How to Fail in Business While Really, Really Trying: The True Story of J.C. Penney

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This week, we’re thrilled to share a new Longreads Member Pick from Fortune magazine. “How to Fail in Business While Really, Really Trying” is Jennifer Reingold’s definitive account of what really happened inside J.C. Penney—from the dramatic reinvention of the company, led by new CEO Ron Johnson, to its disastrous unraveling (and Johnson’s firing) less than two years later.

A brief excerpt is below—Longreads Members can login here to access the story. Thanks to Fortune for sharing this story with Longreads Members. For more stories like this, subscribe to Fortune.

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When you find a savior, you don’t quibble over details. So it was that J.C. Penney, the long-stagnating mid-tier department store chain, announced in June 2011 that it was hiring Ron Johnson, the man in charge of Apple’s wildly profitable retail stores and a Steve Jobs acolyte whose golden halo also included past triumphs as an executive at Target. The news sparked euphoria, but conspicuously absent from the media coverage was any mention of how Johnson planned to save this faltering retailer in a fading industry. That’s because there were no plans. His mandate could be reduced to a single word: change. What that entailed could be figured out later.

That fall Johnson began unveiling his planned strategy to Penney’s board, culminating in a big presentation on Dec. 7. By then CEO for just a month, Johnson laid out his vision of a more upscale, more youth-oriented Penney, weaned of its addiction to price promotions.

Johnson demonstrated that he’d learned a thing or two about stagecraft from his legendary former boss at Apple. He had commandeered a large basement studio at Penney’s Plano, Texas, headquarters and had workers construct two rooms. (Johnson wanted to go further and install floating stages in the company cafeteria, but the fire marshal nixed the plan.) After he had made his presentation, the new CEO brought the directors downstairs to deliver the coup de grâce in the form of a sound and light show. In the first room was the taped commotion of shouting voices and visual noise: a profusion of signage, coupons, offers, and clutter. This was the off-putting cacophony of J.C. Penney at that moment. Johnson then ushered the directors into the next room, which was white, tastefully austere, and had a celestial serenity: the new JCP.

Finally Johnson led the board members into the cafeteria, where 5,000 employees, who had been waiting on their feet for hours, greeted the group with a raucous ovation. Then it was party time. Officially the fete was intended to bid farewell to Johnson’s predecessor, Myron “Mike” Ullman III, but it felt more like an ecstatic celebration of the company’s rebirth. With nary a whisper of opposition, the 109-year-old retailer had decided to abandon not only its strategy of many decades but arguably its fundamental way of doing business.

Just 16 months later Johnson was out. Penney was hemorrhaging cash; it lost $1 billion during his one full year as CEO. Its shares were hurtling downward. The press had turned against him. One of the two investors who installed him had fled. As fast as they had once anointed Johnson a messiah, Penney’s directors turned their backs on him.

Since his departure the company has behaved as if Johnson’s entire tenure was a coup rather than a strategy blessed by the board. The retailer has renounced his philosophy, restored Johnson’s predecessor, Ullman, as CEO, and reverted to its old ways. If we’re heading for oblivion, the board seems to be saying, let’s at least try to get there slowly. Some observers think bankruptcy is a possibility, despite improved results of late (at least compared with the previous bloodletting).

This era has seen some truly epic corporate conflagrations. There was the precipitous collapse of Lehman Brothers, which came to symbolize the greed and corruption of Wall Street, and the multidecade decline and, finally, bankruptcy of General Motors, which seemed to embody the slow death of American manufacturing. But for its stomach-churning mix of earnest ambition, arrogance, hope, and delusion – along with a series of comic and tragic miscues – it’s hard to top J.C. Penney.

“I came in because they wanted to transform,” the former CEO told me before his fall. “It wasn’t just to compete or improve.” (Johnson was interviewed for this article but declined to be quoted beyond saying, “I do not want to interfere with Penney’s attempts to succeed.”) He and his team did indeed transform Penney – from a sleepy behemoth known for serving the needs of Middle America into something quite different: an ambitious wannabe startup that fancied itself cool, with a radical pricing and merchandising model that had never been pulled off before. The outcome was doubly disastrous: Penney alienated its traditional customers without attracting new ones.

Everyone understands that the Johnson revolution ended in catastrophe. But the full story has never been told. The reality, it turns out, is even worse than many people imagine – and in a few respects, very different. What follows is the story of what actually happened at J.C. Penney, based on months of interviews with 32 current and former executives and vendors and more than 20 investors, analysts, and competitors.

It’s a saga with a swirl of overlapping forces. It stars a charismatic leader bent on radical change and features a failed attempt to Apple-ize Penney, a mission that ended up being every bit as crazy as it sounds. There’s a board of directors who sometimes seemed more concerned with what they’d be served for dessert than with the fate of the company. Then there’s the mistake that cost the company $500 million – and the fact that Penney actually began retreating from its controversial pricing strategy even before Johnson left, raising the question of whether the company can even truly be said to have tried his approach. Throw in a hedge fund titan who always knew better – except when he didn’t. The result: Billions in revenue were vaporized, and more than 20,000 people – many of whom embraced the new Penney – lost their jobs, seeming to hasten the decline of American brick-and-mortar retailing. This is a tale with very few heroes.

Originally published in Fortune, March 2014. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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