(Photo: General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)
General Electric stock had a small pop recently when investors thought CEO Jeffrey Immelt might be pushed out. Obviously more investors hope the CEO leaves than stays. And it appears clear that activist investor Nelson Peltz of Trian Partners thinks it is time for a change in CEO atop the longest running member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA.)
You can’t blame investors, however. Since he took over the top job at General Electric in 2001 (16 years ago) GE’s stock value has dropped 38%. Meanwhile, the DJIA has almost doubled. Over that time, GE has been the greatest drag on the DJIA, otherwise the index would be valued even higher! That is terrible performance — especially as CEO of one of America’s largest companies.
But, after 16 years of Immelt’s leadership, there’s a lot more wrong than just the CEO at General Electric these days. As the JPMorgan Chase analyst Stephen Tusa revealed in his analysis, these days GE is actually overvalued, “cash is weak, margins/share of customer wallet are already at entitlement, the sum of the parts valuation points to a low 20s stock price.” He goes on to share his pessimism in GE’s ability to sell additional businesses, or create cost lowering synergies or tax strategies.
Former Chairman and CEO of General Electric Jack Welch. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
What went so wrong under Immelt? Go back to 1981. GE installed Jack Welch as its new CEO. Over the next 20 years there wasn’t a business Neutron Jack wouldn’t buy, sell or trade. CEO Welch understood the importance of growth. He bought business after business, in markets far removed from traditional manufacturing, building large positions in media and financial services. He expanded globally, into all developing markets. After businesses were acquired the pressure was relentless to keep growing. All had to be no. 1 or no. 2 in their markets or risk being sold off. It was growth, growth and more growth.
Welch’s focus on growth led to a bigger, more successful GE. Adjusted for splits, GE stock rose from $1.30 per share to $46.75 per share during the 20 year Welch leadership. That is an improvement of 35 times – or 3,500%. And it wasn’t just due to a great overall stock market. Yes, the DJIA grew from 973 to 10,887 — or about 10.1 times. But GE outperformed the DJIA by 3.5 times (350%). Not everything went right in the Welch era, but growth hid all sins — and investors did very, very, very well.
Under Welch, GE was in the rapids of growth. Welch understood that good operating performance was not enough. GE had to grow. Investors needed to see a path to higher revenues in order to believe in long term value creation. Immediate profits were necessary but insufficient to create value, because they could be dissipated quickly by new competitors. So Welch kept the headquarters team busy evaluating opportunities, including making some 600 acquisitions. They invested in things that would grow, whether part of historical GE, or not.
Jeff Immelt as CEO took a decidedly different approach to leadership. During his 16 year leadership GE has become a significantly smaller company. He sold off the plastics, appliances and media businesses — once good growth providers — in the name of “refocusing the company.” Plans currently exist to sell off the electrical distribution/grid business (Industrial Solutions) and water businesses, eliminating another $5 billion in annual revenue. He has dismantled the entire financial services and real estate businesses that created tremendous GE value, because he could not figure out how to operate in a more regulated environment. And cost cutting continues. In the GE Transportation business, which is supposed to remain, plans have been announced to double down on cost cutting, eliminating another 2,900 jobs.
Under Immelt GE has focused on profits. Strategy turned from looking outside, for new growth markets and opportunities, to looking inside for ways to optimize the company via business sales, asset sales, layoffs and other cost cutting. Optimizing the business against some sense of an historical “core” caused nearsighted — and shortsighted — quarterly actions, financial gyrations and transactions rather than building a sustainable, growing revenue stream. Under Immelt sales did not just stagnate, sales actually declined while leadership pursued higher margins.
By focusing on the “core” GE business (as defined by Immelt) and pursuing short term profit maximization, leadership significantly damaged GE. Nobody would have ever imagined an activist investor taking a position in Welch’s GE in an effort to restructure the company. Its sales growth was so good, its prospects so bright, that its P/E (price to earnings) multiple kept it out of activist range.
But now the vultures see the opportunity to do an even bigger, better job of whacking up GE — of tearing it into small bits while killing off all R&D and innovation — like they did at DuPont. Over 16 years Immelt has weakened GE’s business — what was the most omnipresent industrial company in America, if not the world – to the point that it can be attacked by outsiders ready to chop it up and sell it off in pieces to make a quick buck.
Thomas Edison, one of the world’s great inventors, innovators and founder of GE, would be appalled. That GE needs now, more than ever, is a leader who understands you cannot save your way to prosperity, you have to invest in growth to create future value and increase your equity valuation.
In May, 2012 (five years ago) I warned investors that Immelt was the wrong CEO. I listed him as the fourth worst CEO of a publicly traded company in America. While he steered GE out of trouble during the financial crisis, he also simply steered the company in circles as it used up its resources. Then was the time to change CEOs, and put in place someone with the fortitude to develop a growth strategy that would leverage the resources, and brand, of GE. But, instead, Immelt remained in place, and GE became a lot smaller, and weaker.
At this point, it is probably too late to save GE. By losing sight of the need to grow, and instead focusing on optimizing the old business while selling assets to raise cash for reorganizations, Immelt has destroyed what was once a great innovation engine. Now that the activists have GE in their sites it is unlikely they will let it ever return to the company it once was – creating whole new markets by developing new technologies that people never before imagined. The future looks a lot more like figuring out how to maximize the value of each piece of meat as it’s carved off the GE carcass.
It’s been over a decade since the Internet transformed print media.
Very quickly the web’s ability to rapidly disseminate news, and articles, made newspapers and magazines obsolete. Along with their demise went the ability for advertisers to reach customers via print. What was once an “easy buy” for the auto or home section of a paper, or for magazines targeting your audience, simply disappeared. Due to very clear measuring tools, unlike print, Internet ads were far cheaper and more appealing to advertisers – so that’s where at least some of the money went.
