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Penney's closing six stores; Albany not on the list

ALBANY, Ga. -- J.C. Penney Co. plans to close some stores, outlets and call centers, finish closing its catalog business and add two opinionated shareholders, including activist investor William Ackman, to its board.

Albany's J.C. Penney store at the Albany Mall is not affected, though two Georgia stores -- one in Duluth and one in Morrow -- will close. Other stores expected to be closed are in Winston-Salem, N.C.; West Dundee, Ill.; Des Moines, Iowa, and Culpepper, Va.

The department store chain said Monday that the moves are intended boost profitability and keep pace with customers' increasing shift to online purchases.

J.C. Penney has been working to close the catalog business for some time, announcing in November 2009 that it would stop publishing its twice-yearly "big book" catalogs.

Chairman and CEO Myron E. Ullman III admitted during a conference call that the retailer's business started to shift heavily away from catalog to online about two years ago.

"We didn't give up on the catalog. The customer did," he said.

J.C. Penney started a review of its operations in August and Ullman said the company knew it wanted to make changes coming out of the recession.

The company had also faced potential pressure from Ackman's Pershing Square Management and Vornado Realty Trust. Both Ackman and Vornado Chairman Steven Roth are joining Penney's board.

Other changes include closing of six underperforming stores, two call centers, 19 outlet stores and one furniture outlet. J.C. Penney did not disclose how many jobs would be lost.

The chain runs more than 1,100 department stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

The moves will add about 7 cents per share to Penney's 2012 earnings, the company said. The retailer, based in Plano, Texas, will take charges of about 8 cents a share in the fourth quarter and 5 cents per share in 2011 related to the actions.

J.C. Penney shares surged 7.4 percent, or $2.25, to $32.59 in midday trading. The stock has traded between $19.42 and $35.12 over the last year.

The additions of Roth and Ackman to J.C. Penney's board is somewhat of a turnabout. Penney enacted a "poison pill" in October after both Ackman and Vornado took large stakes in the company.

"Poison pills," or shareholder rights agreements, are usually put into place when a company is trying to prevent a hostile takeover.

But the tune was different Monday. In Penney's statement, Ullman said, "We welcome Bill and Steve to the board. They share our passion for operational excellence and are committed to enhancing value for all of the company's shareholders."

Ackman and his hedge fund Pershing Square Management have pushed for major changes at other companies in which he has taken stakes, including Borders Group Inc. and Target Corp.

Ackman and Roth are expected to be a part of J.C. Penney's board by its annual meeting Feb. 22, increasing the board's size to 13 members from 11 members. Another director is expected to be added in the near future, the company said.

In an interview on CNBC on Monday, Ackman said J.C. Penney is a great company and a great brand, but could be a better retailer. He noted that the company has had success with its Sephora boutiques, but that sales per square foot over the past 10 years have not made progress and profit margins are off.

Penney reported in November that its gross profit margin slipped to 39 percent from 40.6 percent in the third quarter because of heavy discounting and the discontinuation of its catalog.

J.C. Penney is reorganizing its custom decorating operations, which includes closing a plant in Sacramento, Calif.

Penney, scheduled to report its fourth-quarter results Feb. 25, has recently found some success with exclusive brands. The company is the only U.S. retailer to sell Liz Claiborne and Claiborne women's wear, except the Isaac Mizrahi-designed Liz Claiborne New York brand, which went to QVC. It is also the only department store selling MNG by Mango, a European clothing brand, a big coup as fast-fashion players have been a big threat to department stores.

Ullman said the company will continue to concentrate on Liz Claiborne and roll out out more Sephora boutiques as well as open new stores in cities where it is underrepresented.