The Three Steps GE Should Take Now – And The Lessons For Your Business

The Three Steps GE Should Take Now – And The Lessons For Your Business

Monitor displays General Electric Co. (GE) at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) October, 2017. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

For years I have been negative on GE’s leadership.  CEO Immelt led the dismantling of the once-great GE, making it a smaller company and one worth quite a bit less.  The process has been devastating to many employees who lost their jobs, pensioners who have seen their benefits shrivel, communities with GE facilities that have suffered from investment atrophy, suppliers that have been squeezed out or displaced and investors that have seen the value of GE shares plummet.

But now there is a new CEO, a new leadership team and even some new faces on the Board of Directors.  Some readers have informed me that it is easier to attack a weak leader than recommend a solution, and they have inquired as to what I think GE should do now.  I do not see the GE situation as hopeless.  The company still has an enormous revenue base, and vast assets it can use to fund a directional shift.  And that’s what GE must do – make a serious shift in how it allocates resources.

Step 1 – Apply the First Rule of Holes

The first rule of holes is “when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”  (Will Rogers, 1911) This seems simple.  But far too many companies have their resourcing process on auto-pilot.  Businesses that have not been growing, and often are not producing good returns on investment, continue to receive funding.  Possibly because they are a legacy business that nobody wants to stop.  Or possibly because leadership remains ever hopeful that tomorrow will somehow look like yesterday and the next round of money, or hiring, will change things to the way they were.

In fact, these businesses are in a hole, and spending more on them is continuing to dig.  The investment hole just keeps getting bigger.  The smart thing to do is just stop.  Quit adding resources to a business that’s not adding value to the market capitalization.  Just stop investing.

Will rogers, american humorist

When Steve Jobs took over Apple he discontinued several Macintosh models, and cut funding for Macintosh development.  The Mac was not going to save Apple’s declining fortunes.  Apple needed new products for new markets, and the only way to make that happen was to stop putting so much money into the Mac business.

When streaming emerged CEO Reed Hastings of Netflix quit spending money on the traditional DVD/Video distribution business even though Netflix dominated it.  He even raised the price.   Only by stopping investments in traditional distribution could he turn the company toward streaming.

Step 2 – Identify the Trend that will Guide Your Strategy

All growth strategies build on trends.  After receiving funding from Microsoft to avoid bankruptcy in 2000, Apple spent a year deciding its future lied in building on the trend to mobile.  Once the trend was identified, all product development, and new product introductions, were targeted at being a leader in the mobile trend.

When the internet emerged GE CEO Jack Welch required all business units to create “DestroyYourBusiness.com” teams.  This forced every business to look at the impact the internet would have on their business, including business model changes and emergence of new competitors.  By focusing on the internet trend GE kept growing even in businesses not inherently thought of as “internet” businesses.

GE has to decide what trend it will leverage to guide all new growth projects.  Given its large positions in manufacturing and health care it would make sense to at least start with IoT opportunities, and new opportunities to restructure America’s health care system.  But even if not these trends, GE needs to identify the trend that it can build upon to guide its investments and grow.

Step 3 – Place Your Bets and Monetize

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg realized the trend in communications was toward pictures and video he took action to keep users on the company platform.  First he bought Instagram for $1 billion, even though it had no revenues.  Two years later he paid $19 billion for WhatsApp, gaining many new users as well as significant OTT technology.  Both seemed very expensive acquisitions, but Facebook rapidly moved to increase their growth

chess pieces and cash

and monetize their markets.  Leaders of the acquired companies were given important roles in Facebook to help guide growth in users, revenues and profits.

Netflix leads the streaming war, but it has tough competition.  So Netflix has committed spending over $6billion on new original content to keep customers from going to Amazon Prime, Hulu and others.  This large expenditure is intended to allow ongoing subscriber growth domestically and internationally, as well as raise subscription prices.

This week CVS announced it is planning to acquire Aetna Health for $66 billion.  On the surface it is easy to ask “why?” But quickly analysts offered support for the deal, ranging from fighting off Amazon in prescription sales to restructuring how health care costs are paid and how care is delivered.  The fact that analysts see this acquisition as building on industry trends gives support to the deal and expectations for better future returns for CVS.

During the Immelt era, there were attempts to grow, such as in the “water business.”  But the investments were not consistent, and there was insufficient effort placed on understanding how to monetize the business short- and long-term.  Leadership did not offer a compelling vision for how the trends would turn into revenues and profits.  Acquisitions were made, but lacking a strong vision of how to grow revenues, and an outsider’s perspective on how to lead the trend, very quickly short-term financial metrics built into GE’s review process led to bad decisions crippling these opportunities for growth.  And today the consensus is that GE will likely sell its healthcare businessrather than make the necessary investments to grow it as CVS is doing.

Successful leadership means moving beyond traditional financial management to invest for growth

In the Welch era, GE made dozens of acquisitions.  These were driven by a desire to build on trends.  Welch did not fear investing in growth businesses, and he held leaders’ feet to the fire to produce successful results.  If they didn’t achieve goals he let the people and/or the business go.  Hence his nickname “Neutron Jack.”

For example, although GE had no background in entertainment, GE bought NBC at a time when viewership was growing and ad prices were growing even faster.  This led to higher revenues and market cap for GE.  On the other hand, when leaders at CALMA did not anticipate the shift in CAD/CAM from dedicated workstations to PCs, Welch saw them overly tied to old technology and unable to recognize the trend, so he immediately sold the business.  He invested in businesses that added to valuation, and sold businesses that lacked a clear path to building on trends for higher value.

Being a caretaker, or steward, is no longer sufficient for business leadership.  Competitors, and markets, shift too quickly.  Leaders must anticipate trends, reduce investments in products, services and projects that are off the trend, and put resources to work where growth can create higher returns.

This is all possible at GE – if the new leadership has a vision for the future and starts allocating resources effectively.  For now, all we can do is wait and see……
will rogers quote: Even if you're on the right track you'll get run over if you just sit there.

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The Only Surprise At GE Was That Anyone Was Surprised

The Only Surprise At GE Was That Anyone Was Surprised

GE Sign in Schenectady, NY- Hearst Newspapers

General Electric announced quarterly results this week, and and they were pretty bad.  Profits were nowhere near expectations, and the company lowered expectations for the year.  Cash flow was also disappointing, not even strong enough to cover the dividend.  Now analysts are really negative on company prospects, and most expect the dividend to be cut.

Meanwhile the new CEO, John Flannery, is admitting to horrible results as he removes most of the previous CEO’s top execs in a leadership housecleaning.  He is promising to cut costs dramatically, and sell off an additional $20billion of businesses in order to restore a higher level cash flow.  And according to the AP, Flannery will make faster progress toward “returning GE to its industrial roots.”

In other words, CEO Flannery continues the strategy of making GE smaller, and a less hospitable workplace, that his predecessor Immelt started implementing 16 years ago.  That’s the strategy that has seen GE lose ~45% of its value since Immelt took the top job, and lose over 60% of its value since peaking at $60 in 2000.  So far, GE just keeps shrinking in size, and value, and leadership gives no indication it has a plan to grow GE revenues and profits in future markets building on major market trends.

