J.C. Penney on Tuesday announced the appointment of Jill Soltau as chief executive officer and a member of the board of directors, effective Oct. 15.
Soltau is a 30-year retail veteran and merchandising executive who most recently was president and CEO of Joann Stores, according to a company press release. Before that she spent eight years at Shopko, most recently as president after serving as executive vice president and chief merchandising officer.
The department store chain has been in search of a chief executive after the abrupt departure in May of Marvin Ellison, who left to be CEO of Lowe's.
J.C. Penney has been rudderless for months now, struggling to take advantage of high levels of consumer confidence that is lifting rivals. GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders called the appointment of Soltau "good news."
"JCP has been without leadership for too long, and there is a sense that it has been drifting at a time when it should be capitalizing on the strong consumer economy and making changes necessary to ensure its survival," he said in comments emailed to Retail Dive. "The company is in a relatively weak position financially, does not have much room for maneuver, but needs to make some decisive changes to restore confidence among staff and investors, and to inspire customers. That is a tall order for any new CEO, but with external conditions more favorable than they have been for a long time, Ms. Soltau is at least in with a fighting chance."
In a statement on Tuesday, Paul Brown, J.C. Penney board director and chairman of the search committee, said the company wanted someone with merchandising chops. "As we looked for the right person to lead this iconic company, we wanted someone with rich apparel and merchandising experience and found Jill to be an ideal fit," he said. "Not only is she an established CEO and former chief merchant, her depth of experience in product development, marketing, e-commerce and store operations have been an important basis for the turnaround work she spearheaded at prior companies."
Selecting a woman for the role, especially one with Soltau's level of expertise, was a wise move, Saunders said. "One of JCP's central problems has been its inability to connect with women shoppers, especially in terms of fashion," he noted. "We believe Ms. Soltau will have a far more intuitive understanding of the changes that need to be made than many of those who held the role before her."
The retailer has been under pressure for some time, and it closed out last year with a shakeup in its executive offices, letting go of longtime chief merchant John Tighe (and axing that position completely) in order to "streamline decision-making and promote greater agility within its merchandise buying teams." This year has seen more apparel struggles, along with the departure of three major executives, including Ellison, CFO Jeffrey Davis and Chief Customer Officer Joe McFarland .
Therace Risch, executive vice president, chief information and digital officer, and Mike Robbins, executive vice president of private brands and supply chain, had teamed up to fulfill CEO duties in recent months, during which Penney worked to turn around its ailing apparel offering. Last month the retailer launched Artesia, a new private apparel line for women, in time for fall. And on Tuesday, it unveiled another, Peyton and Parker, "designed to help moms create effortless, yet put together, style for the family and home."