That night Seibert sat alone in the CEO's office on the 43rd floor of the J. C. Penney tower. Regrettably, his friend and closest colleague, President Walt Neppl, was out of town. The problem Seibert was wrestling with was just the kind that Walt would respond to. Together, they might spark an idea, an approach to an answer. Theirs was an unusually harmonious partnership at the top. Each man covered the other's weaknesses, each man's strengths complementing the other's. Neppl would be back tomorrow afternoon. He could be reached at a hotel tonight, but the telephone wasn't the way to get into this. They needed to be together in the same room, connecting as they always did in person. Seibert would have to wait, trying to think through the parameters in the meantime. He had known immediately that the three incidents that triggered his concern were just symptoms ”and seemingly innocuous ones at that. He thought that most (if not all) of his other senior colleagues would dismiss the incidents as nothing more than anecdotal corporate silliness. Yet he was certain ”and certain that Neppl would agree with him ”that the real problem lying beneath the symptoms could have grave consequences for JCPenney.
He got up from his couch and walked to a window. Below was 6th Avenue, and immediately beyond, the original Rockefeller Center buildings were ablaze in light. He smiled wryly to himself. Here he was, one of the most important business leaders in the country, looking at the most imposing symbol of American capitalism . And what lofty thoughts possessed Don Seibert, captain of industry, at this moment? Blue blazers , Christmas villages, and underwear! But people not thinking for themselves was just a damned symptom! He shook his head and turned from the window. He had felt that the view would invigorate him. Instead, tonight, it made him feel insignificant and helpless.
He chose an easy chair . Shutting his eyes, he tried to concentrate. A wave of fatigue washed over him. He had not been sleeping well lately, and he never got enough sleep as it was. Maybe that was the reason he couldn't focus. But he had always been a disciplined and trenchant thinker, even when he'd had little or no rest. So it had to be ”what?
It wasn't the company's overall health because after a flat 1979, things were going better in 1980. JCPenney was king of the malls, with hundreds of smart-looking (for Penney) and profitable anchor stores. The repositioning from full-line to primarily soft goods had begun slowly but effectively ”even the fashion edge was beginning to be taken somewhat seriously. Aside from closing the Treasury discount stores, the other businesses like catalog were doing well.
So why was it so hard to probe deeper now? Why did he keep returning to the blue blazer, Christmas village, and underwear incidents? He didn't know. He kept seeing the Lakeland convention and JCPenney stores. Stores His mind was wandering. "Would I ever have guessed?" thought the former jazz bandleader. "I've lived a life of stores."
Seibert's eyelids were growing heavy. He felt too tired to think anymore, too tired to ”
Suddenly he was on his feet, his eyes widening and a cold sweat beginning to bead on his forehead. "Good Lord," he thought. "Good Lord! "
Now he knew. And the answer was so simple. It had been right there under their noses all along. The J. C. Penney Company's huge size wasn't the problem. That was an easy answer leading nowhere. The subtle and truly scary thing ”the cause of those symptomatic problems ”was that somehow over the years the company had lost its rugged, thoughtful individualism . Historically, the best men in the company had always been independent and self-reliant. The wonder of the organization was that they were also bound to square their work with what was right and just, to be honorably confident and render service cooperatively.
Today, however, the true Penney person who built the company was becoming extinct. As never before, Seibert realized that most associates had become stultifying conformists. And people like Seibert and Neppl ”exceptions, as there always were exceptions ”had simply missed it. They had been too busy to really notice.
So it was with a weird sense of relief that Seibert got into his Pontiac in the parking garage and headed home to New Jersey. At least he now understood . So all he and Walt had to do was come up with some answers before this monster irreversibly killed their beloved company.