In 2012 Google surpassed all print media in generating ad revenue. Source Statista courtesy of NewspaperDeathWatch.com
While this trend was easy enough to predict, few expected the unanticipated consequences.
1. First was the trend to automated ad buying. Instead of targeting the message to groups, programmatic buying tools started targeting individuals based upon how they navigated the web. The result was a trolling of web users, and ad placements in all kinds of crazy locations.
Heaven help the poor soul who looks for a credenza without turning off cookies. The next week every site that person visits, whether it be a news site, a sports site, a hobby site – anywhere that is ad supported – will be ringed with ads for credenzas. That these ads in no way connect to the content is completely lost. Like a hawker who won’t stop chasing you down the street to buy his bad watches, the web surfer can’t avoid the onslaught of ads for a product he may well not even want.
2. Which led to the next unanticipated consequence, the rising trend of bad – and even fake – journalism.
Now anybody, without any credentials, could create their own web site and begin publishing anything they want. The need for accuracy is no longer as important as the willingness to do whatever is necessary to obtain eyeballs. Learning how to “go viral” with click-bait keywords and phrases became more critical than fact checking. Because ads are bought by programs, the advertiser is no longer linked to the content or the publisher, leaving the world awash in an ocean of statements – some accurate and some not. Thus, what were once ads that supported noteworthy journals like the New York Times now support activistpost.com.
3. The next big trend is the continuing rise of paid entertainment sites that are displacing broadcast and cable TV.
Netflix is now spending $6 billion per year on original content. According to SymphonyAM’s measurement of viewership, which includes streaming as well as time-shifted viewing, Netflix had the no. 1 most viewed show (Orange is the New Black) and three of the top four most viewed shows in 2016.
Increasingly, purchased streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, et.al.) are displacing broadcast and cable, making it harder for advertisers to reach their audience on TV. As Barry Diller, founder of Fox Broadcasting, said at the Consumer Electronics Show, people who can afford it will buy content – and most people will be able to afford it as prices keep dropping. Soon traditional advertisers will “be advertising to people who can’t afford your goods.”
4. And, lastly, there is the trend away from radio.
Radio historically had an audience of people who listened to their favorite programming at home or in their car. But according to BuzzAngle that too is changing quickly. Today the trend is to streaming audio programming, which jumped 82.6% in 2016, while downloading songs and albums dropped 15-24%. With Apple, Amazon and Google all entering the market, streaming audio is rapidly displacing real-time radio.
Declining free content will affect all consumers and advertisers.
Thus, the assault on advertisers which began with the demise of print continues. This will impact all consumers, as free content increasingly declines. Because of these trends, users will have a lot more options, but simultaneously they will have to be much more aware of the source of their content, and actively involved in selecting what they read, listen to and view. They can’t rely on the platforms (Facebook, etc.) to manage their content. It will require each person select their sources.
Meanwhile, consumer goods companies and anyone who depends on advertising will have to change their success formulas due to these trends. Built-in audiences – ready made targets – are no longer a given. Costs of traditional advertising will go up, while its effectiveness will go down. As the old platforms (print, TV, radio) die off these companies will be forced to lean much, much heavier on social media (Facebook, Snapchat, etc.) and sites like YouTube as the new platforms to push their product message to potential customers.
There will be big losers, and winners, due to these trends.
These market shifts will favor those who aggressively commit early to new communications approaches, and learn how to succeed. Those who dally too long in the old approach will lose awareness, and eventually market share. Lack of ad buying scale benefits, which once greatly favored the very large consumer goods companies (Kraft, P&G, Nestle, Coke, McDonalds) means it will be harder for large players to hold onto dominance. Meanwhile, the easy access and low cost of new platforms means more opportunities will exist for small market disrupters to emerge and quickly grow.
And these trends will impact the fortunes of media and tech companies for investors The decline in print, radio and TV will continue, hurting companies in all three media. When Gannet tried to buy Tronc the banks balked at the price, killing the deal, fearing that forecasted revenues would not materialize.
Just as print distributors have died off, cable’s role as a programming distributor will decline as customers opt for bandwidth without buying programming. Thus trends put the growth prospects of companies such as Comcast and DirecTV/AT&T at peril, as well as their valuations.
Privatized content will benefit Netflix, Amazon and other original content creators. While traditionalists question the wisdom of spending so much on original content, it is clearly the trend and attracts customers. And these trends will benefit streaming services that deliver paid content, like Apple, Amazon and Google. It will benefit social media networks (Facebook and Alphabet) who provide the new platforms for reaching audiences.
Media has changed dramatically from the business it was in 2000. And that change is accelerating. It will impact everyone, because we all are consumers, altering what we consume and how we consume it. And it will change the role, placement and form of advertising as the platforms shift dramatically. So the question becomes, is your business (and your portfolio) ready?
2016 was an election year, and Americans were inundated with talk. Unfortunately, a lot of it was pure hubris.
President-elect Donald Trump inspired people to “make America great again.” In doing so, he developed the theme that the reason America wasn’t so great had to do with too much work being done offshore, rather than onshore. And that there were far too many immigrants, which harmed the economy and the country. This became rather popular with a significant voting block, led in particular by white males – and within that group those lacking higher education. These people expressed, with their votes and with their words at many rallies, that they were economically depressed by America’s policies allowing work to be completed by people not born in America.
Oh, if it was only so simple.
Any time something is manufactured offshore there is a cost to supply the raw materials, often the equipment, and frequently the working capital. These are added costs, not incurred by U.S. manufacturing. The reason manufacturing jobs went offshore had everything to do with (1) Americans unwilling to work at jobs for the pay offered, and (2) an unwillingness for Americans to invest in their skill sets so they could do the work.
