What The NBA All-Star Game Venue Change Teaches Us About Decision-Making

Leaders like to be deciders. Most leaders think of themselves as decision makers. In 2006 President George Bush, defending Donald Rumsfeld as his Defense Secretary said “I am the Decider.  I decide what’s best.” It earned him the nickname “Decider-in-Chief.” Most CEOs echo this sentiment. Most leaders like to define themselves by their decisions.

But whether a decision is good or not is open to interpretation. Often immediately after a decision things may look great. It might appear as if that decision was obvious. And often decisions quickly make a lot of people happy.

As we enter the most intense part of the U.S. presidential election, both candidates are eager to tell potential voters what decisions they have made – and what decisions they will make if elected. And most people will look no further than the immediate expected impact of those decisions.

AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File

It takes time to determine the quality of any decision.

However, the quality of most decisions is not based on the immediate, or obvious, first implications. Rather, the quality of a decision is discovered over time, as the consequences are revealed – intended and unintended. Because quite often, what looked good at first can turn out to be very, very bad.

The people of North Carolina passed a law to control the use of public bathrooms. Most people of the state thought this was a good idea, including the governor. But some didn’t like the law, and many spoke up. Last week the NBA decided that it would cancel its All-Star game scheduled in Charlotte due to discrimination issues caused by this law. This change will cost Charlotte about $100 million.

 That action by the NBA is what’s called unintended consequences. Lawmakers didn’t really consider that the NBA might decide to take its business elsewhere due to this state legislation. It’s what some people call, “Oops. I didn’t think about that when I made my decision.”

Often unintended consequences are more important than first reactions to decisions.

Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, was a staunch supporter of unions. In his book Locked in the Cabinet, he tells the story of visiting an auto plant in Oklahoma supporting the local union. He thought his support would incent the company’s leaders to negotiate more favorably. Instead, the company closed the plant. Laid-off everyone. Oops. The unintended consequences of what he thought was obvious support led to the worst possible worker outcome.

President Obama worked Congress hard to create the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, for everyone in America. One intention was to make sure employers covered all their workers, so the law required that if an employer had health care for any workers he had to offer that health care to all employees who worked over 30 hours per week. So almost all employers of part time workers suddenly said that none could work more than 30 hours. Those that worked 32 (four days per week) or 36 suddenly had their hours cut. Now those lower-income people not only had no health care, but less money in their pay envelopes. Oops. Unintended consequence.

President Reagan and his First Lady launched the “War on Drugs.” How could that be a bad thing? Illegal drugs are dangerous, as is the supply chain. But now, some 30 years later, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that almost half (46.3% or over 85,000) of inmates are there on drug charges. The U.S. now spends $51 billion annually on this drug war, which is about 20% more than is spent on the real war being waged with Afghanistan, Iraq and ISIS.  There are now over 1.5 million arrests each year, with 83% of those merely for possession. Oops. Unintended consequences. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

This is why it is so important leaders take their time to make thoughtful decisions, often with the input of many other people. Because the quality of a decision is not measured by how one views it immediately. Rather, the value is decided over time as the opportunity arises to observe the unintended consequences, and their impact. The best decisions are those in which the future consequences are identified, discussed and made part of the planning – so they aren’t unintended and the “decider” isn’t running around saying “oops.”

Think hard about the long-term complications of any decision.

As you listen to the politicians this cycle, keep in mind what could be the unintended consequences of implementing what they say:

  • What would be the social impact, and transfer of wealth, from suddenly forgiving all student loans?
  • What would be the consequences on trade, and jobs, of not supporting historical government trade agreements?
  • What would be the consequences on national security of not supporting historically allied governments?
  • What would be the long-term consequence of not allowing visitors based on race, religion or sexual orientation?
  • What would be the consequence of not repaying the government’s bonds?
  • What would be the long-term impact on economic growth of higher regulations on banks – that already have seen dramatic increases in regulation slowing the recovery?
  • What would be the long-term consequences on food production, housing and lifestyles of failing to address global warming?

Business leaders should be very aware of the long-term consequences of their decisions. Every time a decision is necessary, is the best effort made to obtain all the information available on the topic? Are inputs and expectations obtained from detractors, as well as admirers? Is there a balance between not only what is popular, but what will happen months into the future? Did you consider the potential reaction by customers? Employees? Suppliers? Competitors?

There are very few “perfect decisions.” All decisions have consequences. Often, there is a trade-off between the good outcomes, and the bad outcomes. But the key is to know them all, and balance the interests and outcomes. Consider the consequences, good and bad, and plan for them. Only by doing that can you avoid later saying “oops.”

Why Amazon Echo Is Killing It While Windows Phone Is Dead — Developers Are What Matters

Why Amazon Echo Is Killing It While Windows Phone Is Dead — Developers Are What Matters

Amazon just had another record Prime Day, with sales up 60%.  And the #1 product sold was Amazon’s Echo Dot speaker. At $34.99 it surpassed last year’s unit sales by seven-fold.  And the traditional Echo speaker, marked down 50% to $90, broke all previous sales records.

Amazon just took a commanding lead in the voice assistant platform market

These Echo sales most likely sealed Amazon’s long-term leadership in the war to be the #1 voice assistant.  Amazon already has 70% market share in voice activated speakers, nearly 3 times #2 provider Google.  And all other vendors in total barely have 5% share.

While it may seem like digital speakers are no big deal, speaker sales are analogous to iPhone sales when evaluating the emergence of smartphones and apps.  The iPhone seemed like a small segment until it became clear smartphones were the new personal technology platform. Apple’s early lead allowed iOS to dominate the growth cycle, making the company intensely profitable.

Echo and Echo Dot aren’t just speakers, but interfaces to voice activated virtual assistants.  For Echo the platform is Amazon’s Alexa.  Alexa is to voice activated devices and applications what iOS was to Smartphones.  By talking to Alexa customers are able to do many things, such as shopping, altering their thermostats, opening and closing doors, raising and lowering blinds, recording people in their homes — the list is endless.  And as that list grows customers are buying more Alexa devices to gain greater productivity and enhanced lifestyle.  Echos are entering more homes, and multiplying across rooms in these homes.

Do you remember when early iPhone ads touted “there’s an app for that?” That tagline told customers if they changed from a standard mobile phone to a smartphone there were a lot of advantages, measured by the number of available apps.  Just like iOS apps gave an advantage to owning an iPhone, Alexa skills give an advantage to owning Echo products. In the last year the number of skills available for Alexa has exploded, growing from 135 to 15,000.   Quite obviously developers are building on Alexa much faster than any other voice assistant.

By radically cutting the price of both Echo Dot and Echo, and promoting sales, Amazon is creating an installed base of units which encourages developers to write even more skills/apps.

The more Alexa devices are installed, the more likely developers will write additional skills for Alexa. As more devices lead to more skills, skills leads to more Alexa/Echo capability, which encourages more people to buy Alexa activated devices, which further encourages even more skills development.  It’s a virtuous circle of goodness, all leading to more Amazon growth.

For marketers it is important to realize that success really doesn’t correlate with how “good” Alexa works.  Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana perform better at voice recognition and providing appropriate responses than Alexa and Siri.  But there are relatively few (almost no) devices in the marketplace built with Assistant or Cortana as the interface.  Developers need their skills/apps to be on platforms customers use.  If customers are buying speakers, thermostats and televisions that are embedded with Alexa, then developers will write for Alexa.  Even if it has shortcomings. It’s not the product quality that determines the winner, but rather the ability to create a base of users.

It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker.  Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales.  By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.

amazon echo

 

It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker.  Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales.  By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.

This is a horrible problem for Google, #2 in this market, because Google does not have the retail clout to place millions of their speakers (and other devices) in the market.  Google is not a device company, nor a powerful retailer of Android devices.  The Android device makers need to profit from their devices, so they cannot afford to sell devices unprofitably in order to build an installed base for Google.  And because Android’s platform is not applied consistently across device manufacturers, Google Assistant skills cannot be assured of operating on every Android phone.  All of which makes the decision to build Google Assistant skills problematic for developers.

Can Apple Stop the Alexa juggernaut?