GE logo at plant in Hungary, 2017, Bloomberg
 What’s most surprising is that people seem surprised by the horrible current performance, and surprised that GE is in such terrible condition.  All the way back in December, 2010 this column highlighted selections for CEO of the year, and CEO of the decade, and in doing so pointed out that GE’s Immelt was on nobody’s list.  Even though his predecessor, Jack Welch, was widely lauded.

Immelt inherited one of America’s strongest, fastest growing and most valuable companies.  But in the first few years of his leadership the company completely failed to maintain Welch’s gains, and under Immelt’s mismanagement nearly went bankrupt by not preparing for the near-collapse of financial services in the Great Recession. It was obvious then that Immelt was trying to be a “caretaker” of GE, a “steward” of its history.  But he was not an effective leader with plans for a growing future, and competitors were beating up GE in all markets.  Even upstarts like Facebook, and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, were far outperforming the stagnating, declining GE.

 By May, 2012 it was impossible to miss the mismanagement at GE.  This column selected CEO Immelt as the 4th worst CEO of all publicly traded American companies (beaten in badness by Mike Duke of WalMart who was pushed out during allegations of international bribery and fraud, Ed Lampert of Sears who has now completely destroyed the once great retailer, and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft who over-invested in Windows and Office while missing every major tech development of the last 15 years before being forced out by the board.)  By 2012 it was time for the Board of Directors to take action and replace Immelt.  But few investors amplified this column’s cries for change, and quiet complacency set in as people simply expected GE to perform better.  Just because it was GE, it appeared, as there were no signs the company understood market trends and how to ignite growth.

Of course, performance did not improve at GE.  By April, 2015 GE was the victim of a total leadership failure.  The company was not developing any major new trends, and Immelt’s focus was on unraveling old businesses, mostly via sales to external parties, in order to increase cash.   And the cash was used for share buybacks and dividends, rather than investing in growth. A slow, and badly implemented, liquidation of one of America’s oldest, and greatest, companies was underway.

Which made GE a target for activist investors, and Trian Funds took up the challenge, investing $1.5B in GE stock and taking a seat on the GE board.  Finally, it was time for action. Immelt was pushed out and Flannery was put in, and dramatic cuts and re-organizations led the discussions. Current appearances indicate GE will be significantly dismantled, assets will be sold, and in short order GE will look nothing like the great company it once was.

But, the question remains, why did things have to become so bad before the board took action? Why were people surprised?  Why didn’t Jim Cramer scream for a leadership housecleaning 7, 5 or 3 years ago?  Why didn’t shareholders vote against CEO compensation plans on the “say-on-pay” measures, exerting their voice to change a lackluster board that was allowing an incompetent CEO to remain in the job? Why wasn’t the pension fund, constantly whittling away at retiree benefits, forcing change?  Why were so many people, so many leaders, so quiet about what was an obvious business failure? A failure that needed to be addressed, first and foremost, by replacing the CEO?

So GE’s stock value has taken a big hit of late. And now people seem surprised by the admission of how bad things really are.  What’s really surprising is that people are surprised. This was not hard to see coming.

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The Waltons Are Cashing Out Of Walmart — And You Should Be, Too

The Waltons Are Cashing Out Of Walmart — And You Should Be, Too

Employees restock shelves of school supplies at a Walmart Stores Inc. location in Burbank, CA.  Bloomberg

Last week there was a lot of stock market excitement regarding WalMart. After a “favorable” earnings report analysts turned bullish and the stock jumped 4% in one day, WMT’s biggest rally in over a year, making it a big short-term winner.  But the leadership signals indicate WalMart is probably not the best place to put your money.

WalMart has limited growth plans

WalMart is growing about 3%/year.  But leadership acknowledged it was not growing its traditional business in the USA, and only has plans to open 25 stores in the next year.  It hopes to add about 225 internationally, predominantly in Mexico and China, but unfortunately those markets have been tough places for WalMart to grow share and make profits.  And the company has been plagued with bribery scandals, particularly in Mexico.

And, while WalMart touts its 40%+ growth rate on-line, margins online (including the free delivery offer) are even lower than in the traditional Wal-Mart stores, causing the company’s gross margin percentage to decline.  The $11.5 billion on-line revenue projection for next year is up, but it is 2.5% of Walmart’s total, and a mere 7-8% of Amazon’s retail sales.  Amazon remains the clear leader, with 62% of U.S. households having visited the company in the second quarter.  And it is not a good sign that WalMart’s greatest on-line growth is in groceries, which amount to 26% of on-line salesalready.  WalMart is investing in 1,000 additional at-store curb-side grocery pick-uplocations, but this effort to defend traditional store sales is in the products where margins are clearly the lowest, and possibly nonexistent.

It is not clear that WalMart has a strategy for competing in a shrinking traditional brick-and-mortar market where Costco, Target, Dollar General, et.al. are fighting for every dollar.  And it is not clear WalMart can make much difference in Amazon’s giant on-line market lead.  Meanwhile, Amazon continues to grow in valuation with very low profits, even as it grows its presence in groceries with the Whole Foods acquisition.  In the 17 months from May 10, 2016 through October 10, 2017 WalMart’s market cap grew by $24 billion (10%,) while Amazon’s grew by $174 billion (57%.)

Even after recent gains for WalMart, its market capitalization remains only 53% of its much smaller on-line competitor.  This creates a very difficult pricing problem for WalMart if it has to make traditional margins in order to keep analysts, and investors, happy.

Leadership is not investing to compete, but rather cashing out the business

To understand just how bad this growth problem is, investors should take a look at where WalMart has been spending its cash.  It has not been investing in growing stores, growing sales per store, nor really even growing the on-line business.  From 2007-2016 WalMart spent a whopping $67.3 billion in share buybacks.  That is over 20 times what it spent on Jet.com.  And it was 45% of total profits during that timeframe.  Additionally WalMart paid out $51.2 billion in dividends, which amounted to 34% of profits.  Altogether that is $118.5 billion returned to shareholders in the last decade.  And a staggering 79% of profits.  It shows that WalMart is really not investing in its future, but rather cashing out the company by returning money to shareholders.

 “Say on pay” votes are often seen as a measure of how happy investors are with a company.  The average disapproval level on executive pay is 4.3%.  At Target, Macy’s and Kroger the disapproval is 6.1%, 6.3% and 6.9%.  Investors, however, disapprove of the compensation for WalMart’s leaders at a whopping 16.7%; nearly 4x the average and 2.5x its competition.
So very large investors, who control huge voting blocks, recognize that things are not going well at WalMart.  But, because of the enormity of the share buybacks, the Walton family now controls over half of WalMart stock.  That makes it tough for an activist to threaten shaking up the company, and lets the Waltons determine the company’s future.

Buybacks signal Strategy

Walmart annual meeting 2014, walmart.com

With WalMart’s announcement last week that it intends to spend another $20 billion on additional share repurchases, the Walton family’s strategy is clear.  They are cashing out the business.  As money comes in they are going to continue spending little on the traditional business, and in no way do they intend to invest at a level to really chase Amazon on-line.

There will be marginal enhancements.  But the vast majority of the money is being returned to them, via $20 billion in share repurchases and $1.5 billion in cash dividends annually.