Although they are easy targets. Instead, those Americans should blame themselves for not knuckling down and working harder to make themselves more competitive.
Since the 1980s America has lost some five million manufacturing jobs (from about 17.5 million to 12.5million). That sounds terrible, until you realize that the amount of goods manufactured in America is near an all-time. While it may sound backwards, the honest truth is that automation has greatly improved the output of plant and equipment with less labor. between 1985 and 2009. As the Great Recession has abated, output is again back to all-time highs. It just doesn’t take nearly as many people as it once did.
But it does take much smarter, better trained people.
Manufacturing today isn’t about sweat shops. Not in the USA, and not in Mexico, China or India. The plants in all these countries are equally high-tech, sophisticated and automated. Just look at the images of workers at the Chinese Foxconn plants, or the Mexican auto parts plants, and you’ll see something that could just as easily be in the USA. The reality is that those plants are in those countries because the workers in those countries train themselves to be very productive, and they make great products at very high quality.
And don’t blame regulations and unions for creating offshoring.
For almost all U.S. companies, their offshore plants comply with the U.S. regulations. Most require the same level of safety and working conditions globally.
Union membership has been declining for 75 years. Fifty years ago one in three workers was in a union. Today, it’s less than one in 10. In 2015 the Bureau of Labor reported that only 6.7% of private sector workers were unionized – an all time modern era low. Unions are almost unimportant today. It hasn’t been union obstructionism that has driven jobs oversees – it’s largely been an inability to hire qualified workers.
Much was made the last few years of a lower labor participation rate. Many Trump followers said that the Obama administration was failing to create jobs, so people stayed home. But that simply was not true. While the economy was recovering, the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since the super-heated economy of 2001. To find this low level of unemployment prior to that you have to go all the way back to 1970!
There are plenty of jobs. The issue is getting people trained to do the work.
And here is the real rub. You can’t sit home complaining and moping, you have to study hard and train. Before today’s level of computerization and automation, when work was a lot more manual, it didn’t matter how much education you had, nor how well you could read and do math and science. But today, work is not manual. It takes minimal manual skill to operate equipment. Today it takes computer programming skills, engineering skills and math skills.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) does an annual Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study. This looks at test scores across the world to see where students fair best. Of course, economically displaced Americans are sure that Americans are at the top of these test results – because it is easy to assume so.
Americans are in the bottom half of the planet’s educational performance .
The 2015 results are here, and in reading, science and math America doesn’t even crack the top 10. In fact, the poorest 10% of Vietnamese students did better than the average American teen. In all three categories, the USA scored below the global average. American’s are not above average – they are now below average.
American’s have simply gotten lazy. For far too long, when somebody did poorly Americans have blamed the teacher, blamed the test, blamed the “system” — blamed everyone and everything except the person themselves. It has become unacceptable to tell someone they are doing a below-average job. It is unacceptable to tell someone their skills don’t match up to the needs of the job. Instead,
Instead of forcing people to work hard – really hard – and expecting that each and every person will work hard to compete in a global economy – just to keep up – the expectation has developed that hard work is not necessary, and everyone should do really well. Instead of thinking that hard mental effort, ongoing education and additional training are the minimal acceptable standards to maintaining a job, it is expected that high paying jobs should just be there for everyone – even if they lack the skills to perform. American no longer want to admit that someone is being outperformed.
In 1988 Nike set the company on a growth trajectory with their trademarked phrase “Just Do It.” Just get up off the couch and do it. Quit complaining about being out of shape – just do it.
And that’s my wish for America in 2017. Quit blaming foreigners for working harder at school than we do. Quit blaming immigrants for being better trained, and harder working, than Americans. Quit pretending like the problem with the labor participation rate is some kind of problem created by the government. Quit finger-pointing and blaming someone else for being better than us.
Instead, get up off the couch and do it. Go back to school and study hard – harder than the competition. Grades matter. Learn geometry, trigonometry and calculus so you can make things – or operate equipment that makes things. Gain some engineering skills so you can learn to program, in order to improve productivity with a mobile device – or even a personal computer. Become facile in more than one language so you can operate and compete in a global economy.
Hey Americans, instead of blaming everyone else for workers lacking a job, or a higher income, quit talking about the problems. If you want to “make America great again” quit complaining and just do it.
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
But, is it right to hand-wring over Schultz’s departure as CEO? After all, things have not been pretty for investors since Mr. Jobs turned over Apple to his hand-picked successor Tim Cook. However, could this change mean something better is in store for shareholders?
First, let’s address the very – and Starbucks was saved only by Mr. Schultz returning with his tremendous creativity and servant leadership. While it is great propaganda for making the Schultz as hero story more appealing, it isn’t exactly accurate.
Starting in 1982, Howard Schultz built Starbucks from four stores to over 2,800 (and over $2 billion revenue) in 16 years. That was a tremendous success. And he is to be lauded. But when he left, Starbucks had only 35o stores outside the USA
. It was an American phenomenon, a place to buy and drink coffee, with every store company owned, every employee company trained, and not an ounce of variability in the business model. Not exactly diversified. At the time, the stock traded for roughly (split adjusted) $4 per share.
His successor, Orin Smith, far outperformed Mr. Schultz, more than tripling the chain to over 9,000 stores and expanding revenue to over $5 billion in just four years! He expanded the original model internationally, began adding many new varieties of coffee and other drinks, and even added food. These enhancements were tremendously successful at bringing in additional revenue, even if the average store revenue fell as smaller stores were added in places like airports, hotels and entertainment venues.
