It was Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz who convinced him to come out of retirement. To tackle an existing culture and find ways to get people engaged in the life of your company is the highest calling of business leaders, Schultz told now-J.C. Penney Company CEO Myron E. Ullman.

Ullman thought so, too – and that’s why in December 2004 he accepted the role as chairman and CEO of a century-old general merchant with a $33 stock price. By December 2006, Ullman’s practices and guiding vision for growth had blasted the company’s shares into the $89 range as JCPenney announced plans to add 250 new stores in five years.

“We do business today with half the households in America,” Ullman says of JCPenney’s 24 million customers. “This is a contact sport – you can’t just be nice and hold onto your share in the market. The customer votes every day based on what she finds and what she likes, and you better be there to provide that.”

That can-do vigor, coupled with a strong-growth game plan, earned Ullman the 2007 M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Award from the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. He spoke at Mays on Wednesday as he accepted the award, addressing a standing-room only crowd of business students, community leaders and retailing and marketing executives.

When JCPenney representatives went out into the field in 16 U.S. cities to ask shoppers what they looked for in a store, Ullman said they expected the answer to be about lower prices. But it turns out that what’s most important to consumers are the little things that help them experience every day life.

That led the once-stagnant general merchant into its latest phase, with the tagline “Every Day Matters.” From compliments on a new blouse to finding just the right gear for children’s after-school activities, Ullman explained that the every day defines JCPenney and its target consumers in middle America.

Providing an emotional connection to JCPenney as a brand and creating an exciting and easy place to shop have proven their value to a company that nearly shuttered its storefronts in the 1990s. Under Ullman’s leadership, JCPenney met its 9 percent operating profit target in 2006 – three years ahead of schedule.

But the former R.H. Macy & Co., Inc., chairman and CEO says he didn’t arrive at JCPenney with any plans other than helping his executive team find a way to grow the revived Penney’s into something bigger, better and more meaningful for customers and employees alike.

“This isn’t a story about a CEO at all,” Ullman told students. “This is a story about teamwork, making a human connection with your associates, and in turn making a human connection with your consumers. Everybody wants to be part of something meaningful.”