On a late January morning in 1999, Duff-Bloom entered the boardroom for a management committee meeting. As she sat down and opened her folder, a team from administration was changing encased bulletin boards throughout the complex. The main printed poster announced several personnel changes and events. One of the names featured in boldface type was that of Gale Duff-Bloom. In the boardroom, until the meeting's end Duff-Bloom had no idea that she was in the company news that morning.
"Anything more?" asked the chairman.
"Just this." Gary Davis stood with some handouts, now addressing the other committee members . "This is a press release from our New York PR firm. Went out first thing this morning personnel changes."
"You know," Duff-Bloom cut in, speaking not to Davis but to Oesterreicher, "we ought to be careful about using those New York people too much. And remember, this is an area I know something about from my days running investor relations." She ordinarily disapproved of this kind of interruption. But she was certain that whatever Davis was passing out was of less immediate importance than what was on her mind. And Howell had taught and encouraged her to always speak out in this meeting. "I know for a fact that Duncan Muir has to fix half the stuff they do, because they just don't know us well enough. In fact, why do we even use them? Duncan and his people can do anything the New Yorkers can do, and not screw it up in the process."
This statement was a direct affront to committee member Don McKay, Penney's CFO, who (exercising a senior officer perk) had retained the outside firm. The rationalization was that PR specialists from the financial district could handle the likes of The Wall Street Journal more effectively. But Duff-Bloom was right: Muir could and did ably handle anything in the financial sphere.
McKay made his displeasure apparent, and Duff-Bloom returned a flat smile. As this happened , Davis flicked a look at Charlie Lotter, corporate counsel. Lotter glanced at Oesterreicher, who rose and said, "Taken under advisement, Gale. And, okay." The meeting was ended.
"Wait for your copies," said Davis, as he began handing out the releases, beginning with Oesterreicher and working his way around the tablestarting on the side across from where Duff-Bloom sat.
With committee members already filing out of either boardroom door, she was one of the last to see that:
"Scaling back her responsibilities in anticipation of full retirement in the near future, Gale Duff-Bloom is giving up presidency of JCPenney marketing. She retains company communications and corporate image. Her replacement will be sought through a marketing-oriented search firm. James E. Oesterreicher, Penney's chairman/CEO, praised Ms. Duff-Bloom for her strong contributions to the company's marketing effort."
" What? " she blurted, eyes still on the sheet. She turned and rose, seeing Oesterreicher already at an open door. "Jim! We have to talk!"
But the chairman disappeared wordlessly and, as Duff-Bloom moved toward the door, Lotter and Davis stopped in the doorway to "chat"literally running interference for the chairman.
"Well, ˜gentlemen," Duff-Bloom seethed, "I guess we have to talk, as a poor substitute." And Gale Duff-Bloom, who had previously outranked Lotter and Davis in every measurable way, moved with the men to the foyer of Davis's nearby suite.
In the minutes that followed, nothing was accomplished. Lotter, with the quickest mind on the Crescent, had finally gestured hopelessly and said, "Gale, it was just one of those things that slipped through the cracks." At that very moment, along came James E. Oesterreicher, bound for another appointment. "And here comes the biggest crack of all," she said, then shouting, "Jim!"
The chairman, looking surprised and distressed, pointed ahead and said, "Gale, I'm sorry, but I'm late."
"Too bad," she said, as Lotter and Davis backed off. She nodded into Davis's office and said, "We have to talk. Now ." Inside the office, Duff-Bloom shut the door on Davis and Lotter and faced the chairman. "Did we have a conversation about this? Ever? I don't recall one."
"Gale, I'm sorry. I guess I misspoke."
"You mis spoke? "
"Yes. I'm sorry. I'll do whatever I can. Should we send out another release?"
"Saying what? You've obviously made a decision. You just forgot to tell me about it."
"That doesn't do much good, Jim. Not at this point." She turned and marched back to her own office, passing Cathy Rozelle wordlessly. She shut her office door, crossed to the couch , sat heavily, and began to cry silently.
It wasn't over. Days later John Thomas hosted a private dining room luncheon in her honor. Attending were all of Gale's direct reports and, incredibly, the chairman. After orders were taken, Oesterreicher tapped a glass and rose to speak. "It is an honor and a privilege," he said, "to thank Gale for the fine work she did on our marketing. I just wish I hadn't misspoken."
Thomaswho would angrily leave the company within the year after a few months under Gale's replacementwas not about to let the chairman off easily. "Do you realize, Mister Oesterreicher, what damage was done when you ˜misspoke to the Dallas Morning News , the New York Times , and The Wall Street Journal? "
Still later Duff-Bloom received a disturbing phone call from a New York friend she had met during her investor relations days. Previously, they had spoken immediately after the friend read about Gale in the New York papers.
"Gale," the friend had said, "I was shocked."
" You were shocked?" Gale had laughed.
Presently there was some gossip. "Gale, I thought you'd better hear this. Did you know that your chairman made a presentation to First Boston this morning?"
"Well, I covered it, and in the Q and A he said that Penney had retained an executive search firmquote˜several months ago, and he was expecting to announce a new marketing president soon."
"˜Several months ago?"
"See?" Duff-Bloom said wistfully. "He can't even keep his own lies straight anymore."
"Gale? I had been on vacation and heard about it upon my return. I was shocked. What they did was unconscionable and something you would never have associated with the old J. C. Penney. I went to Gale's office and told her how badly I felt for her and for what this company had become. I said that, as of then, I was going to reconsider the VERP [voluntary early retirement plan] that I had turned down earlier. Clearly, the Penney Company was no longer the organization that I had eagerly joined years before."
(Muir retired soon after Duff-Bloom.)