In 2005, Jim Donald replaced Mr. Smith. By 2007 (in just teo years) he added a staggering additional 4,000 stores. He expanded the menu. And he even branched out to selling branded Starbucks coffee on airplanes, in hotels and even retailed in grocery stores. Further, he launched a successful international coffee liqueur under the Starbucks brand. And he moved the company into entertainment, creating an artist representation company and even producing movies (Akeelah and the Bee) which won multiple awards.
In 2007 Starbucks fourth quarter saw 22% revenue increase, and for the year 21% growth. Comparable store sales grew 5%. International margins expanded, and net earnings grew over 19% from $564 million to $673 million.
Starbucks’ stock, from 2000 when Mr. Schultz departed into 2006 rose 375%, from $4 to just under $19 per share. Not the ruination that some seem to think was happening.
But Mr. Schultz did not like the diversification, even if it produced more revenue and profit. He joined the chorus of analysts that beat down the P/E ratio, and the stock price, as the company expanded beyond its “core” coffee store business.
When the Great Recession hit, and people realized they could live without $4 per cup of coffee and a $50 per day habit, revenues plummeted, as they did for many restaurants and retailers. Mr. Schultz seized the opportunity to return to his old job as CEO. That the downturn in Starbucks had far more to do with the greatest economic debacle since the 1930s was overlooked as Mr. Schultz blamed everything on the previous CEO and his leadership team – firing them all.
Since 2012 Starbucks has returned to doing what it did prior to 2000 – opening more stores. Growing from 17,000 to 25,000 stores. Refocused on its very easy to understand, if dated, business model analysts loved the simpler company and bid up the P/E to over 30 – creating a trough (2008) to peak (2016) increase in adjusted stock price from $4 to $60 – an incredible 15 times!
But, more realistically one should compare the price today to that of 2006, before the entire market crashed and analysts turned negative on the profitable Starbucks diversification and business model expansion. That gain is a more modest 300% – basically a tripling over a decade – far less a gain for investors than happened under the 2000-2006 era of Mr. Schultz’s successors.
Mr. Schultz succeeded in returning Starbucks to its “core.” But now he’s leaving a much more vulnerable company. As my fellow Forbes contributor Richard Kestenbaum has noted, retail success requires innovation. Starbucks is now almost everywhere, leaving little room for new store expansion. Yet it has abandoned other revenue opportunities pioneered under Messrs. Smith and Donald. And competition has expanded dramatically – both via direct coffee store competitors and the emergence of new gathering spots like smoothie stores, tech stores and fast casual restaurants that are attracting people away from a coffee addiction.
At some point Starbucks and its competition will saturate the market. And tastes will change. And when that happens, growth will be a lot harder to find. As McDonald’s and WalMart have learned, . Exciting new competitors emerge, like Starbucks once was, and Amazon.com is increasingly today.
Mr. Schultz has said he is vastly more confident in this change of leadership than he was the last time he left – largely because he feels this hand-picked team (as if he didn’t pick the last team, by the way) will continue to remain tightly focused on defending and extending Starbucks “core” business. This approach sounds all too familiar – like Jobs selection of Cook – and the risks for investors are great.
A focus on the core has real limits. Diminishing returns do apply. And P/E compression (from the very high 30+ today) could cause Starbucks to lose any investor upside, possibly even cause the stock to decline. If Mr. Schultz’s departure was opening the door for more innovation, new business expansion and a change to new trends that sparked growth one could possibly be excited. But there is real reason for concern – just as happened at Apple.
(PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
McDonald’s has been trying for years to re-ignite growth. But, unfortunately for customers and investors alike, leadership keeps going about it the wrong way. Rather than building on new trends to create a new McDonald’s, they keep trying to defend extend the worn out old strategy with new tactics.
Recently McDonald’s leadership tested a new version of the Big Mac,first launched in 1967. They replaced the “special sauce” with Sriracha sauce in order to make the sandwich a bit spicier. They are now rolling it out to a full test market in central Ohio with 128 stores. If this goes well – a term not yet defined – the sandwich could roll out nationally.
This is a classic sustaining innovation. Take something that exists, make a minor change, and offer it as a new version. The hope is that current customers keep buying the original version, and the new version attracts new customers. Great idea, if it works. But most of the time it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, most people who buy a product like it the way it is. Slower Big Mac sales aren’t due to making bad sandwiches. They’re due to people changing their buying habits to new trends. Fifty years ago a Big Mac from McDonald’s was something people really wanted. Famously, in the 1970s a character on the TV series Good Times used to become very excited about going to eat his weekly Big Mac.
People who are still eating Big Macs know exactly what they want. And it’s the old Big Mac, not a new one. Thus the initial test results were “mixed” – with many customers registering disgust at the new product. Just like the failure of New Coke, a New Big Mac isn’t what customers are seeking.
After 50 years, times and trends have changed. Fewer people are going to McDonald’s, and fewer are eating Big Macs. Many new competitors have emerged, and people are eating at Panera, Panda Express, Zaxby’s, Five Guys and even beleaguered Chipotle. Customers are looking for a very different dining experience, and different food. While a version two of the Big Mac might have driven incremental sales in 1977, in 2017 the product has grown tired and out of step with too many people and there are too many alternative choices.
Similarly, McDonald’s CEO’s effort to revitalize the brand by adding ordering kiosks and table service in stores, in a new format labeled the “Experience of the Future,” will not make much difference. Due to the dramatic reconfiguration, only about 500 stores will be changed – roughly 3.5% of the 14,500 McDonald’s. It is an incremental effort to make a small change when competitors are offering substantially different products and experiences.
When a business, brand or product line is growing it is on a trend. Like McDonald’s was in the 1960s and 1970s, offering quality food, fast and at a consistent price nationwide at a time when customers could not count on those factors across independent cafes. At that time, offering new products – like a Big Mac – that are variations on the theme that is riding the trend is a good way to expand sales.
