United Airlines – How Bad Strategy Created a Culture That Kills Puppies

United Airlines – How Bad Strategy Created a Culture That Kills Puppies

Do you remember the songs, and videos, from 2008 “United Breaks Guitars?” After United Airlines destroyed musician Dave Carroll’s guitar he chronicled the months-long journey he took trying to replace it. In the end, United told him “F**k you” as customer service blew him off completely. He went on to make a few million dollars with his songs and parody about the horrible experience. Because so many people felt they were abused like Mr. Carroll.

“United Breaks Guitars” was a hit because so many people related to the terrible customer experience on United. book united breaks guitars “The Unfriendly Skies” was the motto of customers, mocking the airlines “Friendly Skies” ads. It was clear that by 2008 United did not care about customers. Moving headlong to constantly lower operating costs, United built a culture that focused solely on efficiency, leading to terrible customer service, unhappy customers and employees that were a lot more worried about being yelled at by their bosses for not cutting costs than creating any customer satisfaction.

Things certainly haven’t changed. In 2017, United ejected a 69 year old physician from a plane, breaking his nose, knocking out his teeth and giving him a concussion. That created an uproar. Yet within a week United killed the world’s largest bunny rabbit in an airplane holding bin. But, even worse, last week United actually killed a puppy by forcing it be placed in an overhead bin. At least the dog United sent on a 1,000 mile unexpected flight to Japan survived, and the interviewed owner said he felt lucky the airline hadn’t killed his pet. Of course United refunded their money – which as you can imagine was a slap in the face to all these people who were so abused.

Unfortunately, United is just the worst of a bunch of bad airlines. Customer service really isn’t any better on Delta, American, JetBlue or Southwest. Saying these other airlines are better is just picking out a less heinous member of the Khmer Rouge Army.


This all goes back to deregulation. When President Carter allowed the airlines to charge as they like the industry really had no idea what it was going to do. There was chaos for years. But eventually consolidation kicked-in, and cutting cost was the only thing all 3 majors agreed upon. Buy more market share, as opposed to winning it with customer service, then slash the costs. This did the wonderfulness of leading all of them to file bankruptcy! Some twice! What a grand industry strategy!

eaten green olivesThen Chairman of American Airlines received Wall Street Journal front-page coverage for realizing people weren’t eating their olives in first class, so he ordered olives removed from the first class meals. He was cheered for saving $100K. But what folks missed was that he, and his peers leading the airlines, were systematically trying to figure out “how do we offer the least possible service.” By focusing on a strategy of lowering cost, and being doggedly determined in that strategy, soon nothing else mattered.

Today, there are no free meals in coach, and terrible meals in first class. Management angered employees into strikes and multi-year negotiations, beating down compensation and eliminating benefits leading to unhappiness so bad that in 2010 a Jet Blue flight attendant pulled the emergency exit and jumped out of the plane as he quit.

So, all the airlines in America stink. And, many domestic airlines in Europe, such as Ryan Air, have followed suit. The execs keep saying “all customers care about is price.” They use that excuse to create a culture so hostile to employees, and customers, that pretty soon employees are beating up customers and killing family pets (after charging extra to take the pet on the plane) and actually not caring.

Employees have become gestapos for the leadership – which has created a culture in which nobody wins. So flight attendants do as little as possible, because they don’t care about customers any more than leadership does. In 2017, a JetBlue attendant threw a family off flight because their toddler kicked the seat. When a woman complains about a child in seat next to her a Delta attendant throws her off the plane. And just last week when a 2 year old cries during boarding a Southwest attendant throws the child and her father off the plane.

Deregulation led to an oligopoly. Now, customers have no choice. Some of us fly almost every week on business, and it is pure hell. Nobody we deal with, from TSA to airport vendors to airline staff like customers. The culture has become “I’m abused, so you will be abused.” To fly is to succumb to being obsequious to ALL employees in your effort to not anger anyone, for fear they will deny you service. Or, worse, beat you up or kill your pet. But, honestly, there is nothing customers can do about it.


