Byline: Holly Haber

DALLAS — As part of a plan of succession that’s been in the works for about two years, James E. Oesterreicher will succeed W.R. Howell as chairman of J.C. Penney Co. on Jan. 8.
Oesterreicher, a Penney’s veteran, is considered in retail circles to be a strong manager and strategic thinker. He continues as chief executive officer, a post he took over from Howell on Jan. 1, 1995. Oesterreicher is also vice chairman.
Howell plans to stay on at Penney’s until roughly the end of February to help with the management transition. Howell turns 61 on Jan. 3. It’s a tradition at Penney’s for executives to retire around the age of 60. Oesterreicher is 55.
Howell devoted his entire career to Penney’s and has been chairman and ceo since 1983. He presided over major changes at the chain, supervising its conversion in the mid-Eighties from a mass merchant to a department store by dropping hard lines and emphasizing apparel and home furnishings.
Howell also moved the company from New York to Dallas in 1988 and built a 1.9 million-square-foot headquarters in the northern suburb of Plano, Tex., that has housed Penney’s since 1992.
Oesterreicher’s tenure at the helm has been somewhat bumpy. At the outset, Penney’s gains began to slide and some observers suggested that Sears, with its successful marketing and merchandising for the moderate apparel customer, cut into Penney’s business. However, Penney’s has battled back by sprucing up women’s areas with trendier styles and improved casual offerings. Sales in Penney’s stores turned the corner with a 12.2 percent same-store gain in July when the firm introduced two new labels, St. John’s Bay rugged sportswear for women and Stafford Options business casual for men.
Business has continued at a healthy pace this fall, with a 6.2 percent comparable-store gain for the quarter ended in October.
Industry observers praise Osterreicher as an analytical thinker who examines underlying issues and cultural and social trends in planning for the future. He’s considered a team player.
Oesterreicher began his career as a Penney’s trainee, held positions managing stores, supervising training and directing personnel, became director of strategic planning and research for stores and catalog in 1984 and president of the western region in 1985. He became director of Penney’s stores in 1988 and president of stores and catalog in 1992.
Howell, whose father was a Penney’s store manager, joined the company in 1958 as a management trainee.

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