The game is not over.  Apple would like customers to use Siri on their iPhones to accomplish what Amazon and Alexa do with Echo.  Apple has an enormous iPhone base, and all have Siri embedded.  Perhaps Apple can encourage developers to create Siri-integrated apps which will beat back the Amazon onslaught?

Today, Apple customers still cannot use Siri to control their Apple TV (Though as of August, 2017, it’s been improved.), or make payments with ApplePay, for example. Nor can iPhone users tell Siri to execute commands for remote systems which are controlled by apps, like unlocking doors, turning on appliances, shooting remote security video or placing an on-line order. Apple has a lot of devices, and apps, but so far Siri is not integrated in a way that allows voice activation like can be done with Alexa.

apple tv and siri image

Additionally, as big as the iPhone installed base has become, when comparing markets the actual raw number of speakers could catch up with iPhones.  Echo Dot is $35.  The cheapest iPhone is the SE, at $399 (on the Apple site although available from Best Buy at $160.)  And an iPhone 7 starts at $650.  The huge untapped Apple markets, such as China and India, will find it a lot easier to purchase low cost speakers than iPhones, especially if their focus is to use some of those 15,000 skills.  And because of the low pricing ($35 to $90) it is easy to buy multiple devices for multiple locations in one’s home or office.

Will we look back and call Echo a Disruptive Innovation?

Innovators Dilemma chart

Innovator’s Dilemma

Recall the wisdom of Clayton Christensen‘s “Innovator’s Dilemma.” The incumbent keeps improving their product, hoping to maintain a capability lead over the competition.  But eventually the incumbent far overshoots customer needs, developing a product that is overly enhanced.  The disruptive innovator enters the market with a considerably “less good” product, but it meets customer needs at a much lower price.  People buy the cheaper product to meet their limited goal, and bypass the more capable but more expensive early market leader.

Doesn’t this sound remarkably similar to the development of iPhones (now on version 8 and expected to sell at over $1,000) compared with a $35 speaker that is far less capable, but still does 15,000 interesting things?

The biggest loser in this new market is Microsoft

This week Microsoft announced another 1,500 layoffs in what has become an annual bloodletting ritual for the PC software giant.  But even worse was the announcement that Microsoft would no longer support any version of Windows Phone OS version 8.1 or older – which is 80% of the Windows Phone market.  Given that Microsoft has less than 2% market share, and that less than .4% of the installed smartphone base operates on Windows Phone, killing support for these phones will lead to sales declines.  This action, along with gutting the internal developer team last year, clearly  indicates Microsoft has given up on the phone business for good.  This means that now Microsoft has no device platform for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant, to use.

Microsoft ignored smartphones, allowing Apple’s iOS to become the early standard.  Apple rapidly grew its installed base. Microsoft could not convince developers to write for Windows Phone because there weren’t enough devices in the market.  Without a phone base, with tablet and hybrid sales flat to declining, and with PC sales in the gutter Cortana enters the market DOA (Dead On Arrival.)  Even if it were the best voice assistant on the planet developers will not create skills for Cortana because there are no devices out there using Cortana as the interface.

So Microsoft completely missed yet another market. This time the market for voice activated devices in the smart phone, smart car or any other smart device in the IoT marketplace.  It missed mobile, and now it has missed voice assist.  As PC sales decline, Microsoft’s only hope is to somehow emerge a big winner in cloud storage and services (IaaS or Infrastructure as a Service) with Azure.  But, Azure was a late-comer to the cloud market and is far behind Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services.)  Amazon has +40% market share, which is 40% more than the share of Microsoft, Google and IBM combined.

Build the base and developers will come…

10 Great Lessons From Millennial Entrepreneurs

10 Great Lessons From Millennial Entrepreneurs

There has been a lot of press about Millennial entrepreneurs the last 2 years. Young folks – mostly boys – dropping out of high school to start their own businesses at ages as young as 15. One of these, Noah Miller, who started a sports web site at 15 and later a creative agency asked to join my network on Linked-in. Then he asked me to look into the topic of young entrepreneurs and see what lessons we could learn.

1 – If you are really good at something at a young age, continue to work at it

Ben Pasternak liked gaming, and he liked apps. So at 15 he wrote a game-like app and put it on iTunes. 1.3million downloads later he was a young superstar. Since then he’s created two more apps (Flogg and Monkey.) His young hobby led to building strong programming skills, which when linked to identifying what appeals to Millenials turned into apps people really use.

George Matus started flying drones at age 12. He loved it so much he started modifying drones, and building his own. He published videos of his exploits on YouTube, and convinced drone makers to let him be a tester. After 6 years of working on Drones he now has his own Peter Thiel funded company making drones. So far no products on the market, but he is working at it.

Whether iOS apps or drones will be a long-term career is hard to say. But by building strong skills in new technologies with large markets and high growth rates these fellows created business opportunities. You don’t have to be a Millenial to do that.

2 – Take advantage of trends while they are hot

Collecting sneakers is a remarkably big market. Most older folks would call it a fad, thinking nobody will collect sneakers for long. But, it doesn’t really matter if a trend is going to be long-lived, or not, if you are willing to jump in and help push the trend along.

Fifteen year old Ben Kapelushnik liked sneakers. He wanted money to buy more. So he started buying multiple pairs of collectible sneakers and selling the “extra” pairs at a profit. To grow he networked with sneaker sellers to figure out how he could get in line early and buy many pair. Then he networked hard as he could to find associations with big time sneaker collectors, like rappers and other creative artists. Now he has a business buying and selling sneakers. How long will the fad last? Who knows – but Ben is making money by taking advantage of a hot trend.

Connor O’Neil saw the same phenomenon. He thought “why don’t I go source things people want?” So he created a web site where buyers can request he source sneakers, T-shirts and other items. He then searches the web, sourcing the items manually and with bots that will make instantaneous purchases of hard to find items.  He charges customers a fee to find what they want. By meeting customer needs for trendy items, he finds an opportunity for profit.

At 16 Casey Adams started networking on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and other social media.  After he built up a following of several thousand followers he began offering them t-shirts and wristbands.  Pretty soon he was generating $5k/month in revenue.  While many older folks still think social media, and Snapchat in particular, is a time-waster, Casey is making money on the obvious trend toward all things social.  He’s leveraging his social network to sell things – and teaching other people how to do the same.

Are Bitcoins long-term currency? Will crypto-currency replace things like Dollars and Euros? Most older generation folks don’t think so, and view this as another fad.  But Erik Finman saw the trend at age 12, and started buying Bitcoins.  A few trades later and he turned $1,000 into $100,000.  A few more trades and Finman had a stash worth over $1,000,000.  Are Bitcoins the next Tulip bulbs?  You can research the economists for opinions on that.  But as long as the trend is growing, Erik Finman is making money.

bitcoins
facebook ad and teen

Peter Szabo was only 12 when he used a Google search to identify ways to make money on the internet.  He discovered making Facebook ads for affiliates could pay off – in pennies at first, but as volume rose these became dollars.  Since so few older people knew how to manage a Facebook ad budget, by age 18 he created an on-line agency focused on maximizing value (and return) for Facebook advertising.  You don’t have to be a Millennial to recognize the growth of new platforms and help people use them to make money.

3 – There has never been a better time to be a self-promoter

Today anyone can claim to be “great” at anything using the web.  There are so few genuine ways to measure quality and results when it comes to anything on the web that if you say it enough, and find enough testimonials, you can be very convincing.

Noah Miller started a sports web site at age 15 using a group of writers he amassed via Twitter connections.  Sports Crave had some success with USAToday and Google before Noah closed it at age 17.  Based on his claims of great success he’s now promoting his new creative agency, Colour Medium, which has nothing more than a flash page.  But the web allows Noah to position himself at the forefront of creative.

Benji Taylor at age 18 has opened a new on-line creative agency named Next Exit focused on art for the music industry.  By forging relationships with known young musicians he has positioned his agency at the top of the creative spectrum for his target customers.  Given how fast musicians come and go in the limelight, who knows how long his testimonials will stand up.  But as long as people know the name of those who know his name he is leveraging those associations to crown himself the king of that industry.

