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Business

In midst of steep losses, J.C. Penney ousts CEO

J.C. Penney has replaced chief executive Ron Johnson (above) with former chief executive Mike Ullman.

LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

J.C. Penney has replaced chief executive Ron Johnson (above) with former chief executive Mike Ullman.

NEW YORK — J.C. Penney’s board of directors has ousted chief executive Ron Johnson after only 16 months on the job as a risky turnaround strategy backfired and led to massive losses and steep sales drops.

In a statement issued late Monday, the department store chain said that it has rehired Johnson’s predecessor Mike Ullman, 66, who was chief executive of the department store chain for seven years until November 2011.

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The announcement comes as a growing chorus of critics including a former Penney chief executive, Allen Questrom, called for his resignation as they lost faith in his turnaround strategy.

Penney reported dismal fourth-quarter results in late February that capped the first full year of a transformation plan where Penney amassed nearly a billion dollars in losses and its revenue tumbled almost 25 percent to $12.98 billion.

Under Johnson, 54, Penney embarked upon a strategy that included ditching coupons and most of its sales events in favor of everyday low prices, bringing in hipper designer brands such as Betsy Johnson, and remaking outdated stores by installing specialty shops devoted to brands like Joe Fresh and Levi’s to replace rows of clothing racks. Johnson’s goal was to reinvent Penney’s business into a hip place to shop in a bid to attract younger, wealthier shoppers. But since Johnson, who was the mastermind behind Apple’s stores, rolled out his plan, once-loyal customers have strayed from the 1,100-store chain. It hasn’t been able to attract new shoppers to replace them.

In a vote of confidence, investors drove Penney’s shares up 24 percent to $43 after Johnson announced his vision in late January 2012. But as Johnson’s plans unraveled, Penney’s stock lost more than 60 percent of its value. Meanwhile, credit rating agencies downgraded the company deeper into junk status.

Also Monday, attorneys for Penney and Macy’s were back in court to fight over the Martha Stewart brand after a monthlong mediation period went nowhere. The court-ordered mediation followed nearly three weeks of testimony.

At issue is whether Macy’s has the exclusive rights to sell some Martha Stewart branded products such as cookware, bedding, and bath products. Macy’s sued Martha Stewart Living, arguing that the company breached its longstanding contract when it signed a deal with Penney in December 2011 to open Martha Stewart mini-shops, planned for this spring. It also sued Penney, contending that it had no regard for the contract and that Johnson had set out to steal the business that Macy’s developed.

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