But over time trends change, and adding new features has less and less impact. These sustaining innovations, as Clayton Christensen of Harvard calls them, have “diminishing marginal returns.” That’s an academic’s fancy way of saying that you have to spend ever greater amounts to create the variations, but their benefits keep having less and less impact on growing, or even maintaining, sales. Yet, most leaders keep right on trying to defend & extend the old business by investing in these sustaining measures, even as returns keep falling.
Over time a re-invention gap is created between the customer and the company. Customers want something new and different, which would require the business re-invent itself. But the business keeps trying to tweak the old model. And thus the gap. The longer this goes on, the bigger the re-invention gap. Eventually customers give up, and the product, or company, disappears.
Think about portable hand held AM radios. If someone gave you the best one in the world you wouldn’t care. Same for a really good portable cassette tape player. Now you listen to your portable music on a phone. Companies like Zenith were destroyed, and Sony made far less profitable, as the market shifted from radios and cathode-ray televisions to more portable, smarter, better products.
Motorola, one of the radio pioneers, survived this decline by undertaking a “strategic pivot.” Motorola invested in cell phone technology and transformed itself into something entirely new and different – from a radio maker into a pioneer in mobile phones. (Of course leadership missed the transition to apps and smart phones, and now Motorola Solutions is a ghost of the former company.)
McDonald’s could have re-invented itself a decade ago when it owned Chipotle’s. Leadership could have stopped investing in McDonald’s and poured money into Chipotle’s, aiding the cannibalization of the old while simultaneously capturing a strong position on the new trend. But instead of pivoting, leadership sold Chipotle’s and used the money to defend & extend the already tiring McDonald’s brand.
Strategic pivots are hard. Just look at Netflix, which pivoted from sending videos in the mail to streaming, and is pivoting again into original content. But, they are a necessity if you want to keep growing. Because eventually all strategies become out of step with changing trends, and sustaining innovations fail to keep customers.
McDonald’s needs a very different strategy. It has hit a growth stall, and has a very low probability of ever growing consistently at even 2%. The company needs a lot more than sriracha sauce on a Big Mac if it is to spice up revenue and profit growth.
Apple AAPL -0.72% announced sales and earnings yesterday. For the first time in 15 years, ever since it rebuilt on a strategy to be the leader in mobile products, full year sales declined. After three consecutive down quarters, it was not unanticipated. And Apple’s guidance for next quarter was for investors to expect a 1% or 2% improvement in sales or earnings. That’s comparing to the disastrous quarter reported last January, which started this terrible year for Apple investors.
Yet, most analysts remain bullish on Apple stock. At a price/earnings (P/E) of 13.5, it is by far the cheapest tech stock. iPad sales are stagnant, iPhone sales are declining, Apple Watch sales dropped some 70% and Chromebook breakout sales caused a 20% drop in Mac Sales. Yet most analysts believe that something will improve and Apple will get its mojo back.
Only, the odds are against Apple. As I pointed out last January, Apple’s value took a huge hit because stagnating sales caused the company to completely lose its growth story. And, the message that Apple doesn’t know how to grow just keeps rolling along. By last quarter – July – I wrote Apple had fallen into a Growth Stall. And that should worry investors a lot.
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Companies that hit growth stalls almost always do a lot worse before things improve – if they ever improve. Seventy-five percent of companies that hit a growth stall have negative growth for several quarters after a stall. Only 7% of companies grow a mere 6%. To understand the pattern, think about companies like Sears, Sony, RIM/Blackberry, Caterpillar Tractor. When they slip off the growth curve, there is almost always an ongoing decline.
And because so few regain a growth story, 70% of the companies that hit a growth stall lose over half their market capitalization. Only 5% lose less than 25% of their market cap.
Why? Because results reflect history, and by the time sales and profits are falling the company has already missed a market shift. The company begins defending and extending its old products, services and business practices in an effort to “shore up” sales. But the market shifted, either to a competitor or often a new solution, and new rev levels do not excite customers enough to create renewed growth. But since the company missed the shift, and hunkered down to fight it, things get worse (usually a lot worse) before they get better.
Think about how Microsoft MSFT -0.42% missed the move to mobile. Too late, and its Windows 10 phones and tablet never captured more than 3% market share. A big miss as the traditional PC market eroded.
Right now there is nothing which indicates Apple is not going to follow the trend created by almost all growth stalls. Yes, it has a mountain of cash. But debt is growing faster than cash now, and companies have shown a long history of burning through cash hoards rather than returning the money to shareholders.
Apple has no new products generating market shifts, like the “i” line did. And several products are selling less than in previous quarters. And the CEO, Tim Cook, for all his operational skills, offers no vision. He actually grew testy when asked, and his answer about a “strong pipeline” should be far from reassuring to investors looking for the next iPhone.
Will Apple shares rise or fall over the next quarter or year? I don’t know. The stock’s P/E is cheap, and it has plenty of cash to repurchase shares in order to manipulate the price. And investors are often far from rational when assessing future prospects. But everyone would be wise to pay attention to patterns, and Apple’s Growth Stall indicates the road ahead is likely to be rocky.
In early August Tesla announced it would be buying SolarCity. The New York Times discussed how this combination would help CEO Elon Musk move toward his aspirations for greater clean energy use. But the Los Angeles Times took the companies to task for merging in the face of tremendous capital needs at both, while Tesla was far short of hitting its goals for auto and battery production.