 

Eighteen year old Josh King Madrid, known as Jet, has built a business on seemingly nothing more than a lifestyle.  It is wholly unclear if Jet has ever actually created a profitable business selling anything physical or digital.  But what he has done is convince lots of Millenials that he knows the lifestyle they want to lead, and he can tell them how to lead it.  So now, largely without any clear source of how he obtained any knowledge about succeeding at business, he is proselytizing how young people can be independent, self-actualized and living the “Jet Set” lifestyle at his events.  Jet is one of the best descriptions of how self-promotion can succeed in today’s social-media world, leading people to believe they should listen to you primarily because of the image you portray.

Overall Lessons from these 10 under 20 entrepreneurs

There is precious little to support the grandiose success claims of most Millennial entrepreneurs.  They claim huge revenues and wealth, but in most cases it is impossible to prove their claims, and most support comes down to number of followers, or testimonials of some celebrity.  But, that does not mean we can’t learn from what they did to achieve their current fame:

  1. Use social media exhaustively.  Over-communicate.  Use Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. over and over and over to communicate your value and your message.  These platforms are dirt cheap, so hard work there can make up for few dollars.
  2. Take big risks, especially if you have little to lose.  Most folks are hamstrung by the commitments of family, mortgage, car payments, etc.  If you remove these bindings you can take big risks, like rolling over thousands of dollars worth of crypto-currency.  And if something fails, never call it a failure.  Just a learning experience you’ve moved beyond.
  3. Don’t try to improve something that already exists.  Do something new.  Develop a new app, a new drone, a site focused on selling collectible sneakers.  It is cheaper, and more likely to succeed, if you are an early entrant in something new and growing.
  4. Hype is good.  Pre-announce everything.  And announce that your next thing (whether a drone, a web site, an exchange site or something else) is going to be HUGE.  It will be the VERY BEST EVER.  Do not be deterred by feeling the need to prove any of your claims, just make big claims with tremendous bravado.
  5. Take credit for anything that goes right.  None of these people ever say they were lucky.  Whatever went right was always do to their inherent insight, skill or genius.
  6. Stay out of specifics.  Talk in platitudes.  Especially statements that appeal to other Millenials.
  • “Live your own life if you want to succeed.”
  • “Believe in yourself 1,000%.  That’s what truly matters.”
  • “Don’t trust employers or education. Trust only yourself.”
  • “Self-education is better than schools.  You can learn more on YouTube than any classroom. Teachers are nay-sayers.”
  • “Do what you are passionate about.”
  • “Millennials are special.  Millennials are smarter and better than older people.”
  1. Select good parents.  I was struck by the fact that almost all these young people had parents and/or grandparents that were physicians, PhDs, successful real estate developers, successful business people.   There is no doubt they benefited at their young age from families that had resources and skills that are not available to the vast majority of folks.

Is ongoing success pre-ordained?

I remember the student counsel President of my school, Mr. Popularity, who dropped out of college to open a string of pizza shops.  He received ample praise and publicity for his young entrepreneurial success.  But after a few setbacks the pizza shops failed, he took work as a salesman for a liquor distributor, became an alcoholic and lost his family.  I was glad he found success early, and saddened that he wasn’t the wunderkind many people foisted upon him.

Life is not a one round fight.  It will be interesting to see who among these, if any, go on to do great things in business, politics or another arena.  While they are full of chutzpah today, life has a way of throwing many derailing curves into everyone’s path.  But…

…that does not mean their early success can’t teach us some important lessons that can be applied, regardless of our age.

For Independence Day – Why The USA Could Lose World Dominance – Demographic Trends

For Independence Day – Why The USA Could Lose World Dominance – Demographic Trends

Tuesday American celebrates Independence Day, and the decision to break away as a colony from England.  Since then America has been on quite a growth journey, and today most Americans cannot imagine a world where the USA is not the dominant power.  They were born post World War II and simply believe that America was once the great world power, and always will be.  Like it is some God-given immutable right.

But it’s not.

most populous nations in 2050

Statista, UN Division

 

From the early 1800s well into the middle 1900s America had one of the fastest population growth rates in the world.  “Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is on the Statue of Liberty for no small reason – America accepted floods of immigrants from around the world as westward expansion and the industrial age created huge opportunity for everyone.  People flooded America, and many people had very large families.  Well into the 1900s it was not uncommon for people to have 6, 8 or 10 siblings.

  1. Boomers were raised being told “eat your dinner, there’s a starving child in India who would love to have that. India struggled to  build its own economy after Ghandi evicted the English. And in the 1950s and 1960s it was a remarkably poor country. But today, India is a thriving, growing advanced society. Yes, there are still many poor in India. But it is no longer a country to be pooh-poohed as an also ran. It has a flourishing economy, advanced home developed technology and a sophisticated military. Today about 15% of Indians are Muslim; so about 175M people. But the Muslim population is the fastest growing, and by 2050 there will be 310M Indian Muslims, or a population about 80% the size of the entire United States.
  2. American’s treat Africa as the home of former slaves. Far too many Americans simply ignore the continent and its issues of civil wars and genocide entirely – as if it is unimportant. However, by 2050 there will be more people in Nigeria than America. Today about half of Nigerians are Muslim.  By 2050 that will grow to 60%, or 245M, which will be almost 2/3 the entire U.S. population.  Additionally, Nigeria is an oil rich country that is a major player in energy markets.  And a strong trading partner with China.
  3.  Americans think of countries like Indonesia and Pakistan as small and remote.  But by 2050 these two countries will have 630M people, which will be 50% more than the USA.  And their populations are almost entirely Muslim.  Additionally, Indonesia is an oil rich country that is also a major player in energy markets.
  4. Americans’ ignorance of Africa will be forced to change, as other African countries continue to grow.  Areas Americans think of as barren, poverty-stricken wastelands in the Congo and Ethiopia will grow to over 300M people.  The famine and bloodshed from internal strife will expand, creating ongoing refugee problems and spreading of global diseases.
  5. While China’s population is shrinking, the country’s emergence from the draconian times of Chairman Mao and his infamous Gang of Four is long gone.  China is no longer a backwater country lacking infrastructure, technology or an advanced military.  China now has nuclear capability, and has an active space program.  The Chinese have demonstrated they can move resources very fast on everything from infrastructure projects to technology, and China is a very active investor in projects across Africa and Latin America.  As American policy has retrenched from these areas, the Chinese are actively stepping in with money, one-upping the USA in using capitalism to win hearts, minds and foreign policy partners.

When the boomers were born America was rich in natural resources, had a growing economy, and had avoided the devastation that was left behind in Japan, Europe parts of southeast Asia and north Africa.  India was an emerging country, finding its way after refuting colonialism.  And China was off the world stage due to the inwardly focused leadership.  So Americans  have lived a very long time thinking that the world will always be a Christian, capitalist, democratic place where the USA’s domination could not be challenged.

But many things have changed dramatically, and many more changes are coming soon enough.  In a few short years population growth will make America a relatively far smaller country.  And both technology skill development and understanding how to use capitalism have unleashed dramatic growth in what were formerly derisively referred to as “emerging” countries.  “Emerging” implying that America had nothing to concern itself as regards these countries.

Zulu were some of the most feared warriors in Africa.  But, they had a practice of being inwardly focused.  As they looked inward they did not fear external enemies, but only those who came into their inner circle.  Approaching their internal circle could invite attack, and demolition.  But, eventually the external enemies became too many, and too far reaching, and the inwardly focused Zulu were attacked on multiple fronts from a growing host of enemies.  The Zulu lost their domination as Africa’s military leaders.

Americans must address their inclination for inwardly focusing on “what’s good for America.” It is naively affixing self-blinders to think policy decisions can be made independently of the world community, and without harmful retribution.  There are a lot more “of them” than their are “of us.”  And the majority of “them” have nuclear weapons just as powerful as “ours.”  And “their” economies are just as strong as “ours.”  In many cases actually a lot stronger. These countries can stand on their own without U.S. support, and they can implement policies which can be very destructive to U.S. economic interests globally.  And they can form their own coalitions to avoid working with America.

