Yesterday, only a few weeks after major shareholder Bill Ackman gave Ron Johnson a ringing endorsement as CEO of JCP, Mr. Johnson is out.
Former CEO, Mike Ullman, who was unceremoniously dumped not that long ago to make room for Johnson, is back in.
What can we make of this? …quite a lot, I think.
1. The change comes right after monthly sales results for JCP in March, the second month of the company’s fiscal year, would have been available. Presumably they’re really bad (the Wall Street Journal is reporting that quarter-to-date sales are down at least 10% year on year).
This is a big problem. JCP marks up merchandise by about 50% over what it pays. It uses the gains from sales, called gross income, to cover the costs of running the store network (like advertising, rent, utilities, salaries…). What’s left over is profit.
JCP’s sales in fiscal 2010 were $17.6 billion; its pre-tax profit was $581 million.
In fiscal 2012, sales were $13.0 billion, or 26% lower than in fiscal 2010. My back of the envelope calculation is that JCP lost just under $800 million from retailing last year–offset by a number of non-recurring gains (see my post).
To my mind, the largest factor in the profit decline is the loss of sales. The March figures suggests sales may not have bottomed out yet.
2. Since the company was quick to boot Mr. Ullman not so long ago, he’s probably not the company’s first choice as the new CEO.
I can see two possibilities:
–he may be the only experienced executive willing to take the job, or
–JCP may have been pressured into making the change quickly and Mr. Ullman was available on short notice (I’ve heard he was first contacted last weekend).
Neither possibility is encouraging.
3. Where would outside pressure come from? The two main sources, as I see it, would be:
–suppliers. Last year JCP generated $140 million in cash by getting suppliers to agree to wait longer to be paid. As the perceived riskiness of dealing with JCP rises, the standard response by suppliers would be to rethink a decision like this. In a more extreme situation, suppliers would start to reconsider the amounts and types of merchandise they send to a customer.
–banks. In its 4Q12 earnings conference call, JCP highlighted the fact that it had negotiated a $500 million increase in its bank credit lines, to just over $2 billion. The message from this seemed to me to be that JCP had ample funds to weather any problems it might encounter in 2013. Again, the standard response to continuing deterioration in sales would be for banks to reassess their exposure. All it would likely take to reduce a credit line–something that would doubtless have adverse effects for JCP–would be one credit committee meeting.
There’s no direct evidence that either suppliers or banks have started down this road. It’s conceivable, though, that one or both told JCP they’ll have to change their thinking if sales don’t perk up soon. That might have been the final straw for Mr. Johnson.