Since then the press has been almost wholly negative on the merger. Marketwatch’s Barry Randall wrote that the deal makes no sense. He argues the companies are in two very different businesses that are not synergistic – and he analogizes this deal to GM buying Chevron. He also makes the case that SolarCity will likely go bankrupt, so there is no good reason for Tesla shareholders to “bail out” the company. And he argues that the capital requirements of the combined entities are unlikely to be fundable, even for its visionary CEO.
Fortune quotes legendary short seller Jim Chanos as saying the deal is “crazy.” He argues that SolarCity has an uneconomic business model based on his analysis of historical financial statements. And now Fortune is reporting that shareholder lawsuits to block the deal could delay, or kill, the merger.
But short-sellers are clearly not long-term investors. And there is a lot more ability for this deal to succeed and produce tremendous investor returns than anyone could ever glean from studying historical financial statements of both companies.
GM buying Chevron is entirely the wrong analogy to compare with Tesla buying SolarCity. Instead, compare this deal to what happened in the creation of television after General Sarnoff, who ran RCA, bought what he renamed NBC.
The world already had radio (just as we already have combustion powered cars.) The conundrum was that nobody needed a TV, especially when there were no TV programs. But nobody would create TV programs if there were no consumers with TVs. General Sarnoff realized that both had to happen simultaneously – the creation of both demand, and supply. It would only be by the creation, and promotion, of both that television could be a success. And it was General Sarnoff who used this experience to launch the first color televisions at the same time as NBC launched the first color programming – which fairly quickly pushed the industry into color.
Skeptics think Mr. Musk and his companies are in over their heads, because there are manufacturing issues for the batteries and the cars, and the solar panel business has yet to be profitable. Yet, the older among us can recall all the troubles with launching TV.
Early sets were not only expensive, they were often problematic, with frequent component failures causing owners to take the TV to a repairman. Often reception was poor, as people relied on poor antennas and weak network signals. It was common to turn on a set and have “snow” as we called it – images that were far from clear. And there was often that still image on the screen with the words “Technical Difficulties,” meaning that viewers just waited to see when programming would return. And programming was far from 24×7 – and quality could be sketchy. But all these problems have been overcome by innovation across the industry.
Yes, the evolution of electric cars will involve a lot of ongoing innovation. So judging its likely success on the basis of recent history would be foolhardy. Today Tesla sells 100% of its cars, with no discounts. The market has said it really, really wants its vehicles. And everybody who is offered electric panels with (a) the opportunity to sell excess power back to the grid and (b) financing, takes the offer. People enjoy the low cost, sustainable electricity, and want it to grow. But lacking a good storage device, or the inability to sell excess power, their personal economics are more difficult.
Electricity production, electricity storage (batteries) and electricity consumption are tightly linked technologies. Nobody will build charging stations if there are no electric cars. Nobody will build electric cars if there are not good batteries. Nobody will make better batteries if there are no electric cars. Nobody will install solar panels if they can’t use all the electricity, or store what they don’t immediately need (or sell it.)
This is not a world of an established marketplace, where GM and Chevron can stand alone. To grow the business requires a vision, business strategy and technical capability to put it all together. To make this work someone has to make progress in all the core technologies simultaneously – which will continue to improve the storage capability, quality and safety of the electric consuming automobiles, and the electric generating solar panels, as well as the storage capabilities associated with those panels and the creation of a new grid for distribution.
This is why Mr. Musk says that combining Tesla and SolarCity is obvious. Yes, he will have to raise huge sums of money. So did such early pioneers as Vanderbilt (railways,) Rockefeller (oil,) Ford (autos,) and Watson (computers.) More recently, Steve Jobs of Apple became heroic for figuring out how to simultaneously create an iPhone, get a network to support the phone (his much maligned exclusive deal with AT&T,) getting developers to write enough apps for the phone to make it valuable, and creating the retail store to distribute those apps (iTunes.) Without all those pieces, the ubiquitous iPhone would have been as successful as the Microsoft Zune.
It is fair for investors to worry if Tesla can raise enough money to pull this off. But, we don’t know how creative Mr. Musk may become in organizing the resources and identifying investors. So far, Tesla has beaten all the skeptics who predicted failure based on price of the cars (Tesla has sold 100% of its production,) lack of range (now up to nearly 300 miles,) lack of charging network (Tesla built one itself) and charging time (now only 20 minutes.) It would be shortsighted to think that the creativity which has made Tesla a success so far will suddenly disappear. And thus remarkably thoughtless to base an analysis on the industry as it exists today, rather than how it might well look in 3, 5 and 10 years.
The combination of Tesla and SolarCity allows Tesla to have all the components to pursue greater future success. Investors with sufficient risk appetite are justified in supporting this merger because they will be positioned to receive the future rewards of this pioneering change in the auto and electric utility industries.
I’m amazed about Americans’ debate regarding immigration. And all the rhetoric from candidate Trump about the need to close America’s borders.
I was raised in Oklahoma, which prior to statehood was called The Indian Territory. I was raised around the only real Native Americans. All the rest of us are immigrants. Some voluntarily, some as slaves. But the fact that people want to debate whether we allow people to become Americans seems to me somewhat ridiculous, since 98% of Americans are immigrants. The majority within two generations.
Throughout America’s history, being an immigrant has been tough. The first ones had to deal with bad weather, difficult farming techniques, hostile terrain, wild animals – it was very difficult. As time passed immigrants continued to face these issues, expanding westward. But they also faced horrible living conditions in major cities, poor food, bad pay, minimal medical care and often abuse by the people already that previously immigrated.
And almost since the beginning, immigrants have been not only abused but scammed. Those who have resources frequently took advantage of the newcomers that did not. And this persists. Immigrants that lack a social security card are unable to obtain a driver’s license, unable to open bank accounts, unable to apply for credit cards, unable to even sign up for phone service. Thus they remain at the will of others to help them, which creates the opportunity for scamming.