As other countries grow, those that choose to ignore immigration and the global movement of people will be big losers.  Today Japan is struggling, losing economic power annually, because it refuses to endorse a robust immigration policy.  Unfortunately, the same thing cold happen to America as its population growth rate falls, and its economic growth falls with it.  Outlawing sanctuary cities that help immigrants merge into American society is a misbegotten policy based on false assumptions about America’s lack of need for immigrants to remain globally competitive.

If America chooses to start all-out trade wars to protect its economy, America could be isolated and likely lose more than it gains. Where once American resources and technology were essential, that is far less true today.  European countries have every bit the technology and investment skills of Americans, as do the Chinese and many other countries.  Just look at how many of your beloved products, such as mobile phones, computers, TVs, and game consoles, are not made in America at all.  There are ample trade opportunities between all countries to supply each other with goods and products, including commodities such as wheat, coal, oil, lumber and gold, that could bypass America entirely.

If America starts a shooting war it is far from clear that it will be as untouched as WWII.  And far from clear who will “win,” especially if nuclear war ensues.

And while it is tempting to think that God is on the side of Christians, ignoring the growth of Islam is as foolish as the Romans attempting to ignore the growth of Christianity.  Thinking that the growth of Islam is a “Middle Eastern problem” is a dramatic understatement of the situation.  Population growth rates of Muslims are far greater globally than other religions.  It is ridiculous to think that Islam will not be a major part of the world religious landscape.  Thinking that Islam is a problem is hyperbole.  Thinking America can isolate itself from Islam is simply an hallucination.

Demographic trends are powerful forecasters.  They are very easy to predict, and almost always correct.  And they foretell a lot about how we will live and work in the future.  The key to good policy making is understanding these trends and working to take advantage of them for growth.  Ignoring them is a perilous journey that always ends very badly.  Since many of the trends are obvious, isn’t it time to plan for them effectively?

The U.K. Brexit: Economic Destruction Vs. Creative Destruction

The U.K. Brexit: Economic Destruction Vs. Creative Destruction

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

I’m a believer in Disruptive Innovation. For almost 100 years economists have written about “Creative Destruction,” in which new technologies come along making old technologies — and the companies built on them — obsolete. In the last 20 years, largely thanks to the insights of faculty at the Harvard Business School, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in understanding how new companies use new technologies to disrupt markets and wipe out the profitability of companies that were once clearly successful. In a large way, we’ve come to accept that Disruptive Innovation is good, and the concomitant Creative Destruction of the old players leads to more rapid growth for the economy, increasing jobs and the wherewithal of everyone. Creative Destruction, in the pursuit of progress, is good because it helps economies to grow.

But, not really everyone benefits from Creative Destruction. The trickle down benefits to lots of people can be a long time coming. When market shifts happen, and people lose jobs to new competitors — domestic or offshore — they only know that their life, at least short term, is a lot worse. As they struggle to pay a mortgage, and find a new job, they often learn their skills are outdated. There are new jobs, but these folks are often not qualified. As they take lesser jobs, their incomes dwindle, and they may well lose their homes. And their healthcare.

Economists call this workplace transition “temporary economic dislocation.” Fancy term. They claim that eventually folks do enter the workplace who are properly trained, and those folks make more money than the workers associated with the previous, now inferior, technology. And, eventually, everyone finds new work – at something.

 That’s great for economists. But terrible for the folks who lost their jobs.  As someone once said “a recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job.”  And for a lot of people, the market shift from an industrial economy to an information economy has created severe economic depression in their lives.

A person learns to be a printer, or a printing plate maker, in the 1970s when they are 20-something.  Good job, makes a great wage. Secure work, since printing demand just keeps rising. But then along comes the internet with PDF and JPEG documents that people read on a screen, and folks simply quit needing, or wanting, printed documents. In 2016, now age 50-something, this printer or plate-maker no longer has a job. Demand is down, and its really easy to send the printing to some offshore market like Thailand, Brazil or India where printing is cheaper.

What’s he or she to do now? Go back to school you may say. But to learn how to do what? Say it’s online (or digital) document production. OK, but since everyone in the 20s has been practicing this for over a decade it takes years to actually be skilled enough to be competitive. And then, what’s the pay for a starting digital graphic artist? A lot less than what they made as a printer. And who’s going to hire the 58-62 year old digital graphic artist, when there are millions of well trained 20-somethings who seem to be quicker, and more attuned to what the publishers want (especially when the boss ordering the work is 35-42, and really uncomfortable giving orders and feedback to someone her parents’ age.) Oh, and when you look around there are millions of immigrants who are able to do the work, and willing to do it for a whole lot less than anyone native born to your country.

In England last week these disaffected people made it a point to show their country’s leadership that their livelihoods were being “creatively destroyed.” How were they to keep up their standard of living with the flood of immigrants? And with the wealth of the country constantly shifting from the middle class to the wealthy business leaders and bankers? And with work going offshore to less developed countries? While folks who have done well the last 25 years voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU (such as those who live in what’s called “The City”), those in the suburbs and outlying regions voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Sort of like their income gains, and jobs, left them.

A whole lot of anger. To paraphrase the famous line from the movie Network, they were mad as Hell and they weren’t going to take it any longer. Simply put, if they couldn’t participate in the wonderful economic growth of EU participation, they would take it away from those who did.  The point wasn’t whether or not the currency might fall 10% or more, or whether stocks on the UK exchange would be routed. After all, these folks largely don’t go to Europe or America, so they don’t care that much what the Euro or dollar costs. And they don’t own stocks, because they aren’t rich enough to do so, so what does it hurt them if equities fall? If this all puts a lot of pain on the wealthy – well just maybe that is what they really wanted.

America is seeing this as well. It’s called the Donald Trump for president campaign. While unemployment is a remarkably low 5%, there are a lot of folks who are working for less money, or simply out of work entirely, because they don’t know how to get a job. They may laugh at Robert De Niro as a retired businessman now working for free in The Intern. But they really don’t think it’s funny.  They can’t afford to work for free. They need more income to pay higher property taxes, sales taxes, health care and the costs of just about everything else. And mostly they know they are rapidly being priced out of their lifestyle, and their homes, and figuring they’ll be working well into their 70s just to keep from falling into poverty.

These people hate President Obama. They don’t care if the stock market has soared during his presidency – they don’t own stocks (and if they do in a 401K or similar program they don’t care because it does them no good today). They don’t care that he’s created more jobs than anyone since Reagan or Roosevelt, because they see their jobs gone, and they blame him if their recent college graduate doesn’t have a well-paying job. They don’t care if America is closing in on universal health care, because all they see is that health care is becoming ever more expensive – and often beyond their ability to pay. For them, their personal America is not as good as they expected it to be – and they are very, very angry.  And the President is a very identifiable symbol they can blame.

Creative Destruction, and disruptive innovations, are great for the winners. But they can be wildly painful to the losers. And when the disruptive innovations are as big, and frequent, as what’s happened the last 30 years – globalized economy, nationwide and international super banks, outsourcing, offshoring and the entirety of the Internet of Things – it has left a lot of people really concerned about their future. As they see the top 1% live opulent lifestyles, they struggle to keep a 12 year old car running and pay the higher license plate fees. They really don’t care if the economy is growing, or the dollar is strong, or if unemployment is at near-record lows. They feel they are on the losing end of the stick. For them, well, America really isn’t all that great anymore.

So, hungry for revenge, they are happy to kill the goose for dinner that laid the golden eggs. They will take what they can, right now, and they don’t care if the costs are astronomical. They will let tomorrow sort out itself, in a bit of hyper-ignorance to evaluate the likely outcome of their own actions.

Despite their hard times, does this not sound at the least petty, and short-sighted? Doesn’t it seem rather selfish to damn everyone just because your situation isn’t so good? Is it really in the interest of your fellow man to create bad outcomes just because you’ve not done well?

Like The Best Tech Companies, Publicis Launches A Great Strategic Pivot

Like The Best Tech Companies, Publicis Launches A Great Strategic Pivot

People like to discuss “strategic pivots” in tech companies.  The term refers to changing a company’s strategy dramatically in reaction to market shifts. Like when Apple pivoted in 2000 from being the Mac company to its focus on mobile, which lead to the iPod, iPhone, and other mobile products.  But everyone needs to know how to pivot, and some of the most important pivots haven’t even been in tech.