The leadership of the airlines, lacking regulation, implemented a strategy of “be low cost.” The result was creating a culture where employees routinely abuse customers in the process of trying to save a few dimes. If the next Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Reed Hastings showed up, do you think HR would hire them? Would the Board of Directors, so focused on the wrong strategy, consider any of them as CEO? The wrong strategy has led to the ruination of an entire industry, miserable employees, unhappy customers and marginal returns. It is a terrible culture.

So what is your strategy? Is your strategy creating the culture you want? Are you headed toward happy customers who want more of your product or service, and create growth? Or are you letting your lack of a forward-thinking strategy default you into operational cost cutting, and the movement toward a culture of misery that drives away employees, vendors and eventually customers?

Warren Buffett Is Loading Up On Apple – Why You Should be Wary

Warren Buffett Is Loading Up On Apple – Why You Should be Wary

In February, Berkshire Hathaway revealed it had dumped its IBM position. Good riddance to a stock that has gone down for 5 years while the S&P went up! What did Buffett do with the money? He loaded up on Apple – making that high-flyer Berkshire’s #1 holding. So, isn’t the smart thing now to buy Apple?

First, don’t confuse your investing goals with Berkshire Hathaway’s. It may seem that everyone has the same objective, to buy stocks that go up. But Berkshire is a very special case. As I pointed out in 2014, we mere mortals can’t invest like Buffett, and shouldn’t try. Berkshire Hathaway has the opportunity to make investments in special situations with tremendous return potential that we don’t have. Berkshire’s investment strategy is to invest where it can create cash to prepare for special situations, or to park money where it can make a decent return, and hopefully generate cash while it waits.

Apple is the #1 most cash-rich company on the planet, and with the new tax laws it can repatriate that cash. This is an opportunity for a “special dividend” to investors, and that is the kind of thing that Buffett loves. He isn’t a venture capitalist looking for a 10x price appreciation. He wants a decent 5% rate of return, and hopefully dividends, so he can grow cash for his special situation opportunities. Apple, the most valuable company on any exchange, is exactly the kind of company where he can place a few billion dollars without driving up the price and let it sit making a solid 5-6%, collect dividends and maybe get a few kickers from things like the cash repatriation.

Second, let’s not forget that Buffett’s IBM buying spree lost money. If he was a great tech investor, he never would have bought IBM. He bought it for the same reason he’s buying Apple, only he was wrong about what was going to happen to IBM as it continued to lose relevancy.

I pointed out in May, 2016 that Apple was showing us all a lot of sustaining innovations, with new rev levels of existing products, but almost no new disruptive innovations. The company that once gave us iPods, iTunes, iPhones and iPads was increasingly relying on the next version of everything to drive sales. Lots of incremental improvement. But little discussion about any breakthrough products, like iBeacon, ApplePay or even the Apple Watch. In a real way, Apple was looking a lot more like the old Microsoft with its Windows and Office fascination than the old Apple.

By October, 2016 Apple hit a Growth Stall. While this may have seemed like “no big deal,” recall that only 7% of the time do companies maintain a 2% growth rate after stalling. Is Apple going to be in that 7%? With the launch of the less-than-overwhelming iPhone X, and the actual drop in iPhone sales in Q4, 2017 it looks increasingly like Apple is on the same road as all other stalled companies.

In the short term Apple has said it is milking its installed base. By constantly bringing out new apps it has raised iTunes sales to over $30B/quarter. And it has a dedicated cadre of developers making over $25B/year creating new apps. So Apple is doing its best to get as much revenue out of that installed base of iPhones as it can, even if device sales slow (or decline.) For Buffett, this is no big deal. After all, he’s parking cash and hoping to get dividends. Milking the base is a cash generation strategy he would love – like a railroad, or Coca-Cola.

But if you’re interested in maintaining high returns in your portfolio, be aware of what’s happening. Apple is changing. It’s not going to falter and fail any time soon. But don’t be lulled by Berkshire’s big purchases into thinking Apple in 2018 is anything like it was in 2012 – or through 2014. Instead, keep your eyes on game changers like Netflix, Tesla and Amazon.

