When Vanessa Castagna took over day-to-day operations with vision, skill, guts, and panache, a greater contrast to Jim Oesterreicher could not be imagineduntil Allen Questrom arrived. And, even among the best, the most resolute of men, the cascade of woe that Oesterreicher went through before his forced retirement would have been totally subduing. The flogged CEO would have shuffled through the final wreckage of his career bent in abject humiliation. But not Jimmy-O, the Farmer.
Oesterreicher went through his last months at JCPenney with his back straight and his chin up. Having made many mistakes including moral slippage regarding Duff-Bloom and the selfcentered recklessness of the Eckerd dealhe concluded his career once again trying to do the right thing. It was a mystifying performance that had to be admired.
His last official act came when radiant Allen Questrom was the new Penney presence. The venue was an HCSC Club annual convention in Orlando, a convening of retirees who wore the pin. There could not have been a less receptive audience for Oesterreicherthe man they blamed for their loss of net worth. At the big banquet, he was introduced in a perfunctory and brief manner that was almost rude.
And what did he do? He walked to the podium and produced the trademark out-of-synch Oesterreicher smile, then began his speech stupidly with a couple of bad jokes about the weather. Next, after a sorry segue that compared changeable climates to the stock market, he told them how good it was for everyone there to be together. You could have heard a pin drop. And, at a front table, no doubt Allen Questrom and his wife, Kelli, wished they were anywhere else but there as Oesterreicher acknowledged them and asked them to stand. Next, he also acknowledged and thanked his wife, Pat, who stood with a proud smile (as possibly the only happy person at a ballroom table).
Thentalk about gutsa totally surprising thing happened . He addressed the reality of the moment in a strong, clear voice. And then he apologized! Finally he called Questrom to the podium, shook his hand, and said, "Allen, I'm sure that now this company is going to be just fine."
Robust applause rose from the audience, the ex-chairman now descending to the front table. There he kissed his wife, both Oesterreichers smiling at each other and no doubt unmindful that the level of applause was for the savior who was heard to gracefully repeat "Thank you, Jim" three times and then begin a new era.