Amazon spends nothing on share repurchases.  Nor does it distribute cash to shareholders via dividends.  Amazon’s largest shareholder, Jeff Bezos, invests all the company money in new growth opportunities.  These nearly cover the retail landscape, and increasingly are in other growth markets like cloud services, software-as-a-service and entertainment.  Comparing the owners of these companies, quite clearly Bezos has faith in Amazon’s ability to invest money for profitable future growth.  But the Waltons are far less certain about the future success of WalMart, so they are pulling their money off the table, allowing investors to put their money in ventures outside WalMart.

Investing your money, do you think it is better to invest where the owner believes in the future of his company?

Or where the owners are cashing out?

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The NFL Has A Bigger Problem Than Kneeling Employees – Demographics and Trends

The NFL Has A Bigger Problem Than Kneeling Employees – Demographics and Trends

LANDOVER, MD – SEPTEMBER 24: Washington Redskins players link arms during the national anthem before their game against the Oakland Raiders at FedExField on September 24, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

A recent top news story has been NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.  The controversy was amplified when President Trump weighed in with objections to this behavior, and his recommendation that the NFL pass a rule disallowing it.  This kind of controversy doesn’t make life easier for NFL leaders, but it really isn’t their biggest problem.  Ratings didn’t start dropping recently, viewership has been declining since 2015.

NFL ratings stalled in 2015

NFL viewership had a pretty steady climb through 2014.  But in 2015 ratings leveled.  Then in 2016 viewership fell a whopping 9%.  During the first 6 weeks of the 2016 regular season (into early October)viewership was down 11%.  Through the first 9 weeks of 2016 ratings were down 14% before things finally leveled off.  Although nobody had a clear explanation why viewership declined so markedly, there was widespread agreement that 2016 was a ratings crash for the league.  Fox had its worst NFL viewership since 2008, and ESPN had its worst since 2005.

Colin Kaepernick kneels 2016, CNN photo

Interestingly, later analysis showed that overall people were watching 5% more games.  But they were watching less of each game.  In other words, fans had become more casual about their viewership.  People were watching less TV, watching less cable, and that included live sports.  And those who stream games almost never streamed the entire game.

And this behavior change wasn’t limited to the NFL.  As reported at Politifact.com, Paulsen, editor in chief of Sports Media Watch said, “it’s really important to note the NFL is not declining while other leagues are increasing.  NASCAR ratings are in the cellar right now.  The NBA had some of its lowest rated games ever on network television last year… It’s an industry-wide phenomenon and the NFL isn’t immune to it anymore.”  So the declining viewership problem is widespread, and much older than the recent national anthem controversy.

Live sports is not attracting new, younger viewers

Magna Global recently released its 2017 U.S. Sports Report.  According to Radio + Television Business Report (RBR.com) the age of live sports viewers is scewing older.  Much older.  Today the average NFL viewer is at least 50.  Similar to tennis, and college basketball and football.  That’s second only to baseball at 57 – which was 50 as recently as 2000.  But no sport is immune. NHL viewers are now typically 49.  They were 33 in 2000.  As simple arithmetic shows, the same folks are watching hockey but few new viewers are being attracted.  Based on recent trends, Magna projects viewership for the Sochi Olympics and 2018 World Cup will both decline.

I’ve written before about the importance of studying demographic trends when planning.  These trends are highly reliable, even if boring.  And they provide a lot of insight.  In the case of live sports watching, younger people simply don’t sit down and watch a complete game.  Younger people have different behaviors.  They watch an entire season of shows in one day.  They multi-task, doing many things at once.  And they prefer information in short bursts – like weekly blogs rather than a book.  And they are more interested in outcomes, the final result, than watching how it happened.  Where older people watch a game play-by-play, younger people simply want to know the major events and the final score.

To understand what’s happening with NFL ratings we really don’t have to look much further than simple demographics — the aging of the U.S. population — and the change in viewing behavior from older groups to younger groups.

Unfortunately, according to a recent CNN poll, while 56% of people under age 45 think the recent demonstrations are the right thing to do, 59% of those over 45 say the demonstrations are wrong.  In its “core” NFL viewership folks don’t like the kneeling, so it would appear the NFL should heed the President’s advice. But, looking down the road, the NFL won’t succeed unless it finds a way to attract a younger audience.  With younger people approving the demonstrations NFL leadership risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater if they knee-jerk control player behavior.

Understanding customer demographic trends, and adapting, is crucial to success

The demonstrations are interesting as an expression of American ideals.  And they are gathering a lot of discussion.  But they are not what’s plaguing NFL viewership.  Today the NFL has a much bigger task of making changes to attract young people as viewers.  Should leaders shorten the game’s length?  Should they change rules to increase scoring and create more excitement during the game?  Should they invest in more apps to engage viewers in play-by-play activity?  Should they seek out ways to allow more gambling during the game?  Whatever leadership does, the traditions of the NFL need to be tested and altered in order to attract new people to watching the game if they want to preserve the advertising dollars that make it a success.

When your business falters, do you look at long-term trends, or react to a short-term event?  It’s easy for politicians and newscasters to focus on the short-term, creating headlines and controversy.  But business leaders have an obligation to look much deeper, and longer term.  It is critical we move beyond “that’s the way the game is played” to looking at how the game may need to change in order to remain relevant and engage new customers.

Note how boxing recently brought in a mixed martial arts fighter to take on the world champion.  The outcome was nearly a foregone conclusion, but nobody cared because it brought in people to a boxing match that otherwise would not have been there.  If you don’t recognize demographic shifts, and take actions to meet emerging trends you risk becoming as left behind as cricket, badminton, horseshoes, bocce ball and darts.

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Colbert Beat Fallon By Following Trends, Which Will Make CBS More Money

Colbert Beat Fallon By Following Trends, Which Will Make CBS More Money

Photo: NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 19: Writers and crew of ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ attend 69th Writers Guild Awards New York Ceremony at Edison Ballroom on February 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

The Late Show hosted by Stephen Colbert is now the #1 program in late night television.  This come-from-far-behind change in market leadership, overtaking The Tonight Show hosted by Jimmy Fallon, is not about politics.  It is about understanding trends and using them to create value.

Back in February, 2014 there was real concern about the future of late night television.  Audiences had peaked decades before, when Nightline was huge and competed with The Tonight Show hosted by legend Johnny Carson. By 2014 many wondered if American programming after the late news was all shifting to cable TV as audiences continued shrinking.  Producers replaced Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon in order to revitalize viewers.  Jimmy Kimmel was moved up in time as ABC killed Nightline, hoping he could carve out a growing niche.  And David Letterman, late night’s senior statesman, was about to be replaced by cable satirist Stephen Colbert.  But these changes gathered little industry interest, because the time slots simply were not doing well for broadcasters – or advertisers.

Fallon maintained a dominant lead in the time slot as Colbert’s first year was a yawner.

