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3 massive problems J.C. Penney's new CEO must solve

Brian Sozzi
Editor-at-Large

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect J.C. Penney having $160 million in debt coming due within the next few years. The story previously said $600 million.

At $1.56 a share, J.C. Penney’s stock price is 20 times cheaper than a three-pack of good underwear.

J.C. Penney (JCP) will pay incoming CEO Jill Soltau a cool $1.4 million salary (plus $6 million signing bonus) to move quickly to try and solve that disconnect. The struggling department store chain, which has seen its stock price tank 57% over the past year, said the 30-yer retail veteran and former Joann Stores CEO will begin on Oct. 15.

Soltau will be faced with several daunting tasks from the get-go. Chief among them is stabilizing a ship that has been rocked by failed business model shifts from two former CEOs. One-time Apple store whiz kid Ron Johnson was brought on as CEO back in 2011 and  tried to take J.C. Penney’s frumpy stores upscale. Johnson was booted in 2013 after sales and profits plunged as cost-conscious J.C. Penney shoppers panned the changes.

Former Home Depot (HD) executive Marvin Ellison took the J.C. Penney helm in 2015. He exited in May after his crack at turning J.C. Penney into a Home Depot (he launched appliance departments, for example) that also sells women’s clothes didn’t work.

Wall Street is already bullish on Soltau. Telsey Advisory Group founder and retail analyst Dana Telsey said in a note that the hiring is a step in the right direction. Erinn Murphy, retail analyst at Piper Jaffray, writes that Soltau’s time at the no frills arts-and-crafts chain Joann Stores should serve her well at J.C. Penney. Shares rose 13% in early trading Wednesday.

Here are three key issues Soltau must address.

Store count

Ellison was a champion of physical J.C. Penney stores despite the ever-growing importance of online shopping. In his view, physical stores allowed J.C. Penney to serve customers in a way rivals closing stores couldn’t. Further, stores could be used as distribution centers to satisfy online orders.

But with J.C. Penney’s sluggish sales in plain sight, Ellison’s strategy hasn’t proven correct. Meanwhile, rival department stores such as Macy’s and Sears have closed hundreds of stores to save money and plow it back into improving online shopping.

In this Nov. 24, 2017, file photo, a shopper heads into a J.C. Penney store in Seattle J.C. Penney Co. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Soltau must figure out if J.C. Penney should be operating 860 stores, as is currently the case. The company closed about 140 stores in 2017, its lone mass store closure campaign to date. But having posted net losses in five of the last six quarters according to Bloomberg data, J.C. Penney could use the cost savings born from store closures.

Sales trends

Soltau has to solve the mystery on what J.C. Penney’s brand is relative to competitors. Kohl’s (KSS) has carved out a niche as a destination for affordable name-brand fashion. The company has also bolstered its online business by inking a deal with Amazon for store returns. Meanwhile, Macy’s (M) is aggressively revamping its stores to make them easier to shop and more visually appealing.

If Soltau can carve out the right identity for J.C. Penney (clearly it wasn’t Ellison’s Home Depot-light) the retailer has a shot at reversing its ugly sales trends. Same-store sales, which measures sales from stores open longer than a year, have dropped in three of the last seven quarters, according to Bloomberg data. Sales in the first half of this year badly lagged apparel-selling rivals Macy’s, Target and Walmart.

The nitty gritty

Plano, Texas-based J.C. Penney had a mere $171 million in cash exiting the second quarter. When you are looking at a burdensome $3.9 billion debt on the balance sheet, as J.C. Penney is, that cash position is far from a positive. About $160 million of that debt will come due within the next few years, according to the company.

Soltau has to find a way to cut that debt to ease the concerns of investors. Debt reduction will have to be balanced with getting enough cash on the balance sheet to keep operations going seamlessly.

Hey, nobody said Soltau will have it easy.