Take for example Netflix.  Netflix won the war in video distribution, annihilating Blockbuster.  But then, when it seemed Netflix owned video distribution, CEO Reed Hastings pivoted from distribution to streaming.  He cut investment in distribution assets, and raised prices.  Then he spent the money learning how to become a tech company that could lead the world in streaming services.  It was a big bet that cannibalized the old business in order to position Netflix for future success.

Analysts hated the idea, and the stock price sank.  But CEO Hastings was proven right.  By investing heavily in the next wave of technology and market growth Netflix soared toward far greater success than had it kept spending money in lower cost distribution of cassettes and DVDs.

(From L to R) Philippe Dauman, US actress and singer Selena Gomez, MTV President Stephen Friedman and US director Jon Chu attend a Viacom seminar during the 59th International Festival of Creativity – Cannes Lions 2012, on June 21, 2012 in Cannes, southeastern France. The Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, running from June 17 to 23, is a world’s meeting place for professionals in the communications industry.  (VALERY HACHE/AFP/GettyImages)

This week Arthur Sadoun, the CEO of the world’s third largest advertising agency (Publicis) announced he was betting on a strategic pivot.  And most in the industry questioned if he made a good decision.

Simply put, CEO Sadoun announced at the largest ad agency awards conference, the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, that Publicis would no longer participate in Cannes.  Nor would it participate in several other conferences including the very large South by Southwest (SXSW) and Consumer Electronics Show (CES.)  Instead, he would save those costs to invest in AR (artificial or augmented reality.)

In an industry long dominated by highly creative people who love mixing with other agency folks and clients, this was an enormous shock.  These conferences were where award winners marketed their creative capability, showing off how much they were admired by peers.  And they wined and dined clients seeking to build on awards to gain new business.  No one would expect any major agency to drop out, and most especially not an agency as large as Publicis.

In changing markets strategic pivots make sense.

And strategically this pivot makes a lot of sense.  The ad industry was once dominated by ads placed in newspaper, magazines and on TV.  But today print journalism is almost dead.  The demand for print ads is a fraction of 20 years ago.  And TV is no longer as prevalent as before.  Today, people spend more time looking at their smartphone than they do their TV.  The days of thinking high creativity would lead to high sales are in the past.  Fewer and fewer big advertisers care about who wins awards, and fewer are going to these conferences to decide who they would like to hire.

Today advertising is going “programmatic.”  Increasingly ads are placed by computers, on web and mobile sites.  Advertising is about finding the right eyeballs, at the right time, next to the right content in order to find a buyer.  Advertisers no longer spend money lavishly on mass media hoping for good results.  Instead ads are targeted, measured for response and evaluated for ROI based on media, location, user and a raft of other metrics.

And the industry has changed.  There still is an advertising agency business.  But it is under attack from tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snap that promote to advertisers their ability to target the right clients for high returns on money spent.  The content is important, but today almost everyone in the industry will tell you success depends on your budget and how you spend it, not the creative.  And that is a lot more about understanding how we’re all interconnected, knowing how to measure device usage, profiling user behavior and programming the computers to put those ads in the right place, at the right time.

To pivot you must stop doing the old to start doing the new

Publicis has something like $10B in revenue.  Thus, dropping $20M on filing award applications at events like Cannes, and sending a contingent of employees to receive awards, meet people and have fun doesn’t sound like a lot.  But multiple that across the year and the total amount could well come to $100M-$200M.  That’s still only 2% of revenues – at most.  It would seem like not that much money given what has been a core part of historical marketing.

But, if Publicis is to compete in the future with the tech leaders, and emerging digital-oriented agencies, it has to develop technology that will make it a leader.  Publicis can’t invent money out of thin air, so it has to stop doing something to create the funds for investing in what’s coming next.  And stopping investing in something as “old school” as Cannes actually sounds really smart.  As boomer ad execs retire the newer generation is not going to conventions to find agencies, they are looking under the hood at the technology engines these companies provide.

In new strategic areas a little money can go a long way

And while $100M to $200M may not sound like a lot, it is enough money to make a difference in creating a tech team that can work on future-oriented technology like AI.  If spent wisely, that could truly move the needle.  If Publicis could demonstrate an ability to use proprietary AI technology to better place ads and manage the budget for higher returns it can survive, and perhaps thrive, in a digitally dominated ad industry future.  At the very least it can find its place next to Facebook and Google.

WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic should take serious notice.  Will they succeed in 2025 if they keep marketing the way they did in 1985?  Will this spending grow revenues if customers really don’t care about creative awards?  Will they remain relevant if  they lack their own technology to develop ads, campaigns and demonstrate positive rates of return on ad dollars spent?

CEO Sadoun’s approach to make the announcement without a lot of preliminary employee discussion shocked a lot of folks.  And it shocked the festival owners who now have to wonder what the future of their business will be.  But strategic pivots are shocking.  They demonstrate a dramatic shift in how resources are deployed to position a company for the future, rather than simply trying to defend and extend the past.

It’s a lot smarter to try what you don’t know than hope everything will stay the same.

Will this work?  There is no way to know if the Publicis leadership team can maneuver through the technology maze toward something great.  But, at least they are trying.  And that alone gives them a lot better shot at longevity than if they simply decided to do in 2018 what  they have always done.  Is your company ready to reassess its preparation for the future and address your strategy like you’re a tech company?  Are you spending money on market shifts, or simply doing the same thing you’ve always done?

The 9 Reasons Why Amazon Buying Whole Foods Is A Good Idea

The 9 Reasons Why Amazon Buying Whole Foods Is A Good Idea

Whole Food flagship store in Austin, Texas.

Amazon announced it was paying $13.7B to buy Whole Foods.  While not without risks, there are a lot of reasons this is a great idea:

1 – It makes Amazon a national grocery competitor overnight

Building any retail chain takes a long time.  Due to the intensity of competition, and low margins, building a grocery chain takes even longer.  Amazon would have spent decades trying to create its own chain.  Now it won’t lose all that time, and it won’t give competitors more time to figure out their strategies.

2- Now Amazon can get the necessary “deal dollars” to compete in groceries

Few people realize that no grocer makes money selling groceries. Revenues do not cover the costs of inventory, buildings and labor. On its own, selling groceries loses money.  Grocers survive on manufacturer “deal dollars.”

Companies like P&G, Nabisco, etc. pay grocers slotting fees to obtain shelf space, they pay premiums for eye level shelves and end caps, they pay new product fees to have grocers stock new items, they pay inventory fees to have grocers keep inventory on shelf and in back, they pay advertising fees to have signs in the stores and products in circulars, and they pay volume rebates for meeting, and exceeding, volume goals.  It is these manufacturer “deal dollars” that cover the losses on the store operations and create a profit for investors.

One reason Whole Foods prices are so high is they stock less of the mass market goods and thus receive fewer deal dollars.  Now Amazon can use Whole Foods to increase its volume in all products and dramatically increase its deal dollar inflow.  Something that Amazon sorely missed as a “delivery only” grocer.

3 – Amazon obtains a grocery distribution system

Grocery distribution is unique.  For decades grocers have worked with manufacturers, cooperatives, growers and other suppliers to create the shortest, most efficient distribution of food with the lowest inventory. In many instances replenishment quantities are shipped based on manufacturer access to real grocer sales data. Amazon is the best at what it does, but to compete in groceries it needed a grocery distribution system – and with Whole Foods it obtains one at scale without having to create it.

Additionally Amazon will obtain the corporate infrastructure of a grocer, without having to build one on its own.  All those buyers, merchandisers, real estate professionals, local ad buyers, etc. are there and ready to execute – something building would be very hard to do.

4 – Amazon obtains great locations

Whole Foods has 460 stores, and almost all are in great locations. Whole Foods focused on upscale, growing and often urban or suburban locations – all great for Amazon to grow its distribution footprint.  And hard sites to find.

These can be used to sell other products, such as other grocery items, or some selection of Amazon products if that makes sense.  Or these can be used to augment Amazon’s distribution system for local delivery – or as neighborhood drop-off locations for people who don’t want at-home delivery to pick up Amazon-purchased products. Or they can be sold/leased at very attractive prices.