Walmart’s Surprising Tumble – Analysts Never Learn, Will You?

Walmart’s Surprising Tumble – Analysts Never Learn, Will You?

On February 20, 2018 Walmart’s stock had its biggest price drop ever. And the second biggest percentage decline ever. Even though same store sales improved, investors sold off the stock in droves. And after a pretty healthy recent valuation run-up.

What happened? Simply put, Walmart said its on-line sales slowed and its cost of operations rose, slowing growth and cramping margins. In other words, even though it bought Jet.com Walmart is still a long, long way from coming close to matching the customer relationship and growth of Amazon.com. And (surprise, surprise) margins in on-line aren’t an easy thing — as Amazon’s thin margins for 15 years have demonstrated.

In other words, this was completely to be expected. Walmart is a behemoth with no adaptability. For decades the company has been focused on how to operate its warehouses and stores, and beat up its suppliers. Management had to be drug, kicking and screaming, into e-commerce. And failing regularly it finally made an acquisition. But to think that Jet.com was going to change WalMart’s business model into a growing, high profit operation any time soon was foolish. Management still wants people in the store, first and foremost, and really doesn’t understand how to do anything else.

All the way back in 2005, I wrote that Walmart was too big to learn, and was unwilling to create white space teams to really explore growing e-commerce (hence the belated Jet-com acquisition.) In 2007, I wrote that calling Walmart a “mature” competitor with huge advantages was the wrong way to view the company already under attack by all the e-commerce players. In July, 2015 Amazon’s market cap exceeded Walmart’s, showing the importance of retail transformation on investor expectations. By February, 2016 there were 10 telltale signs Walmart was in big trouble by a changing retail market. And by October, 2017 it was clear the Waltons were cashing out of Walmart, questioning why any investor should remain holding the stock.

It really is possible to watch trends and predict future markets. And that can lead to good predictions about the fates of companies. The signs were all there that Walmart shouldn’t be going up in value. Hope had too many investors thinking that Walmart was too big to stumble – or fail. But hope is not how you should invest. Not for your portfolio, and not for your business. Walmart should have dedicated huge sums to e-commerce 15 years ago, now it is playing catch up with Amazon.com, and that’s a race it simply won’t win. Are you making the right investment decisions for your business early enough? Or will you stumble like Walmart?

Warren Buffett’s Painful IBM Lesson – Have You Learned It?

Warren Buffett’s Painful IBM Lesson – Have You Learned It?

This February, Warren Buffett admitted he had no faith in IBM. After accumulating a huge position, by 4th quarter of 2017 he sold out almost the entire Berkshire Hathaway position. He lost faith in the IBM CEO Virginia (Ginni) Rometty, who talked big about a turnaround, but it never happened.

Mr. Buffett would have been wise to stopped having “faith” long ago. All the way back in May, 2014 I wrote that IBM was not going to be a turnaround. CEO Rommetty was spending ALL its money on share buybacks, rather than growing its business. The Washington Post made IBM the “poster child” for stupid share buybacks, pointing out that spending over $8B on repurchases had maintained earnings-per-share, and propped up the stock price, but giving IBM the largest debt-to-equity ratio of comparable companies.

IBM was already in a Growth Stall, something about which I’ve written often. Once a company stalls, its odds Virginia Rometty, CEO IBM. Growth?of growing at 2%/year fall to a mere 7%. But it was clear then that the CEO was more interested in financial machinations, borrowing money to repurchase shares and prop up the stock, rather than actually investing in growing the company. The once great IBM was out of step with the tech market, and had no programs in place to make it an industry leader in the future.

By April, 2017 it was clear IBM was a disaster. By then we had 20 consecutive quarters of declining revenue. Amazing. How Rometty kept her job was completely unclear. Five years of shrinkage, while all investments were in buying the stock of its shrinking enterprise – intended to hide the shrink! CEO Rometty continued promising a turnaround, with vague references to the “wonderful” Watson program. But it was clear, Buffett (and everyone else) needed to get out in 2014. So Berkshire ate its losses, took the money and ran.

