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J.C. Penney to close some stores, add activist investor to its board ; Catalog business will be phased out

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.

The department store chain said Monday that the moves are intended to 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 plans to close stores in Morrow, Ga.; West Dundee, Ill.; Des Moines, Iowa; High Point, N.C.; and Culpeper, Va., as well as a JCPenney Home Store in Duluth, Ga. It will also close 19 outlet stores that carry a significant amount of catalog merchandise.

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 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 7.1 percent, or $2.18, to $32.52 Monday. 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.

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