As TheWrap.com reported in September, 2016, despite the fanfare of Colbert taking over hosting, he “posed no threat whatsoever to Jimmy Fallon.”  Fallon’s show maintained a huge lead. With 3.65 million viewers it bested The Late Show by over 800,000.  Colbert, with 2.82 million viewers seemed mostly trying to keep a lead over Kimmel’s 2.3 million viewers.
But, as the New York Times headlined on May 17, 2017 “Jimmy Fallon Was On Top of the World. Then Came Trump.”  During 2016 viewers were engaged in the knock-down-drag-out political battle for the Presidency.  In an effort to build on political interest, Fallon’s producers invited Donald Trump on the show.  Unfortunately, most people viewed Mr. Fallon’s interview as fluff, and given the heat of the rhetoric the critics tore into Fallon hard for an interview that fell far short of its possibilities.  Some considered it a turning point, an interview from which Fallon has yet to recover his full audience following.
jimmy fallon inteviews trump 2016 Getty
ANDREW LIPOVSKY/NBC/NBCU PHOTO BANK VIA GETTY IMAGES

Meanwhile the producers at The Late Show kept their eyes on the mood of the electorate.

They had largely let Colbert promote Democrat Clinton, and even though she lost the election noted she had won the popular vote.  As Colbert continued to criticize the President, his audience grew.  Soon, Colbert was beating Fallon in total audience – something nobody predicted just a few months earlier.  It was quite a surprise when the 2016-2017 September to May season drew to a close and it was discovered that Colbert actually won the time slot, producing a larger total audience than Fallon.  It was only about 20,000 – but it was a win few saw coming.

The Late Show writers and producers noted the historic and growing unpopularity of President Trump, and the public interest in ongoing investigations, and built the headlines into the show.  Variety headlined on 7/25/17 “Stephen Colbert’s Russia Week Lofts Late Show to Biggest Weekly Win Ever.”  Using audience trends The Late Showdevoted a week to a comical look at Russia, which saw it generate a 2.87million total audience in comparison to The Tonight Show‘s 2.42million – a beat of a whopping 450,000 viewers.

late show hillary 2017 CBS
Photo: CBS
Continuing to evaluate what interested the public, producers brought on losing candidate Hillary Clinton, long supported by the show, to create Colbert’s largest audience since launch.  The next night they brought on President Trump’s former Communications Director, Republican and Trump supporter Anthony Scaramucci, to an even bigger audience.  By August 4 Colbert bested Fallon by 900,000 viewers for its biggest weekly win ever, and Colbert was clearly the summer winner with an audience growing at 11% while competitors were losing viewers.

All of this is very good news for CBS.

NBC (NBC/Universal is a division of Comcast) is not losing money on The Tonight Show.  And in the desirable segment of those age 18-49 Fallon still has the largest audience.  But, it is a good thing for CBS to have so many new viewers.  It brings in more advertisers, and higher revenues for each ad.   This leads to more profits.

One might say that this is all about the hosts, and their political leanings.  Maybe the content is driven by host opinions.  But CBS is winning viewers because it is following trends, and matching its programming to trends.  This is growing its late night audience, while NBC’s is shrinking.

Steve Burke, chief executive of NBC Universal was quoted in the New York Times saying “I think the answer is for Jimmy to be Jimmy.”  Sounds like what a father might say about his son when the boy finds himself in a rough patch.  But I’m not so sure its the position a company CEO should take regarding a very expensive employee in the lead of a major project.

Maybe NBC’s producers should spend more time looking at trends, and figuring out how to program content that will improve The Tonight Show‘s competitiveness.  The show was upended in just one year.  What will total audience look like next May when the 2017-2018 season ends?  Will revenues and profits be unaffected if NBC’s audience keeps falling while CBS’s keeps growing?

For the rest of us, the lesson should be clear.  Nobody is relegated to always being #2.  Regardless the leader’s size, if you study trends and figure out how to leverage them you can grow, and you can become #1.

 Understanding trends and applying them to your business is the best way to invigorate growth and improve your competitiveness.

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Toys R Us – How Bad Assumptions Fed Bad Financial Planning Creating Failure

Toys R Us – How Bad Assumptions Fed Bad Financial Planning Creating Failure

Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy this week.  And the obvious response was “another retailer slaughtered by Amazon and on-line retailing.”  But this conclusion comes short of describing why Toys R Us leadership did not do the obvious things to keep Toys R Us relevant.

Amazon and WalMart both eclipsed Toys R Us in toy retail sales.
Chart courtesy of Felix Richter, Statista

Everyone, and I mean everyone, knew over the last decade that customers were buying more stuff on-line, including toys. And everyone also knew that WalMart was pushing extremely hard to keep customers going to their stores by offering products like toys at low prices.  And, it was clear that customers were shifting to buying more toys from both these retailers.  If this was so obvious to everyone, why didn’t Toys R Us leadership do something?  After all, Toys R Us is a multi-billion dollar revenue company.

The LBO

It was over 30 years ago when financiers discovered they could buy a company, sell off some assets and otherwise increase the company’s cash, then convince banks and bondholders to load the company with debt.  These financiers would then pull out the cash for themselves, and leave the company with a ton of debt.  The LBO (leveraged buy out) was born, invented by investment bankers like KKR (named for founders Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts.) They would use a small bit of private equity, and then use the company’s own assets to raise debt money (leverage) to buy the company.  By “restructuring” the company to a lower cost of operations, usually with draconian reductions, they would increase cash flow to make higher debt repayments.  Then they would either take the money out directly, or take the company public where they could sell their shares, and make themselves rich.  This form of deal making birthed what we now call the Private Equity business.

In 2005, KKR and Bain Capital (which included former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney) bought Toys R Us for about $6.6billion, plus assuming just under $1B of debt, for a total valuation of $7.5billion.  But the private equity  guys didn’t buy the company with equity.  They only put in $1.3billion, and used the company’s assets to raise $5.3billion in additional debt, making total debt a whopping $6.2B.  Total debt was now a remarkable 82.7% of total capital!  At the time of the deal interest rates on that debt were around 7.25%, creating a cash outflow of $450million/year just to pay interest on the loans.  At the time Toys R Us was barely making a profit of 2% – so the debt was double company net profits.

KKR and Bain buy Toys R Us logos

Debt led to bad management decisions and ultimately bankruptcy of the U.S. company

The biggest assumption behind a debt-financed takeover is that the company can cut costs to improve cash flow and thus pay the interest.  But behind that assumption is an even bigger assumption.  That the marketplace won’t change dramatically.  The KKR and Bain Capital leaders assumed they could shrink Toys R Us in a way that would lower operating costs.  They also assumed they could sell some under-utilized assets to raise cash.  They did not assume they would need contingency money if competition, and the marketplace, changed in some unplanned way.

eCommerce was pretty new in 2005.  Amazon was an $8.5 billion company, but it didn’t make any profits and very few predicted then it would become today’s $100 billion behemoth.  Because the financiers didn’t anticipate a big market shift to ecommerce, they focused on the war with Walmart and Target.  Their plans were to lower operating costs, close some stores that were underperforming, license some offshore stores, and sell some assets (like real estate owned or leases) to raise cash and repay the debt.

amazon.com toy car screen shot

But they weren’t prepared to take on another, entirely different competitor on-line.  As Amazon’s growth affected all retailers, Toys R Us simply did not have the resources to fight the traditional discount and dollar brick-and-mortar retailers, and build a major on-line presence, and keep paying that debt. While it is easy to sit on the sidelines and say that Toys R Us should have spent more money building its on-line presence in order to remain relevant, the fact is that the deal in 2005 left the company with insufficient cash flow to do so.  Regardless of what leadership might have wanted to do, simply keeping the lights on was a tough challenge when having to pay out so much cash to bondholders.

