Not everyone believes that's possible. Michael Exstein, an analyst at Credit Suisse, recently downgraded Penney's stock to "underperform" from "neutral." Exstein wrote that Penney "must find a way to significantly slow the sales decline within the next six months."
But Johnson still has supporters. During an interview with CNBC after the company's last earnings report, William Ackman, an activist investor whose hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management has a 17.8 percent stake in Penney, said that he's giving the turnaround several more years to work. He also said, however, that there is a limit to how far the board and the CEO would let sales fall.
"If it's not working, we will make changes," says Ackman, who joined Penney's board in early 2011 and pushed other board members to choose Johnson as CEO last year. "He's not this doctrinaire guy."
THE RISKS AND REWARDS OF THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
That Johnson is taking a risky approach with Penney is no surprise. After receiving an economics degree from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1984, he turned down a lucrative offer from investment bank Goldman Sachs for a manager trainee job at the now-defunct Mervyns department store chain and then worked his way up to vice president of merchandise at Target.
In 1998, when he signed a deal with architect Michael Graves to develop a line of affordable housewares for Target, it was the first time that an upscale designer's products would be sold in a mass market discount store. Industry watchers predicted the strategy would fail. After all, people didn't shop at a discounter for designer brands.
"Back then, design was something for affluent people," Johnson told fashion executives recently.
But the partnership, which was followed by deals with other designers like Isaac Mizrahi, redefined discounting. Even discount king Wal-Mart followed a variation of the strategy.
Success at Apple wasn't much easier for Johnson. When Johnson and Jobs introduced the idea of opening retail locations, it was resisted by nearly everyone on Apple's board. Board members looked at Gateway, a competitor that was in the midst of closing stores, as proof that the strategy wouldn't work.
Even Johnson's now-popular Genius Bar, a place within Apple stores where customers can get hands-on technical support, was seen as radical. It ran counter to the retail industry's practice of hiding "repair" areas in the stores.
"No one thought it would work," Johnson told analysts earlier this year. "There wasn't one positive believer."
The first Apple store, which opened in 2001 in Tyson's Corner mall in Virginia, became a hit. Others across the nation followed. There are now 394 stores in 13 countries. "Apple has changed the way to buy a computer. And we did that by thinking completely differently about every aspect of the retail business," Johnson says.
It's his "go get 'em" attitude that serves Johnson well, say those who know him. "If he believes in something wholeheartedly, there is not a person on this planet that could sway him," says Francis, the former Penney president who now is marketing creative adviser for Gap Inc.
Francis says he doesn't resent Johnson because he fired him. "There are no reasons to have hard feelings," he told The Associated Press. "Life is too short."
Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at NBG Productions, says that the problems Johnson has had at Penney will only add to his creative genius. "He has learned the CEO job on the fly," he says. "He's still a visionary, but he's a bruised and more humbled visionary."
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