The Man


In many ways, Howell is perhaps the most interesting (and surprising) player in this book. For example, unlike previous Penney leaders , when he became chairman and CEO, he was not known for any particular stellar accomplishment. In fact, his actual record was just averageexcept as a charismatic politician with an executive image. But if he had no signal achievement to hang his hat on, good-looking Bill Howell probably had the best outward leadership presence of anyone in the company's history.

To this day, Gale Duff-Bloom thinks that Jim Oesterreicher (Howell's successor) was far more responsible than Howell for the company's fall. Duff-Bloom, however, never spent two days' time in concentrated abstract thought about the company, so entrenched was her career reflex to march on no matter what. Duff-Bloom also thought that Howell was the best teacher and boss she ever had, a more accurate appraisal. "I met a lot of great people in the Penney Company," she said. "But W. R. was open and supportive and inspirational and just the best."

Others, of course, would disagree . [3] A retired anchor store manager says of Howell: "A very slick customer. He listened but often didn't hear. He was an arrogant man in some ways. I never quite trusted him. He had his own agenda."

A retired Penney executive comments: "Bill Howell's rise to the top is understandable if regrettable. He was smooth, smart, controlled, experienced , with the presence of a potential CEO. Then there was the dark side: He was devious , egocentric, and a master at staying out of harm's way (not someone to share a foxhole with). It was said that the only thing Bill Howell really succeeded at was his own success."

As for myself (your author), in 16 years as a speechwriter for senior executives mainly at big corporationsI never saw Howell's equal as a leader on his feet. Again and again he would improvise brilliantly. He was a special talent. And now the trick question: Was he the best CEO I ever saw? Not even close.

But someone in charge will always inspire a range of opinions . Penney CEOs Mil Batten and Al Hughes had their detractors. During his fall from grace, of course, James Cash Penney himself was disrespected by many in New York. And surely there had to be someone who didn't like Earl Sams, the man who ran the company for 40 years. Therefore, some hard scrutiny is necessary in appraising Howell's reign.

Howell's main weakness was a product of (or at least reinforced by) the times. He began early in the era of CEO stock promoters. Responding to stockholder and Wall Street clamoring for more market value growth, boards began selectingand rewarding executives whose primary focus and skill was in the present payout and resulting stock value. For the 80 years of company history before Howell's ascendancy, however, the emphasis had been exactly the opposite : on the customer and on the future. If Wall Street didn't understand it or like it, tough.

Thus exacerbating other mistakes was a CEO who was literally not minding the store. Not a great idea, no matter what the era.

[3] The reader will learn that chairman Don Seibert, the man who picked Howell as his successor, would eventually have second thoughts.




Celebration of Fools. An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
Celebration of Fools: An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
ISBN: 0814471595
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 177
Authors: Bill Hare

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