5 – Amazon can change the Whole Foods brand in important, positive ways

“Whole Paycheck” has long been the knock on Whole Foods.  As mentioned before, the lack of mass market items meant their products lacked deal dollars and thus had to be priced higher. And their stores are large, and not the best use of space. The result has been a lot of trouble keeping customers, and one of the lowest sales per square foot in the grocery industry.

Amazon can easily use its low-price position to alter the Whole Foods brand concept to include things like Pepsi, Coke, Bounty, Gain – a slew of branded consumer goods previously eschewed by Whole Foods.  Adding these products could make the stores more useful to more customers, and greatly lower the average cost of a cart full of goods.  On its own, this brand transition has been impossible for Whole Foods.  As part of Amazon remaking the brand will be vastly easier.

6 – Amazon can personalize grocery shopping like it did general merchandise

If you shopped Amazon you know they really figure out your needs, and help you find what you want.  Amazon keeps track of your searches and purchases, and makes recommendations that often help the shopping experience and delight us as customers.

But today all that information on grocery shopping is un-mined.  Despite using a loyalty card, traditional grocers (and WalMart) have been unable to actually mine that information for better marketing. Now Whole Foods will be able to use Amazon’s incredible technology skills, including big data mining and artificial (or augmented) intelligence to actually help us make the grocery shopping experience better – less time intensive, and most likely less costly while still allowing us to fill our carts with what we need and what makes us happy.

7 – The deal is cheap

$13.7B is only 65% of the cash Amazon had on hand end of last quarter.  And Amazon has only $7.7B in long-term debt.  With a $460B market cap Amazon could easily take on more debt without adding significant financial risk.

But even more important, Amazon has the amazingly cheap currency that is Amazon stock.  Even at the offering price, Whole Foods trades at 34x earnings.  Amazon trades at 185x earnings.  Thus by swapping Amazon shares for Whole Foods shares Amazon lowers the price 80%!  Amazon isn’t spending real dollars, it is using its stock – which is an incredibly valuable move for its shareholders.

8 – This is a serious attack on WalMart

For the last several years WalMart’s general merchandise sales have been declining due to the Amazon Effect and growing on-line competitor sales.  For the last 3 years overall revenues have not grown at all.  To maintain revenue Walmart has shifted increasingly to groceries – which account for well over half of all WalMart revenues. By purchasing Whole Foods, Amazon takes direct aim at the only part of WalMart’s “core” business that it has not attacked.

Walmart’s net profit before taxes is ~4%. If Amazon can use Whole Foods to combine stores and on-line sales to take just 3% of WalMart’s grocery business away it could remove from Walmart ($485B revenues * 60% grocery * 3% market share loss) a net revenue decline of ~$9B.  Given that the cost of grocery goods sold is about 50% – that would mean a net loss in contribution of $4.5B – which would cut almost 25% out of Amazon’s $20B pre-tax income.  Raise the share taken to 5% and Amazon could cut WalMart’s pre-tax income by $7.25B, or ~35%.

The negative impact of declining store sales on the fixed costs of WalMart is atrocious. Even small revenue drops mean cutting staff, cutting inventory, cutting store size and eventually closing stores.  Look at how fast Sears and Kmart fell apart when sales started declining.  Like dominoes falling, declining sales sets off a series of bad events that dooms almost all retailers – as the quickened pace of retail bankruptcy filings has proven.

9 – This could be a huge win for Amazon shareholders

The above analysis, taking 3-5% out of Walmart’s grocery sales, say over 3 years, would be a huge gain attributed to the creation of a new Whole Foods combined with Amazon’s e-commerce.  Growing grocery revenues by $9-$14B would mean practically a doubling of Whole Foods.  Which sounds enormous – and most likely impossible for Whole Foods to do on its own, even if it did launch some kind of e-commerce initiative.

But this is not so unlikely given Amazon’s track record.  Amazon has been growing at over 25%/year, adding between $20-$25B of new revenues annually. In 3 years between 2013 and 2016 Amazon doubled its revenues.  So it is not that unlikely to expect Amazon puts forward an extremely ambitious push to turn around Whole Foods, increase store sales and use the combined entities to grow delivery sales of groceries and other general merchandise.

Is there risk in this acquisition?  Of course.  Combining any two companies is fraught with peril – combining IT systems, distribution systems, customer systems and cultures leaves enormous opportunities for missteps and disaster.  But the upsides are enormous.  Overall, this is a bet Amazon investors should be glad leadership is making – and it is a great benefit for Whole Foods investors.

As Immelt Leaves GE, Investors And Employees Have Little To Cheer

As Immelt Leaves GE, Investors And Employees Have Little To Cheer

GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt walks off stage after being interviewed during the Washington Ideas Forum at the Harmon Center for the Arts September 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. A proud Republican, Immelt said it would hurt the United States and cripple President Barack Obama — and the next president of the U.S. — not to agree to trade deals like theTrans Pacific Partnership (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Readers of this column know I’m not a fan of General Electric’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt.  In May, 2012 I listed CEO Immelt as the 4th worst CEO of a large publicly traded American company.  Unfortunately, his continued tenure since then did nothing to help make GE a stronger, or more valuable company.  GE’s lead director says this is the culmination of a transition plan first developed in 2011.  One can only wonder why it took the board so incredibly long to replace the feckless CEO, and why they allowed GE’s leadership to continue destroying shareholder value.

The longer back you look, the worse Immelt’s performance appears.

Few company analysts can say they’ve followed a company for 3 years. Fewer yet can say 5 years.  Nearly none can say a decade.  Yet, CEO Immelt was in his job for 16 years – much longer than almost all business analysts or writers have followed GE.  Therefore, their lack of long-term memory often leaves them unable to give a proper overview of the company’s fortunes under the long-lived CEO.

I have followed GE closely for almost 35 years.  Ever since I graduated from HBS class of 1982 along with Mr. Immelt. Several fellow alumni worked at GE, and a large number of my BCG (Boston Consulting Group) colleagues joined GE in senior positions during the mid-1980s as GE grew exponentially. I have followed several of these alumni as the years passed allowing me to take the “long view” on GE’s performance, during Welch’s leadership and more recently since Mr. Immelt took the top job.

I was very pleased to include a positive case study of GE’s business practices in my book “Create Marketplace Distruption – How to Stay Ahead of the Competition” (Financial Times Press, 2007.)  CEO Welch used a number of internal processes to help GE leaders identify disruptive opportunities to change industries – whether markets where GE already competed or new markets.  He relentlessly encouraged entering new businesses where GE could bring something new to the game, and he put GE’s money to good use growing revenues, and market cap, enormously.  No other CEO in American history made as much value for shareholders as Jack Welch.  His leadership pushed GE to the top position in most industries, and his relentless focus on growth helped even rank-and-file employees build million dollar IRAs to go with well funded pension and retiree benefit plans.

GE’s performance could not have changed more dramatically than it has under Mr. Immelt. But there are now a number of apologists who would say GE’s smaller size, and lower valuation, are due to market conditions which were out of Mr. Immelt’s control.  They contend CEO Immelt was a good steward of the company during difficult market conditions, and the results of his tenure – notably lower revenues, lower valuation, fewer markets, fewer employees and lower community involvement – are not his fault.  They argue he did a good job, all things considered.

Balderdash. Immelt was a terrible CEO

There is an overall reluctance to say bad things about any huge American icon, and its CEO. After all, columnists and analysts who are non-congratulatory don’t usually get called by the company to be consultants, or advisors.  Or to be on the board.  And publishers of columnists who say negative things about big companies and their execs risk having ad dollars moved to more favorable journals, and often unfriendly relationships with their ad departments and agencies.  So it is far easier, and more acceptable, to sugar coat bad strategy, bad leadership and bad results.

But we should move beyond that bias. Mr. Immelt was the CEO of the ONLY company on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) to have been on that list since it was created.  He inherited the most successful company at creating shareholder value during the 1980s and 1990s.  He surely should be held to the highest of comparative bars.

Those who say CEO Immelt was “set up to fail” are somehow making the case that Immelt would have been more successful if he had inherited a company with a bad brand image, weak history, and inadequate performance.  They are rewriting history to say Jack Welch was not a good CEO, and his outsized gains destined GE to do poorly under his successor.  That simply defies the facts – and logic.

