Walt was clearly going places in J. C. Penney. And he was one of those unusual people whose success was enjoyed equally by those who abetted it and those who simply stood aside and watched him go. The only problem was that, despite rapid promotions, he felt unfulfilled. He wanted his own store with a passion. Yet his ascendancy up the ladder seemed to thwart this fondest hope. Walt Neppl learned the fine points of cost control from Pete Lakers in Columbus whilebecause of his merchandising eye, salesmanship and all-around exuberancehe caused the store's sales to rise significantly. In 1950, he (and Lakers) knew he was ready for his own small-town Main Street store. Instead, the company promoted him to first man of the big Colorado Springs operation. Run loosely by an independently wealthy man married to an opera singer , the Springs store made money but was far below its potential. Taking complete charge with the manager's blessing, Neppl achieved a total turnaround in one year. He improved the back office, controls, storewide personnel, training, efficiency, buying and merchandising, salesmanship, morale , and community relations. In his second year the store was humming so well that he felt certain of now qualifying to run a downtown store like this or perhaps one of the new suburban locations around the country.
Once again, however, he was promoted and assigned to someone else. The Neppls moved to Denver, where Walt was named manager of the giant downtown Penney store's main floor. This was a fast track, the floor being home to the company's numberone men's suit business, the number-one hosiery business ( beating out Lansing), the number-one jewelry business, and even a large blouse bar that did $100,000 in expendable business.
"I really had to hustle," he recalled, "learning everything I could from the top notch people on that floor. And the first man, Earl Derby, was an exceptionally strong merchant, and he was also very good on details, which is a combination you don't see every day. Very good on promotions, too. He would write everything down. I learned a lot from Earl and we became good friends . We had some good times together, and then he got his first store in Chicago and I got his job."
This meant being responsible for what amounted to several Penney stores under one roof, which included keeping a rein on his boss. Paul Bass (who succeeded Homer Torrey) was a sales dynamo and another Penney manager who was unusually well off, having previously made money with Louisiana oil leases. "He was down on the floor all the time goosing everybody up," said Neppl. "I mean, Bass didn't get mad because he realized somebody's got to control the inventory. But he was also a merchant, let me tell you, with a lot to teach me. So we did a lot of business in Denver."
In another year Bass called Neppl into his office and said, "Walt, I know this isn't news, but you need your own store."
"You're right about that," Neppl said.
"Word to the wise, though. Just don't take any store. You gotta hold out for the right store, that's the ticket."
"How do I do thatas soon as possible?"
"Talk to the DM. He likes you and knows I do, too."
Neppl sighed. "I have already."
"Then I'll start talking. I'll talk to New York, everybody. You're gonna get a store, and you're gonna get the right one."