The statue of Penney, who founded the legacy department store that bears his name 121 years ago, arrived in Kemmerer, WY earlier this month, completing its literal 1,200 mile trip from its former home, what was company headquarters in Plano, TX. It is also a bit of a metaphysical journey as the retailer tries one last attempt to reinvent itself coming out of its 2020 bankruptcy with new ownership and what will be new leadership once a CEO is selected, expected sometime this year.
The over-sized statue — 9-feet-2-inches — stood as the centerpiece of the company’s mausoleum-like headquarters complex since Penney relocated to the Dallas suburb in 1988 from its long-time New York City home. The statue came to symbolize both the stability and intransigence of the retailer which increasingly found itself in a shrinking market sector with five CEO changes in a little over a decade. Whoever takes over the spot following the forced departure of Jill Soltau at the end of last year will be number six and the first under its new ownership structure that is controlled by two shopping center real estate operators…who also happen to be its landlord in many cases.
The statue of the company founder became expendable when Penney shut its offices at the beginning of the pandemic last spring and then homeless when the company announced it would not return to the complex, which it had sold off under an earlier fund-raising effort. The company has said it has no immediate plans to return its workforce to any new office space.
Penney donated the statue to the city of Kemmerer which will place it in the town square — actually a triangle, according to newspaper reports — in front of the original store, which was called The Golden Rule and remains both a tourist attraction and retail business today. Penney’s home, also on the triangle, is now a museum.
For Penney the store, its challenge is not to become the same thing. It is closing somewhere around 20% of its locations and its new ownership says it is looking for a new CEO who will lead a “modern retailing” business, although it hasn’t defined exactly what that means.
The statue of James Cash Penney may be home but the business of JCPenney still has many retail miles to travel before it too has arrived.