Duff-Bloom sat at the chairman's guest table as Howell finished up some work at his desk and then came over. "What's on your mind?" he asked pleasantly.
"W. R., I've been worried about a couple of things."
"Shoot," he said.
"Well, I want you to know I've been waiting on this for over a year now, so it's not like I'm jumping to any conclusions here."
"And have you noticed that we don't talk about merchandise around here anymore?" With the words "around here" she had nodded back in the direction of the Golden Crescent hallway. "We talk about everything else, but never merchandise. And this is still a merchandising company, isn't it?"
He issued a dry chuckle, his eyes probing. "You have a point. Why don't you talk to Jim about it?"
"Because I don't think Jim is actually comfortable talking merchandise." She shrugged lightly. "Or so it seems."
"Ah, we're being confrontational today."
"I think it's important, W. R."
"Okay, I'll tell Jim to talk to you about it."
"No, please . He'll just end up mad at me." With resignation , she said, "I'll talk to him."
"The other thing, then?"
"Well, you know my ear's always to the ground. And I do have sources. I hear things nobody but me would tell you in a million years ."
He smiled. "Should I brace myself ?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes."
Howell often was in a quicksilver mood, something that his petitioners feared greatlyall but Duff-Bloom. Now she leveled an even smile at him, and said, "Well, I hear this company has gotten way too bureaucratic. Makes us too predictable."
This drew a noncommittal nod from the chairman. She continued .
"Plus some think you're too much of a dictator." Beat. " I don't think so, for heaven's sake. I think you're a terrific boss, W. R., the best I ever had. And I think you've done an outstanding job with this company, a fabulous job of leadership. I only wish the next guy had half your ability."
"We are being confrontational," he said, his smile returning.
"Jim aside, W. R., but there is something wrong with this company now, and you're so close to retirement, I doubt that you would even notice."
"Oh?" he replied. The gamble had worked. She had his complete attention.
"Well, did you ever know that last year I went up to Wal-Mart and gave my inclusion/diversity speech at their Saturday Morning Meeting? Coleman Peterson heard me at the University of Florida and invited me. He runs their personnel."
"I know who Coleman Peterson is. And, yes, I heard. And one or two of the boys down the hall didn't think you should've been up there." He delivered a half-grin.
"I'm sure," she said. "But I'm glad I went because I learned something. And I'm sure the boys will at least agree that we ˜might just be able to learn something from the world's biggest retailer?"
"What was it?"
"Well, overall, W. R., I'm afraid to say that Mr. Penney, I think, would've liked some things better in Bentonville than here."
"Oh?" said Howell, in the flattest of tones.
Duff-Bloom continued as if he hadn't said or indicated a thing. "One thing, though, that Mr. Penney wouldn't've liked and I do: everything is casual there. Casual dress, no scripts in the meeting, the management people talking without notes and everybody really into the business and free to respond. They're free to speak their minds, the people in the audience. And there's this tremendous enthusiasm . It got me thinking."
"Oh?" Howell repeated, now with a new shade of wariness.
"We ought to make some changes around here. First of all, just consider that we sell more casual apparel than anyone else on earth. And yet, here we all are, still wearing suits . So I think, to begin with, we should change to casual dress."
"No way," Howell said.
"Oh, come on, W. R. It's time we considered changing that old tradition. It's time we loosened up some. I think some people here are afraid to speak up. Obviously I'm not," she laughed. "But I think speaking your mind should be encouraged. What's it going to hurt? And I think that when we make speeches and presentations internally, we shouldn't be scriptedit should be from the heart and people should be free to respond. I think we should look around for any other ways to liven things up around here. Take management council,  for example. It is so formal and so stiff and usually so boring. You should see that Saturday Morning Meeting in contrast. Really, about the only leadership and excitement in management council is when you get up there and pull something to get their attention or to make a point. I could get together with some people and prepare a presentation on all this, by the way."
She smiled. "We'd memorize it."
He was relaxed now. "God, I'm going to miss you when I walk out of here." He looked outside at the fountain as he continued. "Look, I'm not going to say what they do at Wal-Mart is in the least way wrong. They're a great organization and really moving." He looked back at her. "But I'm also not about to strike down any of our traditions at the J. C. Penney Company either."
"You don't think my points are valid?" He smiled. "Your points are always valid. But I'm tempted to just remind you that you already have a lot on your plate. But I'm not going to do that because I like you too much. Instead?" He gestured sideways like a quarterback. "I'm going to lateral the ball. Go see Jim about this, too. Please allow me a graceful exit. Let me work with the board and do the ceremonial things and have a little fun. I'll let Jim know we've talked about your main ideas here, and I'll say they're something for him to listen to. And when you see him, you're clever enough to also work in your merchandise complaint. Fair enough?"
They chatted a few minutes longer, accomplishing nothing further, and Duff-Bloom rose to leave. Howell said, "Oh, wait a moment," as though he had almost forgotten something (which he never did). He went to his desk and picked up an audiocassette in a container with a printed label. "This is a preacher I heard recently. Just amazing." He smiled and handed her the cassette. "Amazing grace, I guess I should say."
 The name at that time of the monthly meetings of Penney's top 100 executives.