Byline: Rusty Williamson / Holly Haber

DALLAS — J.C. Penney Co. has lost two key players from its top ranks with the resignation of Marilee J. Cumming, president of merchandising for stores and catalog, and the retirement of Gale Duff-Bloom, president of company communications and corporate image, and the first woman to achieve high-level executive status at the company.
Vanessa Castagna, executive vice president and chief operating officer, will assume Cumming’s duties until a successor is appointed, according to a source at the company. Penney’s officials said they did not know of Cumming’s plans.
Cumming, whose resignation is effective Friday, could not be reached for comment.
A 25-year Penney’s veteran who started with the chain as a children’s division buyer trainee, Cumming once held the posts of president of the women’s and home divisions. She assumed her present position in January 1999.
Cumming’s resignation comes at a critical juncture at Penney’s, as the company struggles with a consumer identity crisis and shrinking sales.
For the four weeks ended Feb. 26, Penney’s comparable department-store sales slid 2.4 percent.
The chain’s destiny seems increasingly linked to the directives and visions of Castagna, who joined the retailer last August from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. She has initiated new merchandising strategies and reshuffled Penney’s upper echelon.
Widely viewed as second in command at the 1,100-unit chain, Castagna reports to James E. Oesterreicher, chairman and chief executive officer.
Since joining Penney’s, Castagna has recruited several executives from outside the chain’s ranks for important positions, breaking the tradition of promoting from within.
Last month, Liz Sweney, formerly of Kellwood Co., was named president of Penney’s women’s division, succeeding Chuck Foughty, a 35-year Penney’s veteran, who held that post less than a year.
Among other recent appointments is Jeffrey Allison, formerly vice president of finance at Express, The Limited’s largest specialty-apparel division, who was hired as senior vice president and director of finance and inventory.
Cumming, the daughter of Walt Neppel, a former Penney’s vice chairman, president and ceo, was pivotal in Penney’s push to add national women’s labels, including Crazy Horse by Liz Claiborne and Jones New York.
Duff-Bloom, whose retirement is effective Saturday, was with Penney’s for 31 years. She moved up steadily through the ranks after starting as a management trainee in 1969. Working in merchandise, marketing and stores, Duff-Bloom became one of the first female store managers.
She was named business planning manager within the home division in 1985, becoming the first woman senior manager in the division.
Duff-Bloom went on to become the first woman elected vice president and director of investor relations in 1988.
The following year, she became the first woman to serve on the 10-member senior executive management committee and in 1990, she was elected senior vice president, again the first woman to reach that level.
In 1994, Duff-Bloom was promoted to director of personnel, the first woman to supervise human resources. She was named president of marketing and company communications in 1996, a role that was expanded in 1999 to include responsibility for corporate image. “When I first joined J.C. Penney, 90 percent of all management was white-male,” Duff-Bloom said in a statement.
“Since 1989, we’ve had a 51 percent increase in minorities represented in management, with women making up more than half of the total corporation. Today, diversity is represented at the president level and beyond, as witnessed by the recent arrival of Vanessa Castagna, our chief operating officer. There is still a long way to go. But these gains are something to be proud of.”

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