W. R. Howell probably never gave Oesterreicher's lack of depth a thought. It was Oesterreicher's ability to come through and provide support that was held in high regard, and from the moment he left the West Coast regional office in 1988 for a brief stint in New York before the Dallas move, he was increasingly seen as the heir apparent. And if there remained any doubters, they were silenced in the early 1990s.
The year 1991 had been a disaster. Sales had sagged or dropped in the previous two years , but now they plunged, and profits plummeted. Some in Penney senior management hastily worked at repairing bridges to the investment community. Others led highly visible cost-cutting efforts. But Howell put the spotlight on Jim Oesterreicher as the one to repair the basic machinery of the corporation (as he saw it). Howell then watched "the Farmer" work quietly , with military precision, setting the stage for the turnaround that began in 1992.
In the next three years, Howell led Penney to the greatest sales and profits in the company's long history, including a record $1 billion to the good in 1994. And he made no secret of his appreciation of Oesterreicher's efforts. Still, many wondered why Howell had tapped Jimmy-O the Farmer instead of the more obvious original candidates like handsome and adroit John Cody or smooth and skillful Tom Hutchens. But when Oesterreicher took over stores in 1991, he had emerged as the front-runner, the position having become the stepping-stone to the top job.
By 1993 Oesterreicher had a lock on the job. A popular cocktail party explanation was that Howell, like most strong leaders , did not want any kind of big personality at his side or a hot leader to follow in his footsteps.
Of course, any CEO candidate at a major corporation will have strong personal attributes, and Oesterreicher was no exception.
He was unusually steadfast. It was felt far and wide that you could take his word to the bank.
He really tried to practice the Golden Rule (as opposed, for example, to Howell's lip service).
While ignorant of the fine points of buying, he knew the business of running a store inside and out.
And at times he had a completely unexpected capability for showmanship.
Oesterreicher's good points, however, were not enough to arrest the company's decline. And after his honeymoon in 1996 when sales sagged after the record years, he was increasingly seen as culpable. Media attacks rose during the five-year span of Oesterreicher's administration, the stories and commentary hammering on JCPenney's tailspin and calling for the chief's head. A lesser man would have been totally subdued or even killed by the pressure. But Oesterreicher kept slogging oneven, in his way, trying to fight back.