And the investors simply did not expect that the growth of on-line retailing would stall traditional retail stores, thus creating a major loss of value for retail real estate.  U.S. retail real estate value had increased in value for decades.  The assumption was that the real estate, whether owned or leased, would continue to go up in value.  Real estate was a “hard” asset that KKR and Bain Capital could bank on for raising cash to repay the debt.  But as on-line retail grew, and traditional retail declined, America became “over stored” with far too much retail space.  Prices were shattered in many markets, and it was not possible for Toys R Us to sell those assets for a gain that would meet the debt obligations.

With $400 million of debt coming due next year, Toys R Us simply doesn’t have the cash flow, or assets, to repay those bondholders

Old assumptions about finance are a big problem for companies today.  Assumptions about “leveraging” hard assets, and intangibles like brand value, are no longer true.  Competitors emerge, markets change, and old assets can lose value very fast.  Assumptions about business model stability are no longer true, as new competitors using newer technology create new ways to sell, and often at lower cost than was ever expected.  Assumptions about customer loyalty, and market share stability, are no longer true as new competitors appeal to customers differently and cause big shifts in buying behavior very fast.  The speed with which technology, competitors, markets and customers shift now requires companies have the funds available to invest in change.

This story isn’t just about debt.  The very popular activity of “returning money to shareholders by repurchasing stock” is a terrible idea.  Stock repurchases do not make a company more valuable, nor a stronger competitor.  Instead they burn through cash to reduce the company’s capitalization, and manipulate ratios like EPS (earnings per share) and P/E (price/earnings) multiple.  Stock repurchases hurt companies, and make them less competitive.  Good companies return money to shareholders by investing in growth, which raises sales, profits and increases the stock price making the company truly more valuable.

Toys R Us isn’t a story about Amazon, or eCommerce, taking out another retailer

A&P Family store 1950's painting

Toys R Us isn’t a story about Amazon, or eCommerce, taking out another retailer

A&P Family store 1950's painting

The important part of the Toys R Us story is realizing that the wrong financial decisions can doom your organization.  You can have a great vision, and even great ideas about new ways to compete.  But if you don’t have the money to invest in growth, it won’t happen.  If leaders don’t have the money to spend on new projects and new markets, because they’re sending it all to bondholders or using it to  repurchase shares in hopes of propping up a stock price, eventually there will be a market shift that will doom the old business model and leave it unable to compete.

To succeed today leaders need the money to invest in change, and they have to constantly invest it in change, or their companies will lose relevancy and end up like Toys R Us, Radio Shack, Circuit City, Aeropostale, The Limited, Payless Shoes, Gander Mountain, Golfsmith, Sports Authority, Borders Books and the great, original American retailer A&P.

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The Case For Trian’s Nelson Peltz Joining P&G’s Board

The Case For Trian’s Nelson Peltz Joining P&G’s Board

Months ago Trian’s Nelson Peltz began buying Procter & Gamble (P&G) shares.  He invested about $3.5 billion, making Trian’s ownership 1.5%.  Since then he has been lobbying, unsuccessfully, for a seat on P&G’s board of directors.  He has said that although P&G already has 10 outside directors on its 11 member board, adding him would make a tremendous difference increasing P&G’s market valuation.  P&G is now the largest company ever to engage in a proxy battle between the existing board and an outside investor.

Today, Peltz offered his plan to change P&G, continuing his attack on management, saying that P&G has not sufficiently cut costs, nor has it created growth via innovation – citing no new innovation platform since Swiffer was introduced almost 20 years ago.  He attacked the company for selling off brands without returning sufficient funds to shareholders.  He believes management’s targets are too low, and it is too easy for managers to make their bonus.  He also believes there is a need to hire more managers from outside the company.

He informed the company if he were a director he would reorganize the company to make it more streamlined, change the compensation plan, and do a better job of cutting costs.

P&G is dead set against adding Peltz, saying he would disrupt the board, and the company, in negative ways. CNBC.com reported Peltz’ claims the company is spending $100 million on the proxy fight to keep him off the board. P&G’s proxy statement puts that sum at $35 million.  Either number indicates P&G is spending a lot of money to stop the appointment of Peltz.

Nelson Peltz, Trian Partners

Nelson Peltz, Founder Trian Partners, LLC

The company defended itself, saying leadership has been growing EPS (earnings per share,) making productivity improvements, growing sales organically at 2%/year and returning huge value to shareholders.  They accuse Peltz of simply planning a split of the company into 3 parts so each can go public on its own – adding little value to shareholders while damaging the company’s ability to operate.

Unfortunately, P&G’s leadership has pretty much set itself up for this battle.  And shareholders may have good reason to add Peltz to the board in hopes of additional change.

P&G’s financial performance has been poor

Firstly, in the last 10 years the value of P&G has risen about 44%. But the S&P 500 has grown by 154.5%.  Shareholders would have done better owning the average than owning P&G.  Claims about how well P&G have done since the CEO arrived 2 years ago overlook the fact that just prior to his arrival, in November, 2014 P&G shares traded at $90-$93.85/share, which is just about where they are now.  So all that’s happened is a recovery to where things were previously, not a great success.  Shareholders have a right to be frustrated.

EPS has risen, but that has everything to do with share buybacks rather than earnings growth.  EPS has risen about 11%.  But since 2nd quarter of 2007 P&G has spent ~$61billion on share repurchases, reducing the number of shares from 3.32 billion to 2.74 billion, or 17.5%.  Rather than growing earnings, leadership has been making the capital structure smaller – and thus EPS has risen while earnings have not.  This is actually a program that goes all the way back to 1995, which indicates a long-term approach of focusing on EPS, which are manipulated, rather than earnings.

P&G has favored divestitures and share repurchases over innovation and acquisitions for growth

Meanwhile, P&G’s buyback program has been financed by a dramatic divestiture program, selling off very large businesses to raise cash.  Over the last decade major sales included:

2009 – selling the P&G pharma business
2012 – selling the water filtration business including Pur
2012 – selling Pringles (along with several other iconic brands)
2014 – selling the dog food business
2016 – selling the Duracell battery business
2016 – selling the beauty brand business

Management tried in its response to say that innovation was just fine at P&G.  But what it cited were line extensions like Tide PODs, GAIN Flings, Pampers Pants, and Oral B power toothbrush.  None of these are great new innovations launching significant sales.  None are new product platforms for high growth.  Rather they are typical sustaining innovations applied to brands that are long in the tooth.

This is typical of the long-term lack of valuable innovation at P&G. Do you recall in 2009 when the company lauded its development of the “P&G Public Toilet Database App?” Not exactly on the top 20 iTunes list.  Or do you remember in 2014 when P&G launched its “Basic” line of products, where it literally sold a less-good quality product hoping to attract a brand-conscious but quality uncaring targeted niche?  Peltz is making a good point, that leadership at P&G really has forgotten what good, long-term profit producing innovation is, while succumbing to the strategy of selling major business units (reducing revenue) then using the money to buy back shares rather than investing in future growth.