Have you learned your lesson? As an investor are you holding onto stocks long after leadership has shown they have no idea how to grow revenues? If so, why? Hope is not a strategy.

As a leader, are you still forecasting hockey stick turnarounds, while continuing to invest in outdated products and businesses? Are you hoping your past will somehow create your future, even though competitors and markets have moved on? Are you leading like Rometty, hoping you can hide your failures with financial machinations and Powerpoint presentations about how things will turn your way in the future – even though those assumptions are made out of hole cloth?

It’s time to get real about your investments, and your business. When revenues are challenged, something bad is happening. It’s time to do something. Fast. Before a bad quarter becomes 20, and everyone is giving up.

Netflix – Demonstrating Why Good Strategy Matters

Netflix – Demonstrating Why Good Strategy Matters

On January 23 Netflix’ value rose to $100B. The stock is now trading north of $250/share. A year ago it was $139/share. An 80% increase in just 12 months. And long-term investors have done very well. Five years ago (January, 2013) the stock was trading at $24/share – so the valuation has increased 10-fold in 5 years! A decade ago it was trading for $3/share – so if you got in early (NFLX went public in June, 2002) you are up 83X your initial investment (meaning $1,000 would be worth $83,000.)netflix profits 2017 statista

Back in 2004 I wrote that Blockbuster was dead meat – because by going after streaming Netflix would make Blockbuster obsolete. Netflix was using external data to project its future, and thus its strategy was not to defend & extend its DVD rental business but to spend strongly to grow the replacement. In 2010 I wrote that Netflix had projected the complete demise of DVDs by 2013, and was thus investing all its resources into streaming in order to be the market leader. At the time NFLX was $15.68. Over the next year it took off, tripling in value to $42.16. By cannibalizing DVDs it’s strategy was to leave its competition in a dying marketplace.

But, investors weren’t as sure of the Netflix strategy as I was. They feared cannibalizing DVDs would cut out the “core” of Netflix and kill the company. By October, 2011 the stock had tumbled to $12 (a drop of over 70%.) But, with the stock at new lows after a year of declines I optimistically wrote “The Case for Buying Netflix. Really.” I told readers the stock analysts were wrong, and the Netflix strategy was spot-on.

Netflix went nowhere for the next year, trading between $9 and $12. But then in December, 2012 investors started seeing the results of Netflix strategy, with fast growing streaming subscriber rates. By January, 2014 the stock was trading north of $52, so those who bought when my article published made a 400% return in just over 2 years! By March, 2015 NFLX was up another 23%, to $62 when I told readers “Netflix Valuation Was Not a House of Cards.” The Netflix strategy to dominate streaming by offering its own content may have shocked a lot of people, due to the investment size, but it was the strategy that would allow Netflix to grow subscribers globally. That has driven the last jump, to $250 in just under 3 years – another 400%+ return!

Strategy matters- to company performance, and thus long-term investor returns. Netflix has been a volatile stock, and it has had plenty of naysayers. These were people looking only short-term, and fearful of strategic pivots that have proven highly valuable. If you want your company, and your investment portfolio, to succeed it is imperative you understand external trends and use them to develop the right strategy. And heed my forecasts.

Are You Adaptable Like Facebook?

Are You Adaptable Like Facebook?

InvestorPlace.com declared Snap stock will be a big disappointment in 2018. Bad news for investors, because SNAP was an enormous disappointment in 2017. After going public at $27/share in early March, the stock dropped to $20 by mid-March, then just kept dropping until it bottomed at just under $12 in August. Since then the stock has largely gone sideways at $15.

This was not unexpected. As I wrote in April, Snapchat was not without competition and was unlikely to be a long-term winner. Even though Snapchat and its Stories feature grew popular with teenagers 14 to 19, in August, 2016 Facebook launched Instagram Stories as a direct competitor. In just 7 months – just as SNAP went public – Instagram Stories had more users than Snapchat. It was clear then if you wanted to make money on the photo and video sharing trends, investors were better off to own Facebook stock and avoid the newly available SNAP shares (stock, not pix!)

