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Published: Thursday, 4/11/2013 - Updated: 2 years ago

Former Apple star, Johnson's flashy style was a bad fit for J.C. Penney

Johnson Johnson
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From the moment Ronald B. Johnson arrived at the Plano, Texas, headquarters of J.C. Penney Co., some there believed he would not last long. Monday, the doubters were proved right. After a tumultuous 17 months as chief executive of Penney, Mr. Johnson was pushed out.

He blew into Plano a star, a man who helped build the juggernaut Apple Stores. But his Silicon Valley ways — evident from a showy party in early 2012 , replete with a light show, fake snow, and flowing liquor, that he threw to celebrate himself and his plans — jangled from the start.

His pedigree seemed impeccable. His bachelor’s degree from Stanford, his MBA from Harvard, his years building Target, and then his time with Mr. Jobs. But it all ended Monday when the board voted to replace him with his predecessor, Mike Ullman.

Mr. Johnson wanted to transform Penney into shopping wonderland with designer boutiques and stable prices instead of coupons.

But many of his ideas were not tested and soon backfired, and in recent months the board grew impatient.

Mr. Johnson dismissed most of the top executives from Mr. Ullman’s reign and brought in his own team, largely from Apple and Abercrombie & Fitch. Mr. Johnson commuted from California, and employees said he was a hard worker, decisive, and responsive to even late-night emails. But few of the top executives he had hired relocated to Texas, instead working there a few days a week.

Mr. Johnson liked to tell employees that there were two kinds of people — believers and skeptics, and at Apple, there were only believers. He wanted the same at Penney: When employees pushed back on Mr. Johnson’s strategies, they got nowhere, according to several former executives.

Mr. Johnson did not return calls for comment. Penney declined to comment.

Former employees said Mr. Johnson was personable, and his plans were intriguing.

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