P&G has not shown it understands how trends are quickly changing its business

Meanwhile, the consumer goods industry is changing dramatically, and it is not clear that P&G’s leadership is really preparing for future changes.  P&G still relies heavily on television advertising to sell its products. But that approach had stopped generating profitable growth as far back as 2010. Back then Colgate was holding its market share, and growing revenues, on all its brands that compete with P&G while spending 25% less, and often much less, on advertising.

 

P&G is still stuck using marketing strategies that have been outdated for almost a decade. Comcast lost 90,000 subscribers in Q2, and the stock lost 7% today when Comcast management alerted investors it expects to lose 150,000 more in Q3.  And while viewership is declining, ad pricing is going up, making TV advertising a less effective and more expensive marketing tactic for consumer goods. As P&G brands have fallen further behind competitors in Instagram followers, and lack good social media programs like Wendy’s, Peltz has proposed a substantial increase in digitally savvy marketers.

P&G and Walmart logo

Simultaneously, distribution is changing dramatically.  Once P&G could rely on its product dominance to dictate space usage in grocery stores and discounters.  But the rise of e-commerce has dramatically affected these historical distribution channels.  Today the fastest growing grocer is Aldi, which eschews brands like P&G’s in favor of its own private label.  And after stunting the growth of discounters like WalMart, the leading e-commerce company, Amazon.com, has now purchased Whole Foods.  This is leading everyone to expect greater growth in on-line grocery shopping and additional at-home delivery, which undercuts the former strength P&G had in traditional brick-and-mortar stores with warehouse delivery models.

Management bragged of its $3 billion in e-commerce sales, but that is a drop in the bucket.  Is P&G ready to compete for sales in future markets where social media is more important than advertising?  Where mobile ads have more power than print, TV, radio and traditional internet banners?  Where social media groups drive more consumption behavior than company-sponsored social media pages with coupons and use recommendations?  Will P&G dominate product volume when it has to rely on Amazon.com and other sites to sell and deliver its products?  If people move to daily home deliveries, and less stock-up purchasing what will happen to P&G’s former brand advantage via high numbers of SKUs (stock keeping units) and large packaging options?

This will be an interesting proxy battle.  There is no doubt Peltz wants to shake up the board’s behavior, compensation plans, hiring programs, targets and many of the ways management runs the company.  Simultaneously, the P&G board believes it is moving in the right direction.  Large shareholders are conservative, and don’t like to create problems (P&G’s largest shareholders are Vanguard, Blackrock, State Street, BofA, Capital World, Trian, Northern Trust – which combined control 24% of P&G stock.)

But this isn’t about a complete change in the board.  It’s just a vote to add one additional member who is not happy with things the way they are.  Will these large shareholders see a need for someone to shake things up, or will they accept current leadership’s claims that things are on the right track?

It will be interesting to watch, because Peltz isn’t without some objective concerns about P&G’s future, given its performance the last decade and the amount of change facing the industry.

Apple Partners With Accenture To Build Enterprise Apps: 5 Reasons Apple Is Winning The Developer War

Apple Partners With Accenture To Build Enterprise Apps: 5 Reasons Apple Is Winning The Developer War

Everybody knows that Google’s Android has about 80-85% smartphone market share, and Apple’s iOS has only 14-19% share (depending upon quarter.) But this week tech services giant Accenture announced it was partnering with Apple to build enterprise apps for its customers, focusing initially on financial services and retail.  Despite lower unit sales Apple maintains marketplace technology leadership by capturing the enterprise app developer community – including IBM, Cisco, Deloitte and SAP.

iPhone and Android stand out in Mobile market

For most consumers an Android-based phone from one of the various manufacturers, most likely bought through a wireless provider if in the USA, does pretty much everything the consumer wants.  Developers of most consumer apps, such as games, navigation, shopping, etc. make sure their products work on all phones.  For that reason, the bulk of consumers are happy to buy their phone for $200 or less, and most don’t even care what version of Android it runs.  As a stand-alone tool an Android phone does pretty much everything they want, and they can afford to replace it every year or two.

But the business community has different requirements.

And because iOS has superior features, Apple continues to dominate the enterprise environment:

  1. All iPhones are encrypted, giving a security advantage to iOS. Due to platform fragmentation (a fancy way of saying Android is not the same on all platforms, and some Android phones run pretty old versions) most Android phones are not encrypted.  That leads to more malware on Android phones.  And, Android updates are pushed out by the carrier, compared to Apple controlling all iOS updates regardless of carrier.  When you’re building an enterprise app, these security issues are very important.
  2. iOS is seamless with Macs, and can be pretty well linked to Windows if necessary for an apps’ purpose. Android plays well with Chromebooks, but is far less easy to connect with established PC platforms. So if you want the app to integrate across platforms, such as in a corporation, it’s easier with iOS.
  3. iPhones come exactly the same, regardless of the carrier. Not true for Android phones. Almost all Androids come with various “junkware.”  These apps can conflict with an enterprise app.  For enterprise app developers to make things work on an Android phone they really need to “wipe” the phone of all apps, make sure each phone has the same version of Android and then make sure users don’t add anything which can cause a user conflict with the enterprise app.  Much easier to just ask people to use an iPhone.
  4. iOS backs up to iCloud or via iTunes. Straightforward and simple. And if you need to restore, or change devices, it is a simple process. But in the Android world companies like Verizon and Samsung integrate their own back-up tools, which are inconsistent and can be quite hard for a developer to integrate into the app. Enterprise apps need back-ups, and making that difficult can be a huge problem for enterprise developers who have to support thousands of end users.  And the fact that Android restores are not consistent, or reliable, makes this a tough issue.
  5. Search is built-in with iOS. Simple. But Android does not have a clean and simple search feature.  And the old cross-platform inconsistencies plague the various search functions offered in the Android world.  When using an enterprise app, which may well have considerable complexity, accessing an easy search function is a great benefit.

Most of these issues are no big deal for the typical smartphone consumer who just uses their phone independently of their work.  But when someone wants to create an enterprise app, these become really important issues.  To make sure the app works well, meeting corporate and end user needs, it is much easier, and better, to build it on iOS.

This allows Apple to price well above the market average

Today Apple charges around $800 for an iPhone 7, and expectations are for the iPhone 8 to be priced around $1,000.  Because Apple’s pricing is some 4-5x higher, it allows Apple’s iOS revenue to actually exceed the revenue of all the Android phones sold!  And because Android phone manufacturers compete on price, rather than features and capabilities, Apple makes almost ALL the profit in the smartphone hardware business.  Even as iPhone unit volume has struggled of late, and some analysts have challenged Apple’s leadership given its under 20% market share, profits keep rolling in, and up, for the iPhone.

