That night, after practicing and practicing his presentation, Gary had trouble sleeping. Blessedly, his neck and back were just stiff. His problem was excitement and apprehension. His nerves did not abate in the morning after he mumbled the presentation over coffee and then put away a hearty breakfast . It wasn't fear of making a public address ”he was steeled to the idea and the importance of the event. The nervousness came from a growing concern about messing up his opportunity. As they drove their pretested route in plenty of time, his apprehension grew.
Nystrom steered his scooter into the distribution center meeting room and parked it by one of the audience mikes . Seated two rows back were Walt Neppl and his colleague from times past, Bob Gill. Neppl and Gill, retired 18 and 9 years respectively, had been unhappily comparing notes on the company's dismal performance. Walt then looked around at the bare-bones setting, at the podium and mike, and shut his eyes with a sigh. He was instantly back making a speech himself just before retiring :
"I'm proud of our management team and because I know these people and how we've all grown, I have no qualms about leaving the company. I think we've created a highly effective team environment and a powerful management. The future looks super. One thing, though. I said ˜no qualms. I didn't say no regrets. You can't work with the Penney people I have and not be terrifically impressed. I'm going to miss these guys."
"Hey, Walt," Said Gill with a smile, nudging Neppl's shoulder. "You're daydreaming ."
Neppl opened his eyes and nodded. "And you know what, Bob? I was wrong about some people back when I retired. Not you, of course. But some."
Nystrom pulled the presentation from his coat pocket and began rereading the words. He had done so on the plane, had practiced the speech in the car from Omaha and several times at the motel, and this morning he'd mumbled it at breakfast. Still, his hands trembled and the paper stuck to his fingers.
Oesterreicher began the meeting and, it seemed, in no time Nystrom was raising his hand, was acknowledged by the chairman, and was beginning to read:
"Mr. Chairman and members of the board of directors. First, I want to thank all of the stockholders who were able to make this meeting, as well as those attending in spirit only. Many stockholders feel that you moved this meeting for the sole purpose of limiting who could or would attend . Well, I am going to speak for those absent individuals today."
It was not going well. His voice was breathy and cracked with emotion, his eyes glued to the words and his wet hands gripping the paper so hard that he feared ripping it.
"Mr. Chairman, I personally want to tell you, the directors, and other senior managers how very disappointed I am in each of your performances with regard to the leadership and operation of this fine company. Each of you should be ashamed of yourself."
His heart was racing and he was having difficulty getting his breath .
"All of you have failed in your fiduciary responsibilities to JCPenney shareholders. You have (1) failed to maintain our confidence, (2) failed to maintain shareholder value, (3) failed to communicate to us, (4) failed to properly adjust compensation for poor performance, (5) failed to remove people who have not performed at acceptable levels, and (6) failed to maintain the morale of the associates . But instead, at a time when the market value of our stock has plummeted, and the company has performed so poorly as to become a takeover candidate, the board increased management salaries and gave a new severance package to senior managers and possibly themselves ."
He had to choke back tears at this point. Every eye in the audience was on him, every eye on the stage cast downward.
"This board has gone against the wishes of Mr. Penney, who believed that management should be paid a salary and their bonus should reflect their performance. According to a recent Bloomberg article, the chairman's performance has gone from bad to worse to terrible in the biggest bull market ever. And you? You have almost doubled his salary!"
Now Nystrom did start crying. So he shouted his next words in order to be understood .
"Well, do you know what the chairman should be doing today by Mr. Penney's standards? He should be standing here in his underwear!"
There was a sound from the audience, a quick exhalation of pleasant surprise accompanied by some random claps. All of the reporters were taking notes. Now gaining control of his voice, Nystrom went on to detail several of the transgressions and call for the CFO's resignation. He also called for a new accounting firm along with an emergency audit and report, with emphasis on the Eckerd acquisition. He concluded by calling for Oesterreicher's immediate resignation .
The chairman said, "Thank you, Gary," and went on to conclude the meeting. After a brief and tightly controlled press conference with the board and officers, the reporters all headed quickly outside ”along with the PR head, Rita Flynn, who said she was going for a smoke.
On the curb, Nystrom waited in his scooter for Dee to drive up. He was downcast and exhausted, convinced that the whole trip had been an exercise in futility. Then the surprises began. By the time Dee drove up, Mark Albright of the St. Petersburg Times , Maria Halkias of the Dallas Morning News , Carey Gillam of Reuters, and the rest of the press contingent were crowded around in an appreciative interviewing session. Rita Flynn hovered nearby, an ear bent to the questions and answers. After Nystrom answered the last question, there was a tap on his shoulder. Walt Neppl stepped into view and reached to shake hands. "Gary? I'm Walt Neppl. I used to work for Penney's."
"Oh, my gosh, Mr. Neppl, I know my Penney history. It's an honor , sir."
"Well, I just wanted you to know that Bob Gill over there and I listened closely to what you had to say, and we thought you made some interesting points."
"Thank you, sir. Thank you very much."
It was a wonderful trip back to Vacaville. Worrisome thoughts about the lost traditional company were suppressed until the Nystroms got home.