I studied the Penney history and, as an exercise to spark an idea, wrote a monograph about Penney's sustained success:
Few companies last a century. How did Penney do it? Besides ethics, partnership, buying and service, there was another secret: a tradition of change. Because of the Founder himself, every so often when the company began to stagnate (as any company inevitably must), someone would issue a challenge for change. This thrust the organization into chaos ”and rejuvenation.
Wall Street, of course, always hated the announcement of a new cycle of change. It meant less money for dividends . Analysts would point out that the current model was still working beautifully. Penney's management responded with reiterations of the newest long- term plan, and then ploughed ahead anyway.
In the Howell years , this changed. Wall Street celebrated the company's attitude. Now Penney was run by astute businessmen, epitomized by W. R. himself. And in the early '90s, the vision of the mid-'70s was still working and the payout looked especially promising for the immediate future.
So the last decade of the twentieth century began with twin failures of values and vision. The ideas and ethics that built the company were now just quaint history, reinvention and rejuvenation discarded as inefficient. The company had lost its soul.
After admiring my analysis and brevity, I sighed and called Gordon Curry. "Gordon, I'm having an interesting time, but I still haven't found the handle."
"And the problem?"
"Well, just to reiterate. Kennedy wants to say JCPenney had reinvented itself as America's Department Store, right? And, within that, the home department, right?"
"But the America's Department Store idea is 10 years old."
"And you said there is nothing new in the works, right?"
I laughed. "Gordon, you're not helping me at all."
"Okay, look. That's what Kennedy apparently thinks. But, he has to know what he's doing in the home division, so why not just take what they're doing that's new and cast it in the reinvention light. The company is ˜always reinventing itself, and the home division is a great example ”exactly what Restaino said. It's a halftruth, but they might buy it if you keep it centered on home."
I said, disconsolately. "Worth a try."
I finally finished Kennedy's speech and never thought of the monograph exercise again until the company's bleak year 2000. Then I dug into the files one day and retrieved the Kennedy folder from eight years earlier (I never throw notes away). After looking over the monograph, I added the following postscript after the paragraph that began: "So the last decade of the twentieth century began with twin failures of values and vision "
But who knew or cared? In 1994, after all, they had a record year of immense profit. The party was Texas- sized , with praise and rewards all around. It was a celebration of fools.