By taking the lead with enterprise app developers Apple assures itself of an ongoing market.  Three years ago I pointed out the importance of winning the developer war when IBM made its huge commitment to build enterprise apps on iOS.  This decision spelled doom for Windows phone and Blackberry — which today have inconsequential market shares of .1% and .0% (yes, Blackberry’s share is truly a rounding error in the marketplace.)  Blackberry has become irrelevant. And having missed the mobile market Microsoft is now trying to slow the decline of PC sales by promoting hybrid devices like the Surface tablet as a PC replacement.  But, lacking developers for enterprise mobile apps on Microsoft O/S it will be very tough for Microsoft to keep the mobile trend from eventually devastating Windows-based device sales.

As the world goes mobile, devices become smaller and more capable.  The need for two devices, such as a phone and a PC, is becoming smaller with each day.  Those who predicted “nobody can do real work on a smartphone” are finding out that an incredible amount of work can be done on a wirelessly connected smartphone.  As the number of enterprise apps grows, and Apple remains the preferred developer platform, it bodes well for future sales of devices and software for Apple — and creates a dark cloud over those with minimal share like Blackberry and Microsoft.

Uber: Be Very Careful Before Hiring Jeff Immelt As CEO

Uber: Be Very Careful Before Hiring Jeff Immelt As CEO

We learned last week that Jeff Immelt is a front-runner to be the next CEO of Uber.  There are many reasons to be concerned about this possibility.

Uber has received nothing but bad news for a while now:

Amidst these scandals, Uber’s big investors are writing down the value of their Uber holdings by 15%. After pushing the board for new leadership, and restructuring, it appears investors are losing faith in the company.
This puts the board in the hot seat.  Investors want a new CEO that will eliminate the scandals.  They want stability at the company.  Reeling from so much bad news, they want someone atop the organization who will “right the ship” with “a steady hand on the tiller” so they can regain confidence.  Amidst the turmoil, and the need to please investors, an executive who spent 35 years at GE, and over a decade in the top job, probably sounds like a good candidate.  He’s known as a stable guy, numbers-focused, genteel, well-schooled (Harvard MBA) and above all “seasoned.”
Delete uber app screen image

But the stakes are incredibly high.  Picking the wrong person at this moment could well lead to a horrible long-term outcome.  While meeting short-term needs sounds like the #1 goal right now, for Uber to succeed means putting someone in the CEO job who can guide the tech company through a decade or more of tough decisions in a fast-paced market.  Other boards have suffered horribly from making this decision hurriedly and poorly.

Remember the CEO turmoil at Yahoo:

  • Yahoo was an early leader on the web, first in search, content distribution, on-line sales and advertising under CEO Tim Koogle from 1995-2001.
  • Due to controversies (remember when he sold Nazi memorabilia?) he was replaced by proven media exec (25 years at Warner Brothers) Terry Semel from 2001-2007. He’s the one who missed the opportunities to buy Google and Facebook.
  • Worried the company needed more pizzazz to catch leapfrogging competitors, the board brought back founder Jerry Yang for 17 months (2007-2008).
  • When sales didn’t improve the board brought in brash, blunt speaking Carol Bartz, CEO of Autodesk, to turn around the company (2009-2011.) After months of cost-cutting but no sales improvement, she was gone.
  • In January 2012 the board hired the President of Paypal, Scott Johnson, as CEO. But 5 months later he was fired for lying on his resume.
  • Amidst a need to find someone to lead the company long-term, in 2012 the board hired Google darling Marissa Mayer as CEO.  She left when Yahoo dissolved.
yahoo logo
twitter logo
apple logo

Or how about Twitter:

  • From 2007-2008 Jack Dorsey was the founder who drove growth and early funding.
  • Dorsey was replaced by Evan Williams (2008-2010) who was to supply a steadier, more seasoned hand at the top.
  • Looking to grow and go public, the board replaced Williams with Dick Costolo (2010-2015). Although the IPO went well, lack of investor enthusiasm led to stock weakness.
  • In 2015 Costolo was replaced by the returning Dorsey. He supposedly would rejuvenate the company. Since his return the stock has dropped about 50% amidst concerns regarding insufficient user and revenue growth.

But this is not a new problem in tech.  Remember the CEO litany at Apple:

  • Apple’s first CEO (1977-1981) was Michael Scott from National Semiconductor, brought in to support the inexperienced Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. But he was unable to get along with the founders, and built a reputation of firing those he didn’t like.
  • Mike Markkula, Apple’s early investor and 3rd employee, replaced Scott as CEO from 1981-1983.
  • Hoping to put someone with a better pedigree, more big-company experience and a steadier hand in the top job, Markkula hired John Sculley (former Pepsi CEO) to Apple’s top job in 1983. Markkula agreed with Sculley to fire the mercurial Jobs in 1985. Sculley remained CEO until 1993, when he was removed as Apple lost the war with Microsoft for corporate desktops and sales tanked.  Sculley, the much heralded, experienced corporate leader, ended up ranked the 14th worst CEO of all time by Conde Nast Portfolio.
  • The board replaced him with insider Michael Spindler (1993-1996) who tried to sell Apple to IBM, Sun and Philips, but failed.
  • Spindler was replaced by Gil Amelio (1996-1997) former CEO of National Semiconductor, who was considered the kind of mature, dedicated leader Apple needed. As Apple shares slumped to all time lows, he bought Jobs-owned NeXt.
  • Jobs (CEO 1997-2011) succeeded in convincing the Board to fire Amelio. Jobs subsequently fired the board. The rest is well documented.

Jeff Immelt is no Steve Jobs

Clearly, Uber’s board needs to find a Steve Jobs.  And by all accounts, for all his skills, Jeff Immelt is NOT a Steve Jobs.  During his tenure as CEO of GE things might have been boring, but the company also lost a third of its revenues, and a third of  its market cap.  After more than a decade of stagnation, Immelt was forced out.  It is hard to imagine he is the right person to guide Uber, a high-tech company in a fast changing marketplace filled with techie employees who want a culture of rapid growth with opportunities to build fortunes in company equity.  To maintain its value Uber needs to keep growing at 20%+/year, and Immelt has no experience creating that sort of revenue success.

So what should the board look for?  Last summer Chris Zook and James Allen of Bain & Co. published their treatise on how to lead high growth companies The Founder’s Mentality – How To Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth .  I interviewed Chris Zook last year, and he offered great insights that would be incredibly valuable for the Uber board now:

  1. Being great is hard. Most companies are focused on going from mediocre to good, far from going from good to great. Uber is the undisputed champion in ride-sharing today.  The leader must be unassailable as a visionary.  Someone who understands how to build a GREAT company.  The last CEO may have been problematic, but he built Uber – a tremendous business success.  The new leader has to be on a par with other leaders of companies considered great by the employees (and investors) or he will not be respected, and there will be more problems, not fewer.

 

 

  1. “Next Generation CEOs” (as Zook calls them) are flexible thinkers who can figure out the hidden core, and build on it. The incoming CEO of Marvel realized its core was story telling, not comics, and directed the company into films and other growth venues. Jobs realized Apple was more than the Mac, and tied the company to offering easy-to-use products that fit emerging mobile needs. Uber’s next CEO has to go deeper than the scandals and obvious business model to understand what made Uber the leader, and expand on that nugget of strength to keep the company growing, and beating competitors.  (Software for the gig economy?  Time sharing assets?)