Take for example an immigrant trying to make a phone call to his relatives back home. For most immigrants this means using a calling card. Only these cards are often a maze of fees, charges and complex rules that result in much of the card’s value being lost. A 10-minute call to Ghana can range from $2.86 to $8.19 depending on which card you use. This problem is so bad that the FCC has fined six of the largest card companies for misleading consumers about calling cards. They continue to advise consumers about fraud. And even Congress has held hearings on the problem.
One outcome of immigrants’ difficulties has been the ingenuity and innovativeness of Americans. To this day around the world people marvel at how clever Americans are, and how often America leads the world in developing new things. As a young country, and due to the combination of resources and immigrants’ tough situation, America frequently is first at developing new solutions to solve problems – many of which are problems that clearly affect the immigrant population.
So, back to that phone call. Some immigrants can use Microsoft Skype to talk with their relatives, using the Internet rather than a phone. But this requires the people back home have a PC and an internet connection. Both of which could be dicey. Another option would be to use something like Facebook’s WhatsApp, but this requires the person back home have either a PC or mobile device, and either a wireless connection or mobile coverage. And, again, this is problematic.
But once again, ingenuity prevails. A Romanian immigrant named Daniel Popa saw this problem, and set out to make communications better for immigrants and their families back home. In 2014 he founded QuickCall.com to allow users to make a call over wireless technology, but which can then interface with the old-fashioned wired (or wireless) telecom systems around the world. No easy task, since telephone systems are a complex environment of different international, national and state players that use a raft of different technologies and have an even greater set of complicated charging systems.
But this new virtual phone network, which links the internet to the traditional telecom system, is a blessing for any immigrant who needs to contact someone in a rural, or poor, location that still depends on phone service. If the person on the other end can access a WiFi system, then the calls are free. If the connection is to a phone system then the WiFi interface on the American end makes the call much cheaper – and performs far, far better than any other technology. QuickCall has built the carrier relationships around the world to make the connections far more seamless, and the quality far higher.
But like all disruptive innovations, the initial market (immigrants) is just the early adopter with a huge need. Being able to lace together an internet call to a phone system is pretty powerful for a lot of other users. Travelers heading to a remote location, like Micronesia, Africa or much of South America — and even Eastern Europe – can lower the cost of planning their trip and connect with locals by using QuickCall.com. And for most Americans traveling in non-European locations their cell phone service from Sprint, Verizon, AT&T or another carrier simply does not work well (if at all) and is very expensive when they arrive. QuickCall.com solves that problem for these travelers.
Small businesspeople who have suppliers, or customers, in these locations can use QuickCall.com to connect with their business partners at far lower cost. Businesses can even have their local partners obtain a local phone number via QuickCall.com and they can drive the cost down further (potentially to zero). This makes it affordable to expand the offshore business, possibly even establishing small scale customer support centers at the local supplier, or distributor, location.
In The Innovator’s Dilemma Clayton Christensen makes the case that disruptive innovations develop by targeting a customer with an unmet need. Usually the innovation isn’t as good as the current “standard,” and is also more costly. Today, making an international call through the phone system is the standard, and it is fairly cheap. But this solution is often unavailable to immigrants, and thus QuickCall.com fills their unmet need, and at a cost substantially lower than the infamous calling cards, and with higher quality than a pure WiFi option.
But now that it is established, and expanding to more countries – including developed markets like the U.K. – the technology behind QuickCall.com is becoming more mainstream. And its uses are expanding. And it is reducing the need for people to have international calling service on their wired or wireless phone because the available market is expanding, the quality is going up, and the cost is going down. Exactly the way all disruptive innovations grow, and thus threaten the entrenched competition.
The end-game may be some form of Facebook in-app solution. But that depends on Facebook or one of its competitors seizing this opportunity quickly, and learning all QuickCall.com already knows about the technology and customers, and building out that network of carrier relationships. Notice that Skype was founded in 2003, and acquired by Microsoft in 2011, and it still doesn’t have a major presence as a telecom replacement. Will a social media company choose to make the investment and undertake developing this new solution?
As small as QuickCall.com is – and even though you may have never heard of it – it is an example of a disruptive innovation that has been successfully launched, and is successfully expanding. It may seem like an impossibility that this company, founded by an immigrant to solve an unmet need of immigrants, could actually change the way everyone makes international calls. But, then again, few of us thought the iPhone and its apps would cause us to give up Blackberries and quit carrying our PCs around.
America is known for its ingenuity and innovations. We can thank our heritage as immigrants for this, as well as the immigrant marketplace that spurs new innovation. America’s immigrants have the need to succeed, and the unmet needs that create new markets for launching new solutions. For all those conservatives who fear “European socialism,” they would be wise to realize the tremendous benefits we receive from our immigrant population. Perhaps these naysayers should use QuickCall.com to connect with a few more immigrants and understand the benefits they bring to America.
Most of the time “diversity” is a code word for adding women or minorities to an organization. But that is only one way to think about diversity, and it really isn’t the most important. To excel you need diversity in thinking. And far too often, we try to do just the opposite.
“Mythbusters” was a television series that ran 14 seasons across 12 years. The thesis was to test all kinds of things people felt were facts, from historical claims to urban legends, with sound engineering approaches to see if the beliefs were factually accurate – or if they were myths. The show’s ability to bust, or prove, these myths made it a great success.
The show was led by 2 engineers who worked together on the tests and props. Interestingly, these two fellows really didn’t like each other. Despite knowing each other for 20 years, and working side-by-side for 12, they never once ate a meal together alone, or joined in a social outing. And very often they disagreed on many aspects of the show. They often stepped on each others toes, and they butted heads on multiple issues. Here’s their own words:
“We get on each other’s nerves and everything all the time, but whenever that happens, we say so and we deal with it and move on,” he explained. “There are times that we really dislike dealing with each other, but we make it work.”
