Myron “Mike” Ullman III understands the value of a makeover. As chairman and chief executive officer of the J.C. Penney Company Inc., Ullman has aggressively overhauled the 108-year-old retail chain to boost its profile and earnings. He has signed on stylish designer brands, including Ralph Lauren, Nicole Miller and Liz Claiborne, and boosted the appeal of JCPenney's own products. To herald these changes, the CEO of the Plano, Texas-based company premiered an advertising campaign during the 2010 Academy Awards broadcast with the apt slogan “New look, new day, who knew.”
Ullman credits his winning strategy to both the improved quality of JCPenney's merchandise and the improved interactions between sales employees and customers. “To be successful in business, you have to motivate people and get them to work together in teams,” he says. “The more you care about their welfare, the better they will do and the better the company will do.”
Early lessons on the job
The University of Cincinnati alumnus has learned such people skills the hard way. After graduating from the UC College of Business with a bachelor of science in industrial management (BSIM) in 1969, he worked for IBM and then returned to the university seven years later to join the administration as a business officer. While attending a football game, Ullman accidentally slammed a car door on then UC President Henry Winkler's hand. If that gaffe wasn't bad enough, the young administrator again injured Winkler during a game of racquetball, giving him a black eye.
“It certainly taught me humility,” says Ullman of his youthful mishaps. He recovered the respect and support of his boss by working harder and, with Winkler's help, was promoted to a vice presidency. “He had a lot of confidence in me, more than I had in myself,” notes the JCPenney CEO of his first mentor. “That led me to realize you have a better chance of succeeding if you make your associates and colleagues successful rather than focusing on yourself.”
Those early lessons helped Ullman thrive in the retail industry, starting from the ground up at Federated Department Stores' Sanger Harris chain in Dallas. Working in the stockroom came as something of a shock, he admits, after spending the previous year as a White House fellow, globe-trotting with President Ronald Reagan's U.S. trade representative, William Brock. “I went from the White House to the warehouse,” he recalls of his transition in the early 1980s. “I had to humble myself and learn about new ways of merchandising and working with associates.”
The budding retailer went on to acquire management experience by running Wharf Holdings, Ltd., a Hong Kong conglomerate owned by a UC classmate, Peter Woo, A&S '70, Hon. '94. He recommends that business majors cultivate such beneficial friendships during their student days by getting involved in different organizations on campus. “It is as much about the people you meet as it is about the organizations,” Ullman says. He encourages graduates to keep in touch through alumni groups, acknowledging, “that may not always be easy, but it is usually worth the time spent.”
Leadership through charity work
Volunteering has always been a part of Ullman's career with payoffs both personal and professional. Such unpaid work in an orphanage while living in Hong Kong led the businessman and his wife, Cathy, DAAP '70, to adopt two Chinese girls and finally have the daughters they always wanted in a family of four sons. Both the girls and Ullman cope with different medical issues, and these personal struggles have led the businessman to get involved with health-related charitable projects, including the building of the children's hospital at the University of San Francisco.
For business students, he says, working for a not-for-profit organization can be as valuable as corporate experience. Ullman currently serves on the boards of Mercy Ships International, a global medical effort, and the New Hampshire-based charity FIRST, which sponsors robotic competitions to motivate high school students to pursue careers in science and technology. His advice to recent graduates who can't find a job during the current economic recession is to “volunteer for a charity or a community group where your skills will be put to good use and you can develop leadership abilities. Giving back is more important than ever these days.”
Rising through the retail world
Ullman's neuromuscular condition, which prevents him from walking long distances, was diagnosed in the 1980s, but it didn't slow him down. In 1989, he joined R.H. Macy & Co. Inc., and, when the company faced bankruptcy five years later, he sold the retail chain to his former employer Federated Department Stores. He stayed on after the merger to help with the transition and then landed a job at Duty Free Stores Group Limited (DFS), the world's largest travel retailer, where he was chairman and chief executive officer.
After DFS was bought by the French conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton S.A. (LVMH), Ullman joined that parent company to serve as director general, group managing director of its luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Givenchy. The new job meant traveling between LVMH's headquarters in Paris and his family home in San Francisco. That long commute and concerns about his health led Ullman to retire in late 2001 and move to his ranch in Colorado where his wife raises horses and miniature animals. He served on various corporate boards, including those of Starbucks, Polo Ralph Lauren and Segway, whose transporter he often rides.
Ullman joined JCPenney in 2004 after company board member and Washington, D.C., powerbroker Vernon Jordan Jr. decided he was the right man for the job during a meeting at his Martha's Vineyard home. Ullman wavered on whether he should accept the position but ultimately saw it as an opportunity to complete his unfinished career.
In carving out a more upscale identity for the JCPenney chain, Ullman has tapped his retail experience to build the brand. In 2006, the CEO convinced Sephora, a French cosmetics company purchased by LVMH under his watch, to set up European-style boutiques within JCPenney stores. Ullman then hired the fashion company Polo Ralph Lauren, for which he previously served as a director, to produce a line of “American Living” designs. He opened a flagship store in Manhattan in 2009 to give his former employer Macy's a run for its money and now has plans to open two more big-city stores in New York City and San Francisco later this year.
Still, his battle to win the hearts and pocketbooks of customers isn't over. “There is still the misperception about our company that we haven't changed,” Ullman says. “Part of business leadership is staying ahead of the trends, and figuring out future opportunities as opposed to what is being done today. You should expect to see something new every time you come into our stores.”
As for his enthusiasm for the retail world, Ullman says he developed it during his undergraduate days at UC. Through the university's co-op program, the retailer discovered he did not want to be an engineer and, instead, pursued courses in business. “I learned the importance of taking on different kinds of experiences and then pursuing what I was passionate about. Being passionate about what you do is important.”