Now the situation is far worse. Facebook launched WhatsApp Status as another competitive product in February, 2017 and it took less than 3 months for its user base to exceed Snapchat. As the chart below shows, by October, 2017 Stories and Status each had 300 million users, while Snapchat was mired at 180 million users. With only 30% the users of Facebook, Snapchat has little chance to succeed against the social media powerhouse.

Statista Facebook vs Snapchat


Facebook is now a very large company. But, it has shown it is adaptable. Rather than sticking to its original market, Facebook went mobile and has launched new products as fast as competitors tried to carve out niches. The question is, are you constantly scanning the horizon for new products and adapting – fast – to keep your customers and grow? Or are you stuck trying to defending your old business while upstarts carve up your market?”

Japan Demographics- A “Trend Bomb”

Japan Demographics- A “Trend Bomb”

“Business Insider says Japan has become “a demographic time bomb.” I guess it’s about time somebody realized that demographic trends are important, and that they can be effective for planning!

Japan demographic trends, National Institute of Population and Social Security Research

It was September, 2016 that I pointed out how important using demographic trends was for planning – and made it clear that Japan was facing a huge problem due to an aging population and unwillingness to allow immigrants. In January, 2017 I reiterated the importance of incorporating demographic trends into planning, demonstrating how they can be important for predicting workforce availability, cost of living, taxation and other critical business issues.

Take for example the NFL. In 2017 the league took another big ratings decline. The second consecutive year. But this was not hard to predict. In September, as the season started, I made it clear that kneeling players were not the problem for the NFL – the demographics of its primary viewers was the big problem. And I predicted that ratings would take a hit in 2017. Demographics have been clearly working against the league, and unless they find a way to bring in younger viewers – probably through rules changes – things are going to get a lot worse, affecting revenues and thus owner profits and even player salaries.

Are you incorporating demographics in your planning? If not, why not? Don’t know which demographic trends are important, or how to apply demographic trends to your business? If you’re stuck, not understanding this critical trend and how it will impact your business, why not give us a call?”

Retail Transformation Continues and Will Impact Your Portfolio

Retail Transformation Continues and Will Impact Your Portfolio

Business Insider is projecting a “tsunami” of retail store closings in 2018 — 12,000 (up from 9,000 in 2017.) Also, the expect several more retailers will file bankruptcy, including Sears.

Duh. Nothing surprising about those projections. In mid-2016, Wharton Radio interviewed me about Sears, and I made sure everyone clearly understood I expect it to fail. Soon. In December, 2016 I overviewed Sears’ demise, predicted its inevitable failure, and warned everyone that all traditional retail was going to get a lot smaller. I again recommended dis-investing your portfolio of retail. By March, 2017 the handwriting was so clear I made sure investors knew that there were NO traditional retailers worthy of owning, including Walmart. By October, 2017 I wrote about the Waltons cashing out their Walmart ownership, indicating nobody should be in the stock – or any other retailer.

The trend is unmistakable, and undeniable. The question is – what are you going to do about it? In July, 2015 Amazon became more valuable than Walmart, even though much smaller. I explained why that made sense – because the former is growing and the latter is shrinking. Companies that leverage trends are always worth more. And that fact impacts YOU! As I wrote in February, 2017 the “Amazon Effect” will change not only your investments, but how you shop, the value of retail real estate (and thus all commercial real estate,) employment opportunities for low-skilled workers, property and sales tax revenues for all cities impacting school and infrastructure funding, and all supply chain logistics. These trends are far-reaching, and no business will be untouched.

Don’t just say “oh my, retailers are crumbling” and go to the next web page. You need to make sure your strategy is leveraging the “Amazon Effect” in ways that will help you grow revenues and profits. Because your competition is making plans to use these trends to hurt your business if you don’t make the first move. Need help?

