JC Penney CEO Ron Johnson on Steve Jobs: Transformation isn't easy

JC Penney CEO Ron Johnson on Steve Jobs: Transformation isn't easy

Summary: Ron Johnson, who led Apple's retail business, is transforming JC Penney and has a rough road ahead. He recalled Steve Jobs' initial disappointment at the SoHo Apple store opening in 2002.


JC Penney CEO Ron Johnson, who used to run Apple's retail store business, has had a rough year. Johnson is retooling JC Penney, watching sales fall and trying to convince investors that the long term bet makes sense.


That long-term bet for Johnson is this: Turn JC Penney into the equivalent of Apple's App Store for retailing. Small and large product makers will be the developers. Will it work? Who knows? But Johnson sure mentioned his old boss, Steve Jobs, a lot on an investor webcast outlining the company's turnaround plans. 

Here's a full excerpt of Johnson's transformation lesson he learned from Jobs:

In 13 weeks and two days we'll be done with our year of transformation and then hopefully people will understand your pricing better and we'll get more traffic, better marketing and start to grow again. But we've got to get through the year. But I want you to understand, there was no choice than to choose a year of transformation to get to here. And in the long run we're going to be better off. Because we're going to jump start the new JCP. I'll end with a thought about my time at Apple.

You know, I watched this movie before. When I joined Apple in 2000, Apple was a company dwindling. Everyone said to me 'what are you doing there?' Michael Dell was asked what he'd do. He said I'd give the cash back to the shareholders and close the business down. Michael's a smart guy, but he represented a thought that most people didn't think was that crazy. We were there. Apple wept through 2002 and I think sales were down 38% as we dreamed about becoming a digital device company.

But Apple invested during that downturn. That's when Apple built -- started to build its chain of stores, that's when Apple transitioned to Intel, that's when Apple started its app division, that's when Apple imagined and built the first iPod. We went through that. The stock didn't get up to where I joined until 2004. I spent four and-a-half years at Apple. Not a very good time for my wife. Why did we do this? But it worked out okay. But it wasn't easy. Just like this isn't easy. But transformation's never easy.

I remember the day we opened our Soho store. How many have you been to the Soho store, lower Manhattan. That opened on July 17th, 2002. It was a day after Macworld. That's when Apple was kind of at the bottom and Steve had really worked hard with myself and a few other people in this room to design that Soho store. We were really proud of it and it was a day after Macworld. I made the decision to open at 8:00 a.m. thought that was kind of a good time open a store. It turns out nobody in lower Manhattan was up at 8. Steve came over to the opening and he was kind of not one of his better moods. Most of the time, he actually was a lovely guy, very upbeat. And there were about 50 to 100 people in line for an Apple store opening in Manhattan. At that time we didn't believe could we make money. Steve and I talked about a half hour. He said, you know, nobody cares. There are days I feel like just giving up. Nobody cares. He had read all the reviews from (Walt) Mossberg and David (Pogue) in the New York Times. He said nobody understands what we're doing. Nobody cares.Sometimes I just want to give up. And he said maybe the store's not going to work. I said all right. Steve got in his car and went back uptown. He was staying at the Four Seasons. I was stuck with the store so I had to stay. About 11 Soho started to wake up and people started to come and we had a person at the door. Traffic counters. From 12 to 1, 1,000 people walked through the door, from 1 to 130, 800 people walked through the door. I said Steve, you've got to come back. He says I don't want to come back. Steve drove down. He actually arrived around 1:30. If you've been in that store there's a glass bridge behind the Genius Bar you can stand on. It was actually really hard to design that in a lot of ways. Steve and I stood on that bridge at 1:30. He didn't leave the bridge until 8. Six and-a-half hours. He immersed himself in his customer, what he loved. And we went to dinner at and talked about it and Steve kind of got back in the game. It's really hard to transform things. It isn't always fun. But that's what we're going to do and I've seen this movie and I'm really excited to see how this one plays out.

Topics: Apple, CXO

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  • Even though often considered bold, self-confident Steven Jobs was actually

    ... very sensitive inside. He took personally everything.

    I remember the part from Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs, whether the latter discusses his disappointment in ignorance and blindness of media, journalists and general public after iPad announcement in March of 2010 -- everybody was like "Is this giant iPod touch?" and "Where is USB port?" nonsense. Mass public often-times did not understood the genius initially.
    • Yes, Steven Jobs proved his sensitivity constantly

      He was really sad on the inside while doing despicable things on the inside. Let me shed a tear for him.

      w w w cultofmac.com/2613/steve-jobs-still-parking-in-handicapped-spaces-the-pictures/

      "I never realized those spaces were for the emotionally handicapped… (According to Wikiquote, Jean-Louis now says morally handicapped when retelling the story.)"

      w w w ibtimes.com/steve-jobs%E2%80%99-daughter-lisa-brennan-jobs-girl-who-was-denied-paternity-321854

      "Jobs too struggled with his responsibilities and denied he was her father for two years.
      Lisa was raised by her mother on welfare when Jobs denied paternity"

      The "man" was evil, disgusting, and completely lacking a moral compass. He is rotting in h3ll right now.
      • There are other accounts: Jobs was kind, and highly principal about what is

        ... right or wrong to do. But at few important times he was wrong about it, though.
        • No links though

          Plenty of links to his bad deeds. It is wishful thinking to believe that Jobs was a nice man. He never showed it. Ever. He had a simple principle about what was right (anything that was good for him) and wrong (anything that was bad or inconvenient for him, like parking 10 feet further or acknowledging the existance of a human being he fathered).
          • Dude he's not your dad!

            Get over it!

            Pagan jim
            James Quinn
      • He even poops on graves

        I don't know what Steve Jobs was. But you are making it perfectly clear what you are.
        Robert Hahn
      • And Steve is saving you a spot next to him

        And Steve is saving you a spot next to him...
        • That's fine, I'm comfortable with that

          If anyone started talking about how fantastic a person I was, I'd be the first to deny it. But Steve Jobs was not a fantastic person, he was an evil "man".
  • Jobs vs Scully

    Had a friend that was a higher up in Business Land back in the 80's.

    Jobs and Sculley were scheduled to speak at the same conference and,according to my friend,they literally had to hold back Jobs to avoid a fist fight with Sculley.
    • But how was Jobs feeling on the inside?

      Was he all sensitive and stuff while trying to physically abuse another person?
  • Betting on Johnson success at JCP

    My wife who never shops at JCP if she can help it had nothing but rave reviews about the changes brought in by Mr. Johnson. Cleaner, less cluttered, the prices are very attractive, and the sales staff are both more knowledgeable and just plain more pleasant. "It's so much like Target." She even opened a credit account, a sure sign that she intends to visit the store often.

    Admittedly, it's a sample size of one but if hundreds of thousands of other people are thinking the same thing. . .

    What JCP lost are the coupon hobbyists. They're gone, they have to get their thrill-of-the-hunt fix somewhere else. But I think there are a lot more of the Target customer who are open for a (non-luxury) department store experience that is similar to what Target offers. (Shall we call it discount chic?) Nobody else offers that in my neck of the woods. Not Kohls, not Herbergers, not anyone.