MONTROSE—(March 4, 2014) The mood was relaxed and friendly, like a conversation among old friends—which is exactly what it was. When Montrose Insurance Broker Howard Davidson was asked to facilitate the discussion with keynote speaker Myron “Mike” Ullman at Friday’s annual meeting of the Montrose Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) Feb. 21 at the Holiday Inn Express, Davidson wasn’t overwhelmed, despite Ullman’s stature as a global business leader.
Sure, Ullman has played a leading role in the success of five major global enterprises, and recently returned to restore the economic health of ailing retail giant J.C. Penney, a job he had retired from in 2012 after serving since 2004. A past chair of both the National Retail Federation and Macy’s, Ullman’s extensive list of accomplishments also includes being named a White House Fellow by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, current service as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and a seat on the board of the Starbucks Corporation. His non-profit work includes chairing Mercy Ships International and serving as a director of F.I.R.S.T., an international charity that sponsors high school robotics competitions.
However, Ullman also happens to reside in Montrose, and has known Davidson both here and in international circles since the mid 1980’s. He responded to the first question—“with a truly global career, how in the heck do you end up with a house in Montrose”–with a very direct response.
“There is no better place, in my opinion, to be,” Ullman said.
So committed has Ullman been to this community that he spent nine years commuting back and forth between Dallas and Montrose at one point in his career.
“We have the sunshine, the quality of life, and the people,” he said. “It is our pleasure to be here.”
Davidson’s questions ranged from professional to personal, allowing listeners to view Ullman as a human being as well as a business leader.
When asked about his service with the Federal Reserve, Ullman took the opportunity not only to address specifics, but to share insights about the economy as a whole.
“The Federal Reserve was started 100 years ago, to manage the money supply and encourage employment,” Ullman said. “There are nine directors for each district, and we are responsible for 700 banks. We supervise and audit.”
The world economy has become so interconnected that the financial world is increasingly complex, he noted.
“The way to build the economy is with private business,” Ullman said. “You don’t do it with government programs.
“I don’t speak for the Fed,” he said. “I speak to the Fed. Directors have no authority other than over banks, but we do give our opinion on what is going on in the economy based on our area of expertise.”
And because the economy of Texas is based largely on agriculture and technology, “We created more jobs in the Dallas Fed than in any of the other 11 districts last year.”
The retail sector is not so strong, however, and Ullman addressed the struggles of the middle class, the market that J.C. Penney was created to serve, as he spoke about the challenges that face traditional department stores.
“There are 120 million families in America,” Ullman said, “And J.C. Penney has sold something to half of them. Kohl’s, our major competitor, sold something to the other half. The mid-quartile is the most depressed portion of the population; wages have not gone up, and hours of work are down.
“There will be fewer department stores in America in future,” he said. “That’s a reality.”
When asked if the currently touted economic recovery is real or false, Ullman also offered a simple answer.
“If the GDP were to increase by 3/10 of one percent, there would be no Federal deficit,” he said. “Growing the economy is a much stronger strategy than trying to hold down debt.
”I am not sure we are in a good place,” he summarized, “but we are not in a bad place.”
One impact of the recession was an increased emphasis on efficiency by business, he noted, which has resulted in the loss of some jobs.
“Retail took a big hit,” he said, citing not only the Internet in general but mega-retailer Amazon.com specifically. “Two-thirds of retail spending in the United States is with Samsung, Apple and Amazon.
“Nobody is running around nude in America,” he said. “They don’t need clothes, they don’t need more sportswear from Penney’s. They do need a cell phone…spending has shifted. Employment has been different for a while now, and our education system is not re-tooling fast enough.”
On the other hand, he observed, Starbucks Corporation responded to the recession by re-inventing itself on the fly.
“Starbucks had a huge problem during the recession,” Ullman said. “People suddenly didn’t want to afford an expensive cup of coffee. So the company invested in social media and in the Internet. Today, people can pay with their phones, and never even get their wallets out.”
A video advertisement created by Starbucks for an entirely online audience for just $150,000 became the most-viewed ad in America several weeks ago, he noted, eclipsing the reach of even the far more expensive Super Bowl advertisements.
Ullman also noted that Montrose has the first Starbucks to be opened West of the Rockies, and spoke of the plans he and his wife of more than 40 years, Cathy, have to eventually build a couples retreat center in Montrose.
And of course, he talked about J.C. Penney—a retailer that had a presence in and an impact on Montrose long before the current store opened in River Landing six years ago. “Wealthy merchant of Salt Lake City” Mr. James Cash Penney himself opened a dry goods store in Montrose in 1912, according to Montrose Historian Dona Freeman in her book “100 Years Montrose Colorado 1882-1982.”
“Mr. Penney had a great idea, and we follow the same principles today,” Ullman said, and noted that the 112-year-old retail giant’s recent struggles were the result of “a specific idea that didn’t work.” And though Ullman acknowledged enjoying his all-too-brief 15-month retirement experience, he said that he did not hesitate when asked to return.
“In 2008, Penney’s was the most admired retailer in the U.S.,” he said. “By 2012, it had become the most hated corporation in America.
“I am responsible for 116,000 families eating tonight,” said Ullman, who summarized his own philosophy as taking work seriously, but not taking himself too seriously.
“So many people had been fired, Cathy and I just couldn’t stand it,” he said. “I really had no choice; if you had a chance to save something, wouldn’t you try? When I left the company, we had $2.7 billion in cash reserves. When I returned, they had two days’ worth of cash.”
The good news now is that “the 30 things that are wrong can all be fixed,” he said.
“We are 80 percent finished with the fixing,” he said. “Our associates are charged up—they have been through, basically, hell. Now they can see that going to work is lots of fun.”
Those who attended the MEDC event—held for the first time in recent memory over the lunch hour—found it both entertaining and informative.
“They kept it short and sweet, and made some fantastic points,” noted Region 10 Small Business Resource Center Director Vince Fandel. “The buss in the room was so positive. Wouldn’t it be nice if this was the first step toward true community collaboration?”
“I appreciated that they were able to emphasize the positive aspects of Montrose moving forward, while maintaining a real sense of local identity,” Region 10 Executive Director Michelle Haynes said.
Ullman, whose low-key presence kept the audience captivated throughout the conversation, offered succinct advice on public speaking that also serves as a recipe for strong leadership.
“Love your audience, do your homework, be yourself.”