Looking at the last 16 years of “difficult times,” when GE has struggled under Immelt’s leadership, one should ask “why did so many other companies do so well?”  After all, the DJIA has more than doubled.  The S&P 500 has almost doubled.  The Russell 2000 has almost tripled. Overall, far more companies have gone up in value than down.  Why were Immelt’s circumstances so difficult that all of those CEOs did so much better?  They dealt with the same financial meltdown, same Great Recession, same increase in regulations, same federal reserve, same government administration – yet they were able to adapt their companies, grow and increase value.

Yes, GE was huge in financial services when Immelt took the reigns, and financial services saw a major crash. But look at the performance of JPMorganChase under CEO Jamie Dimon (also a classmate of Mr. Immelt.)  JPM is stronger today than ever, growing and gaining market share and increasing its value to shareholders.  Prior to the crash, in spring 2007, GE was trading at $41/share, and now it is $29 – a decline of ~30%. Back then JPM was trading at $53, and now it is $93 – a gain of ~75%.  There obviously was a strategy to adapt to market conditions and do well.  Just not at GE.

Immelt reacted to market events, poorly, rather than having a prepared, proactive strategy

Let’s not rewrite history.  Prior to the banking crash CEO Immelt was more than happy for GE to be in the “easy money” world of finance.  Welch had created GE Capital, and Immelt had furthered its growth when lending was easy and profitable.  And he supported the enormous growth in GE’s real estate division.  When this industry faced the crash, GE faced a near-bankruptcy not because of Welch, but because of Immelt’s leadership during the over 6 years he had been CEO.  If there were risks in the system CEO Immelt had ample time to re-arrange the portfolio, reduce lending, offload financial assets and reduce exposure to real estate and mortgages.  But Immelt did not do those things.  He did not prepare for a reversal in the markets, and he did not prepare the balance sheet for a significant change of events.  It was his leadership that left GE exposed.

As GE shares fell to $7  Immelt made a famous deal with Berkshire Hathaway’s CEO Warren Buffet to increase GE’s capital base in order to stave off demise. And this deal saved GE.  But this was an extremely sweet deal for Buffett, giving Berkshire very good interest (10%) on the preferred shares and warrants allowing Buffett to buy future shares of GE at a fixed price.  Berkshire made a profit, over and above the interest, of $260M on the deal, and overall at least $1.2B.  By being prepared Buffett saved GE and made a lot of money. GE’s investors paid the price for a CEO that was unprepared.

But the changes brought about by the crash, and Dodd-Frank, were more than CEO Immelt could manage.  Thus GE exited the business selling many assets at fire sale prices.  This “turn tale and run” strategy was sold to the public as a way for GE to “focus” on its “core manufacturing business.”  Rather, it was a failure of leadership to understand how to manage this business to future success in changed markets.  Where Welch’s GE had grasped for disruption as opportunity, Immelt’s GE gasped at disruption and fled, destroying billions in GE value.

Immelt could not grow GE’s businesses, so he divested GE of many.

GE was to be the “industrial internet giant.”  GE was to be a leader in the internet-of-things (IoT) where sensors, the cloud and remote devices created greater productivity.  And, to be sure, companies like Apple,  Google and Samsung have made huge gains in this market.  Even small companies, like Nest, were able to jump on this technology shift with new products for the residential market.  But name one market where GE is the dominant IoT player.  During 16 years the internet and remote services markets have exploded, yet GE is not the market leader.  Rather it is barely recognized.

Rather than growing GE with disruptive innovations and visionary products in emerging technology markets, Immelt’s GE was primarily shrinking via divestitures. In dismantling GE Capital he eliminated the lending and real estate operations.  After decades as a leader in appliances, that division was sold. Welch built the extremely successful entertainment division around NBC/Universal, which Immelt sold.

The water business that was to be a world leader under Immelt’s vision, likewise sold – and largely to make sure GE could close the deal on selling its oil & gas unit.  Even the famed electrical distribution business, going back to the start of GE, is now close to being sold.

And what happened to all this money?  Well, about $50B went into share buybacks – which ostensibly would help shareholders.  Only it didn’t, because GE is still worth less than when buybacks started. So the money just disappeared.  At least Immelt could have paid it to shareholders as a dividend – but then that would not have boosted his bonuses.

GE’s website says Mr. Immelt wanted to create a “simpler, more valuable industrial company.”  Mr. Immelt is definitely leaving behind a simpler, much smaller and weaker company.  The brand is gone from consumer products, and severely tarnished in commercial products.  GE lacks a great product pipeline, and even a strong development pipeline due to the rampant divestitures.  When Mr. Flannery takes over as CEO he will not inherit a powerhouse company.  He will inherit a company that is shrinking and rudderless, and disconnected from most growth markets with almost no product, technology or brand advantages.  And he will report to the Chairman that created this mess, Mr. Immelt.

The most likely outcome is that Mr. Peltz and his firm, Trian Partners, will buy more GE shares and seek directorships on the board.  Then, in a move not unlike the deaths of DuPont and Dow, there will be a massive cost cutting effort to bring expenses in-line with the shrunken GE business.  R&D will be discontinued, as will product development.  Support groups will be shredded.  Customer service will be downsized.  Then the remaining pieces will be sold off to buyers, or taken public, leaving GE a dismantled piece of history.

While that may work for the capital markets, and some short-term investors will share in the higher valuation, what about the people?  People who dedicated their careers to GE, and are pensioners or current employees?  What about cities and counties where GE has been a major employer, and civic contributor?  What about customers that bought GE industrial products, only to see those products dropped due to low profitability, or little growth opportunity?  What about suppliers that invested in developing new technologies or products for GE to take to market?  What will happen to the people who once relied on GE as America’s largest diversified industrial company?

These people all have an ax to grind with the very wealthy, and now departing, CEO Immelt.  He inherited what may well have been the most successful company on earth.  He leaves behind a far weaker company that may not survive.

Why the ‘Amazon Effect’ Is So Huge In The USA, And Not In Other Countries

Why the ‘Amazon Effect’ Is So Huge In The USA, And Not In Other Countries

Originally posted: May 31, 2017

On the day after Memorial Day Amazon stock hit $1,000/share — a new record high. Amazon is up about 40% the last year. It’s market capitalization doubles Wal-mart. And the vast majority of investment analysts expect Amazon to rise further.

The Amazon logo is displayed at the Nasdaq MarketSite, in New York’s Times Square, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Online retail giant Amazon.com traded above $1,000 a share for the first time. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Amazon competes in dozens of international markets, as do many on-line retailers, yet the ‘Amazon Effect’ is far greater in the USA than anywhere else. And there’s a good reason — America is vastly over-served when it comes to traditional retail.

Retail space of various countries adjusted for population

Chart courtesy of Felix Richter, Statista.com https://www.statista.com/chart/9454/retail-space-per-1000-people/

Retail space of various countries adjusted for population

America is enormously over-built with retail space

Looking at square feet of retail space per 1,000 people, this infographic shows that, adjusted for population size, the USA has 8x the retail of Spain, 9x the retail of Italy, 11x the retail of Germany, 22x the retail of Mexico, 51x the retail of China and 400x the retail of India! Overall, this is remarkable. I’ve been to all of these countries, and in none did I feel that I was unable to buy things I needed. Clearly, the USA has had such a robust retail sector that it has dramatically over-expanded – with individual stores, suburban strip malls, elaborate horizontal malls, vertical urban malls and multi-floor urban retail complexes far outpacing the needs of American shoppers.

All these stores created a very competitive retail environment. This competition, and the lack of any sort of national value added tax (VAT,) kept prices for most things in America among the lowest in the world. Simultaneously according to the Department of Labor, Retail is the third largest employer in America. Couple that with the enormous wholesale distribution networks of warehouses and truck fleets — and selling things becomes the country’s largest employer — even bigger than the sum total of all federal, state and local government employees .

Additionally, retail has produced the largest local taxes of any industry, combining local sales taxes with property taxes, which has funded schools and public works projects for decades. And this retail space has helped drive demand for all kinds of support services from utilities to maintenance.

