It Worked Before

jcp-logoBack in November 2011, Ron Johnson head of retail at Apple moved over to JC Penney as it’s CEO. Ron had already been at Apple for 11 years and made bank as he watched the stock zoom from around $25 in January 2000 to over $375 in November 2011. It was time for him to move on and JC Penney is where he decided to work his magic and transform it into “the Apple of department store chains”. His resume reads like a Fortune 500 baller – Stanford University, Harvard Business School, Target (struck the deal with Michael Graves), Apple (created the Genius Bar concept)…jeez, JC Penney had found their savior.

Based on his past work experience it seemed like it was a slam dunk that JC Penney was going to crush all the other department store chains like Sears, Dillard’s and Kohl’s. However, after a brief 17 month stint Ron Johnson was fired this past week from JC Penney and the board reinstated Mike Ullman as it’s CEO. It ended so quickly before it even got started, but revenues fell over 20% and institutional investors headed for the exit – the stock is down over 50% since Ron was made CEO. So what really happened?

Simple, the board felt that one guy could rejuvenate the company’s fortunes because it worked before for Ron. The board failed to realize it’s about the overall team and also the right market sentiment sometimes called timing or luck which most people tend to negate. Remember Jon Corzine? Goldman Sachs CEO whiz turned Senator, who became the CEO of MF Global and within a short period bankrupted the company. His strategy was to implement the same trading style he employed at Goldman Sachs, the difference is that Goldman Sachs had a risk management team in place whereas MF Global only had a single dude with an Excel sheet to manage the risk.

Ron was probably a rock star at Apple because of Steve Jobs’s unrelenting focus on products and simplicity. Even Jobs was not a one man show, he needed a designer like Jony Ive on his team to help dream up the amazing products that Apple would sell through their retail stores. When I moved to India in 2005, I was part of an algorithmic trading fund that launched a product in 2006 and we collected over Rs. 200 crores (USD 50 million) in a matter of months. I still get pitched by other algo traders wondering how we got so much money in a short period and honestly it was just timing. It was early 2006 and the Indian equity markets were headed for the moon and several private banks had started their retail banking operations. We went through the due diligence process for the banks and got some private investors to invest in the fund. Then one day we get a call from one of the banks and our algo product was approved for distribution to their clients. BOOM, that opened up the flood gates and the money just poured into the fund.

Would it work today? No, the regulatory environment is very different. Back then banks were getting 2% commissions which today is no longer allowed. In addition, retail investors are more risk averse today then they were back in 2006. Just because it worked back then does not mean it will work again.  It’s similar to the statement all mutual fund companies makes in their marketing – “past performance is not a indicator of future performance”…so, so true.