement came out late Tuesday afternoon, Penney’s characterized Soltau as “a highly accomplished retail merchant and former general merchandise manager who was brought to JoAnn Stores to reinvigorate the brand.” Penney’s said JoAnn stores underwent “a revitalization of branding, expanded digital and omnichannel capabilities and forged strategic partnerships to build meaningful relationships with its customers.”

Earlier, Soltau spent eight years at Shopko, most recently as president after serving as executive vice president and chief merchandising officer. She joined Shopko in 2007 and attained various executive positions of increasing responsibility including apparel and accessories.

Prior to her tenure at Shopko, Soltau held several senior level positions in merchandising, planning and private brand management at Sears and Kohl’s, after starting her career with Carson Pirie Scott, which was later acquired by the former Saks Inc.

“J.C. Penney’s is a quintessential American brand with a strong and loyal customer base, and I couldn’t be prouder to lead such an iconic retailer,” said Soltau. “I am highly passionate about the customer and I spent my entire career focused on the needs of a value-based consumer by researching, understanding and meeting her expectations for style, quality and inspiration. Every position I’ve held has prepared me for this role.”

Ronald W. Tysoe, chairman, said Soltau is “a strategic, customer-focused leader with a demonstrated track record of enhancing profitability and delivering results.”

Penney’s had been led recently by its office of the ceo, which includes Therace Risch, executive vice president, chief information and digital officer, and Mike Robbins, executive vice president of private brands and supply chain. Another member of the ceo office, executive vice president and chief financial officer Jeffrey Davis, resigned last week to join Qurate Retail Group. Jerry Murray, senior vice president of finance, assumed the position of interim cfo, reporting directly to the office of the ceo.

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