Get Me an Innovation!

Get Me an Innovation!

Fast Company just published 3 common behaviors that kill innovation.  Congratulations!  The editors reinforce that most management behavior and best practices are lethal to innovation.

All the way back in November, 2009, my Forbes column explained that organizations approach innovation entirely wrong- trying far too hard to build on historical company strengths, which leads to weak extensions that fail to generate sustainable growth.  In November, 2011, my Forbes column identified the “killer comments” that leaders used to stop innovation.  Fast Company’s list is remarkably similar to that 2011 column, though it is a shorter list.  In June, 2015, my Forbes column described how HR best practices are designed to limit diversity in thinking- and always lead to killing innovation projects.  Factually, as I wrote in February, 2011, almost nobody would hire the next Steve Jobs if he applied for a job!

Quite simply, we have built organizations that rigidly adhere to continuing past processes, and are hard wired to resist innovation.  This phenomenon has been around for a long time, even though Fast Company just discovered it, and I’ve been writing about it for 9 years. Give my past columns a read and you’ll be forewarned of the risks to brainstorming, or throwing together innovation teams, without a system of new thinking.

Fortunately, smart leaders today see that by focusing on external data and cleverly using outside thinkers, innovation can create a high-growth future.  The approach I’ve been teaching organizations for years.  Only by overcoming outdated, historical management practices can a modern organization thrive.  You can do it- if you smartly use trends and new approaches.

Hallmark- Unsung Innovation based on Trends

Hallmark- Unsung Innovation based on Trends

Here in late 2017, the biggest trends are: the 24 hour news cycle, animosity in broadcast and online media, fatigue from constant connection and interaction, international threats and our political climate. The holiday season is in the background struggling for attention.

How are people tuning out of this cacophony to get in the mood for the holidays?

The answer: Christmas movies!  And which channel has 75% share of the new movies in 2017?  If you have watched any TV since October, you’d know that it’s The Hallmark Channel.  THC has produced over 20 original movies for the 2017 Christmas season and has seen viewership grow by 6.7% per year since 2013.  THC is on track to surpass the 2016 season in viewership and its brand image is solidly wholesome.

Starting in October, THC runs seasonal programming with its successful “The Good Witch” series (no vampires!) and continues with “Countdown to Christmas” featuring original Hallmark-produced content.

Hallmark spent decades preparing to capture the benefits of these trends.  It had become a source of family oriented, holiday-themed programming especially popular in recent years.  Once only an ink and paper company, Hallmark expanded strategically in the 1970s with ornaments and cultural greeting cards and again in 1984 with its acquisition of Crayola drawing products.  The company moved into direct retail in 1986 and ecommerce in the mid-1990s.  Hallmark eCards was launched in 2005.

Hallmark capitalized on branded media content originally to support the core business and it now generates profits as a standalone business.  In 2001, the Hallmark Channel was launched.  The Hallmark Movie Channel was developed in 2004 which became Hallmark Movies and Mysteries in 2014.  This year, the Hallmark Drama channel was launched further leveraging the brand.

Many companies sponsored radio shows in the 1920s through the war years.  Serials featuring one company’s products appeared in 1928 on radio.  In 1952, Proctor and Gamble sponsored the first TV soap opera featuring one company (“The Guiding Light”).  But The Hallmark Hall of Fame was there first on Christmas Eve in 1951 sponsoring a made-for-TV opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

Written by Gian Carlo Menotti in less than two months and timed for a one hour TV slot, “Amahl” has become, probably, the most performed opera in history.


Hallmark wasn’t the first mover in sponsored media content, but it had learned to experiment with new media. The company was positioned to take advantage of the trend toward family friendly broadcast content and this year was ready to give the nation a place to rest and escape from the chaos.  A bit like the story of Amahl and Christmas itself.

Once just a card company, Hallmark followed market trends to expand its business and become a leader in content marketing which is now one of the hottest areas in all marketing.  And both the new video content and large library were ready for the current trend- streaming video!