U.S. retail consumers are tremendously over-served, and the market is set to collapse

But now retail is wildly overbuilt. Organic demand for all retail grows about equal to population growth, so about 3%/year.  But retail real estate grew far faster since World War II as developers kept building more malls, and large retailers like Sears, KMart, Walmart, Target, Lowe’s and Home Depot built more stores. Now demand for products through traditional retail is declining. People are simply ordering on-line.

Net/net, America’s consumers are now over-served by retailers. There is too much space, and inventory. And now that store-to-home distribution has faded as a problem, with multiple carriers offering overnight service, people are increasingly happy to avoid stores altogether, greatly exacerbating the overcapacity problem. Thus, the ‘Amazon Effect’ has emerged, where stores are closing at a rapid rate and many retailers are failing altogether leaving vast amounts of empty retail space.

Foreign markets are under-served, and benefit from Amazon’s entry

Contrarily, in other countries consumers were to some extent under-served. They actually dealt with local stock-outs on desirable items. And frequently lived in a world with a lot less product choice. And, generally, international consumers expected to travel farther to shop at the few larger stores, malls and urban shopping centers with greater selections.

In those countries local economies became far less dependent on retail real estate for jobs — and for taxes. Most have little or no property taxes as deployed in the USA. Additionally, rather than adding a local sales tax to the price of goods, most countries use some sort of national VAT to collect the tax during distribution. When Amazon starts distributing in these markets it is seen as a good thing! Consumers have more choice, less hassle and often better service. Also, Amazon collects the VAT so no taxes are lost.

Contrarily, American communities could never stop adding retail space. Whenever Walmart or Best Buy wanted a new store, no community leaders turned down the potential local economic gains. But it led to too much space being built for a healthy sector, and certainly far too much given the market shift to on-line retail. Now retail is a classic over-served market, sort of like the need for stagecoaches and livery barns after the railroads were built.

Expect 50-67% of retail space to go vacant within a decade

How much retail space could go vacant in the USA?  Just invert the multiples from above. For the USA to have the same retail space as Spain implies an 87.5% reduction, Italy -89%, Germany -91%, Mexico -95.5%. Thus it is not hard to imagine a full 50-67% of America’s retail space to be empty in just 5 or 10 years. Americans would still have 2-3 times the retail space of other developed markets.

There is no doubt Amazon is a good employer, and on-line sales growth will employ hundreds of thousands at Amazon, and millions across the marketplace. Further, most of those jobs will pay a lot better than traditional retail jobs. But there is no sugar-coating the huge impact the ‘Amazon Effect’ will have on local economies and jobs. America is vastly overbuilt and over-supplied by retailers. There will be a huge shake-out, with dozens of retail failures. And there will be enormous amounts of vacant property sitting around, looking for some kind of alternative use. And local communities will find it difficult to meet constituent needs as sales tax and property tax receipts fall dramatically.

As I wrote in my column on February 28, this is going to be an enormous shift. Far bigger than the offshoring of manufacturing. The ‘Amazon Effect’ is automating retailing in ways never imagined by those who built all that retail space. As people keep buying on-line there will be a collapse of retail space pricing, and a collapse of industry participants.  Industry players always greatly under-estimate these shifts, so they aren’t projecting retail armaggedon. But in short order the need for retail will be like the need for dedicated, raised-floor computer centers to house mainframes, and later network hubs. It’s just going to go away.

Are The Cloud And IoT Making PCs, Laptops And Tablets Irrelevant?

Are The Cloud And IoT Making PCs, Laptops And Tablets Irrelevant?

Last week Microsoft announced its new Surface Pro 5 tablet would be available June 15.  Did you miss it?  Do you care?

Do you remember when it was a big deal that a major tech company released a new, or upgraded, device?  Does it seem like increasingly nobody cares?

Non-phone device sales are declining, while smartphone sales accelerate

This chart compares IDC sales data, and forecasts, with adjustments to the forecast made by the author. The adjustments offer a fix to IDC’s historical underestimates of PC and tablet sales declines, while simultaneously underestimating sales growth in smartphones.

Since 2010 people are buying fewer desktops and laptops.  And after tablet sales ramped up through 2013, tablet purchases have declined precipitously as well. Meanwhile, since 2014 sales of smartphones have doubled, or more, sales of all non-phone devices. And it’s also pretty clear that these trends show no signs of changing.

Why such a stark market shift? After all desktop and laptop sales grew consistently for some 3 decades. Why are they in such decline? And why did  the tablet market make such a rapid up, then down movement? It seems pretty clear that people have determined they no longer need large internal hard drives to work locally, nor big keyboards and big screens of non-phone devices. Instead, they can do so much with a phone that this device is becoming the only one they need.

Today a new desktop starts at $350-$400. Laptops start as low as $180, and pretty powerful ones can be had for $500-$700. Tablets also start at about$180, and the newest Microsoft Surface 5 costs $800. Smartphones too start at about $150, and top of the line are $600-$800. So the purchase decision today is not based on price. All devices are more-or-less affordable, and with a range of capabilities that makes price not the determining factor.

Smartphones let most people do most of what they need to do

Every month the Internet-of-Things (IoT) is putting more data in the cloud. And developers are figuring out how to access that data from a smartphone. And smartphone apps are making it increasingly easy to find data, and interact with it, without doing a lot of typing. And without doing a lot of local processing like was commonplace on PCs. Instead, people access the data – whether it is financial information, customer sales and order data, inventory, delivery schedules, plant performance, equipment performance, maintenance specs, throughput, other operating data, web-based news, weather, etc. — via their phone. And they are able to analyze the data with apps they either buy, or that their companies have built or purchased, that don’t rely on an office suite.

Additionally, people are eschewing the old forms of connecting — like email, which benefits from a keyboard — for a combination of texting and social media sites. Why type a lot of words when a picture and a couple of emojis can do the trick?

And nobody listens to CD-based, or watches DVD-based, entertainment any longer. They either stream it live from an app like Pandora, Spotify, StreamUp, Ustream, GoGo or Facebook Live, or they download it from the cloud onto their phone.

To obtain additional insight into just how prevalent this shift to smartphones has become look beyond the USA. According to IDC there are about 1.8 billion smartphone users globally.  China has nearly 600M users, and India has over 300 million users — so they account for at least half the market today. And those markets are growing by far the fastest, increasing purchases every quarter in the range of 15-25% more than previous years.

Chinese manufacturers are rapidly catching up to Apple and Samsung – there will be losers

Clayton Christensen often discusses how technology developers “overshoot” user needs. Early market leaders keep developing enhancements long after their products do all people want, producing upgrades that offer little user benefit.  And that has happened with PCs and most tablets. They simply do more than people need today, due to the capabilities of the cloud, IoT and apps. Thus, in markets like China and India we see the rapid uptake of smartphones, while demand for PCs, laptops and tablets languish. People just don’t need those capabilities when the smartphone does what they want — and provides greater levels of portability and 24x7 access, which are benefits greatly treasured.

And that is why companies like Microsoft, Dell and HP really have to worry. Their “core” products such as Windows, Office, PCs, laptops and tablets are getting smaller. And these companies are barely marginal competitors in the high growth sales of smartphones and apps. As the market shifts, where will their revenues originate? Cloud services, versus Amazon AWS?  Game consoles?

Even Apple and Samsung have reasons to worry. In China Apple has 8.4% market share, while Samsung has 6%. But the Chinese suppliers Oppo, Vivo, Huawei and Xiaomi have 58.4%. And as 2016 ended Chinese manufacturers, including Lenovo, OnePlus and Gionee, were grabbing over 50% of the Indian market, while Samsung has about 20% and Apple is yet to participate. How long will Apple and Samsung dominate the global market as these Chinese manufacturers grow, and increase product development?

When looking at trends it’s easy to lose track of the forest while focusing on individual trees. Don’t become mired in the differences, and specs, comparing laptops, hybrids, tablets and smartphones. Recognize the big shift is away from all devices other than smartphones, which are constantly increasing their capabilities as cloud services and IoT grows. So buy what suits your, and your company’s, needs — without “overbuying” because capabilities just keep improving. And keep your eyes on new, emerging competitors because they have Apple and Samsung in their sites.