 

  1. Blockages are what kill companies. Most big-company CEOs are great at creating organizational blockages to create stability. They tend to be numbers first, customers and technology second.  They put in place middle managers with the primary job of stopping behaviors that could be problematic.  They instill “no” in order to stop mistakes.  Do not ever forget the Sculley/Apple experience.  The next Uber CEO has to be willing to operate in a culture with few barriers, direct access from the bottom employee to the CEO, and the ability to move quickly to deal with problems rather than attempting to eliminate the possibility of problems.
  1. The CEO has to be willing to make big bets. Today markets move fast. Leaders have to project trends, understand where customers are headed and place big bets that keep the company on top.  Think about Bezos pushing Amazon to implement Prime, and buying Whole Foods.  Think about Jobs directing Apple’s massive bet on mobile and the iPod.  Think about Reed Hastings making the big bet at Netflix on streaming, and more recently on original content.  To be a successful leader today of a growth company is not for the timid, nor for those who want to make small, progressive bets over time.  It requires vision, the willingness to make big bets and the ability to convince your employees, your board of directors and your investors to buy into that bet.

The Uber board is apparently a bit tired of their search.  Perhaps that’s because they aren’t looking for the right kind of person.  As Mr. Zook told me, you rarely find leaders with a “Founder’s Mentality” through a search firm.  You find them already competing, offering insight, doing new things in situations where the competition is intense.  Like Jobs was at Pixar, and NeXt.

The right leader is out there – we’ve seen the type in companies mentioned here, and others like Google and Facebook.  But you have to search for them intensely.  What seems very, very unlikely is that Mr. Immelt is “the right man for the job” at Uber today.

A Bitcoin Is Worth $4,000–Why You Probably Should Not Own One

A Bitcoin Is Worth $4,000–Why You Probably Should Not Own One

Even though most people don’t even know what they are, Bitcoins increased in value from about $570 to more than $4,300 — an astounding 750% — in just the last year.  Because of this huge return, more people, hoping to make a fast fortune, are becoming interested in possibly owning some Bitcoins.  That would be very risky.

Bitcoins are a crypto-currency.  That means they can be used like a currency, but don’t physically exist likeBitcoin dollar bills.  They are an online currency which can be used to buy things.  They are digital cash that exist as bits on people’s computers.  You can’t put them in a drawer, like dollar bills or gold Krugerrands.  Bitcoins are used to complete transactions – just like any currency.  Even though they are virtual, rather than physical, they are used like cash when transferred between people through the web.

Being virtual is not inherently a bad thing.  The dollars on our financial institution statement, viewed online, are considered real money, even though those are just digital dollars.  The fact that Bitcoins aren’t available in physical form is not really a downside, any more than the numbers on your financial statement are not available as physical currency either. Just like we use credit cards or debit cards to transfer value, Bitcoins can be spent in many locations, just like dollars.

What makes Bitcoins unique, versus other currencies, is that there is no financial system, like the U.S. Federal Reserve, managing their existence and value.  Instead Bitcoins are managed by a bunch of users who track them via blockchain technology.  And blockchain technology itself is not inherently a problem; there are folks figuring out all kinds of uses, like accounting, using blockchain.  It is the fact that no central bank controls Bitcoin production that makes them a unique currency.  Independent people watch who buys and sells, and owns, Bitcoins, and in some general fashion make a market in Bitcoins.  This makes Bitcoins very different from dollars, euros or rupees.  There is no “good faith and credit” of the government standing behind the currency.

Why are currencies different from everything else?

Currencies are sort of magical things.  If we didn’t have them we would have to do all transactions by barter.  Want some gasoline?  Without currency you would have to give the seller a chicken or something else the seller wants.  That is less than convenient.  So currencies were created to represent the value of things.  Instead of saying a gallon of gas is worth one chicken, we can say it is worth $2.50.  And the chicken can be worth $2.50.  So currency represents the value of everything.  The dollar, itself, is a small piece of paper that is worth nothing.  But it represents buying power.  Thus, it is stored value.  We hold dollars so we can use the value they represent to obtain the things we want.

Currencies are not the only form of stored value.  People buy gold and lock it in a safe because they believe the demand for gold will rise, increasing its value, and thus the gold is stored value.  People buy collectible art or rare coins because they believe that as time passes the demand for such artifacts will increase, and thus their value will increase.  The art becomes a stored value.  Some people buy real estate not just to live on, but because they think the demand for that real estate will grow, and thus the real estate is stored value.

But these forms of stored value are risky, because the stored value can disappear.  If new mines suddenly produce vast new quantities of gold, its value will decline.  If the art is a fake, its value will be lost.  If demand for an artist or for ancient coins cools, its value can fall.  The stored value is dependent on someone else, beyond the current owner, determining what that person will pay for the item.

Assets held as stored value can crash

Tulip photo with value lineIn the 1630s, people in Holland thought of tulip bulbs as stored value.  Tulips were desired, giving tulip bulbs value.  But over time, people acquired tulip bulbs not to plant but rather for the stored value they represented.  As more people bought bulbs, and put them in a drawer, the price was driven higher, until one tulip bulb was worth 10 times the typical annual salary of a Dutch worker — and worth more than entire houses.  People thought the value of tulip bulbs would  go up forever.

But there were no controls on tulip bulb production.  Eventually it became clear that more tulip bulbs were being created, and the value was much, much greater than one could ever get for the tulips once planted and flowered.  Even though it took many months for the value of tulip bulbs to become so high, their value crashed in a matter of two months.  When tulip bulb holders realized there was nobody guaranteeing the value of their tulip bulbs, everyone wanted to sell them as fast as possible, causing a complete loss of all value.  What people thought was stored value evaporated, leaving the tulip bulb holders with worthless bulbs.

While a complete collapse is unlikely, people should approach owning Bitcoins with great caution. There are other risks. Someone could hack the exchange you are using to trade or store Bitcoins. Also, cryptocurrencies are subject to wild swings of volatility, so large purchases or sales of Bitcoin can move prices 30% or more in a single day.

Be an investor, not a speculator, and avoid Bitcoins

There are speculators and traders who make markets in things like Bitcoins.  They don’t care about the underlying value of anything.  All they care about is the value right now, and the momentum of the pricing.  If something looks like it is going up they buy it, simply on the hope they can sell it for more than they paid and take a profit on the trade.  They don’t see the things they trade as having stored value because they intend to spin the transaction very quickly in order to make a fast buck.  Even if value falls they sell, taking a loss.  That’s why they are speculators.

Most of us work hard to put a few dollars, euros, pounds, rupees or other currencies into our bank accounts. Most of those dollars we spend on consumption, buying food, utilities, entertainment and everything else we enjoy.   If we have extra money and want the value to grow we invest that money in assets that have an underlying value, like real estate or machinery or companies that put assets to work making things people want.  We expect our investment to grow because the assets yield a return.  We invest our money for the long-term, hoping to create a nest egg for future consumption.

Unless you are a professional trader, or you simply want to gamble, stay away from Bitcoins.  They have no inherent value, because they are a currency which represents value rather than having value themselves.  The Bitcoin currency is not managed by any government agency, nor is it backed by any government.  Bitcoin values are purely dependent upon holders having faith they will continue to have value.  Right now the market looks a lot more like tulip mania than careful investing.