The appointment, announced on Tuesday and effective mid-October, comes nearly four months after former CEO Marvin Ellison abruptly left the company to take the reins of home improvement chain Lowe’s (low).
Since then, Penney, whose shares have plummeted this year on concerns about its paltry sales growth in a strong consumer environment, has contended with more turmoil in its c-suite, with its chief commercial officer and chief financial officer also bolting.
Penney has struggled to get people interested in its women’s apparel and has repeatedly changed the customer segment it is going after, leading to middling results. Ellison, a long time Home Depot executive regarded for his supply chain expertise, struggled to improve Penney’s inventory management. With Sears closing stores and bleeding sales, many investors were disappointed Penney was not picking up much business.
Ellison was also not helped by Penney’s crippling debt load that left it less nimble than rivals such as Macy’s and Kohl’s. Comparable sales in the first half of fiscal 2018 have risen an anemic 0.2% despite a red-hot spending environment and the shuttering of many weak stores in the last two years.
It became clear that with so many merchandise misfires, Penney’s next CEO had to be someone who could focus Penney on what it should sell and not just focus on logistics and supply chain, however important those are.
“Not only is she an established CEO and former chief merchant, her depth of experience in product development, marketing, e-commerce and store operations have been an important basis for the turnaround work she spearheaded at prior companies,” said Paul Brown, a Penney director and chairman of the search committee.
Ellison became CEO in 2015 after spending a year with his predecessor Mike Ullman to learn the ropes. Ullman himself had been brought back as CEO in 2013 to prevent the company from going under in the wake of a disastrous efforts under yet another CEO, Ron Johnson, in 2012 to modernize Penney into a hip retailer that eschewed discounting.
Soltau’s appointment will bring the number of women CEO’s in the Fortune 500 up to 25, though that remains far from the 32 number in mid-2017. She has not shied away from wading into controversial topics, being outspoken in August in her criticism of the Trump Administration‘s proposed tariffs on Chinese goods.