The pair honestly believed it is their differences which made the show great. They challenged each other continuously to determine how to ask the right questions, and perform the right tests, and interpret the results. It was because they were so different that they were so successful. Individually each was good. But together they were great. It was because they were of different minds that they pushed each other to the highest standards, never had an integrity problem, and achieved remarkable success.
Yet, think about how often we select people for exactly the opposite reason. Think about “knock-out” comments and questions you’ve heard that were used to keep from increasing the diversity:
- I wouldn’t want to eat lunch with that person, so why would I want to work with them?
- We find that people with engineering (or chemical, or fine arts, etc.) backgrounds do well here. Others don’t.
- We like to hire people from state (or Ivy League, etc) colleges because they fit in best
- We always hire for industry knowledge. We don’t want to be a training ground for the basics in how our industry works
- Results are not as important as how they were obtained – we have to be sure this person fits our culture
- Directors on our Board need to be able to get along or the Board cannot be effective
- If you weren’t trained in our industry, how could you be helpful?
- We often find that the best/top graduates are unable to fit into our culture
- We don’t need lots of ideas, or challenges. We need people that can execute our direction
- He gets things done, but he’s too rough around the edges to hire (or promote.) If he leaves he’ll be someone else’s problem.
In 2011 I wrote in Forbes “Why Steve Jobs Couldn’t Find a Job Today.” The column pointed out that hiring practices are designed for the lowest common denominator, not the best person to do a job. Personalities like Steve Jobs would be washed out of almost any hiring evaluation because he was too opinionated, and there would be concerns he would cause too much tension between workers, and be too challenging for his superiors.
Simply put, we are biased to hire people that think like us. It makes us comfortable. Yet, it is a myth that homogeneous groups, or cultures, are the best performing. It is the melding of diverse ways of thinking, and doing, that leads to the best solutions. It is the disagreement, the arguing, the contention, the challenging and the uncomfortableness that leads to better performance. It leads to working better, and smarter, to see if your assumptions, ideas and actions can perform better than your challengers. And it leads to breakthroughs as challenges force us to think differently when solving problems, and thus developing new combinations and approaches that yield superior returns.
What should we do to hire better, and develop better talent that produces superior results?
- Put results and accomplishments ahead of culture or fit. Those who succeed usually keep succeeding, and we need to build on those skills for everyone to learn how to perform better
- Don’t let ego into decisions or discussions. Too many bad decisions are made because someone finds their assumptions or beliefs challenged, and thus they let “hurt feelings” keep them from listening and considering alternatives.
- Set goals, not process. Tell someone what they need to accomplish, and not how they should do it. If how someone accomplishes their goals offends you, think about your own assumptions rather than attacking the other person. There can be no creativity if the process is controlled.
- Set big goals, and avoid the desire to set a lot of small goals. When you break down the big goal into sub-goals you effectively kill alternative approaches – approaches that might not apply to these sub-goals. In other words, make sure the big objective is front and center, then “don’t sweat the small stuff.”
- Reward people for thinking differently – and be very careful to not punish them. It is easy to scoff at an idea that sounds foreign, and in doing so kill new ideas. Often it’s not what they don’t know that is material, but rather what you don’t know that is most important.
- Be blind to gender, skin color, historical ancestry, religion and all other elements of background. Don’t favor any background, nor disfavor another. This doesn’t mean white men are the only ones who need to be aware. It is extremely easy for what we may call any minority to favor that minority. Assumptions linked to physical attributes and history run deep, and are hard to remove from our bias. But it is not these historical physical and educational elements that matter, it is how people think that matters – and the results they achieve.
Poke’Mon Go is a new sensation. Just launched on July 6, the app is already the #1 app in the world – and it isn’t even available in most countries. In less than 2 weeks, from a standing start, Nintendo’s new app is more popular than both Facebook and Snapchat. Based on this success, Nintendo’s equity valuation has jumped 90% in this same short time period.
Some think this is just a fad, after all it is just 2 weeks old. Candy Crush came along and it seemed really popular. But after initial growth its user base stalled and the valuation fell by about 50% as growth in users, time on app and income all fell short of expectations. And, isn’t the world of gaming dominated by the likes of Sony and Microsoft?
A bit of history
Nintendo launched the Wii in 2006 and it was a sensation. Gamers could do things not previously possible. Unit sales exceeded 20m units/year for 2006 through 2009. But Sony (PS4) and Microsoft (Xbox) both powered up their game consoles and started taking share from Nintendo. By 2011 Nintendo sale were down to 11.6m units, and in 2012 sales were off another 50%. The Wii console was losing relevance as competitors thrived.
Sony and Microsoft both invested heavily in their competition. Even though both were unprofitable at the business, neither was ready to concede the market. In fall, 2014 Microsoft raised the competitive ante, spending $2.5B to buy the maker of popular game Minecraft. Nintendo was becoming a market afterthought.
Meanwhile, back in 2009 Nintendo had 70% of the handheld gaming market with its 3DS product. But people started carrying the more versatile smartphones that could talk, text, email, execute endless apps and even had a lot of games – like Tetrus. The market for handheld games pretty much disappeared, dealing Nintendo another blow.
Competitor strategic errors
Fortunately, the bitter “fight to the death” war between Sony and Microsoft kept both focused on their historical game console business. Both kept investing in making the consoles more powerful, with more features, supporting more intense, lifelike games. Microsoft went so far as to implement in Windows 10 the capability for games to be played on Xbox and PCs, even though the PC gaming market had not grown in years. These massive investments were intended to defend their installed base of users, and extend the platform to attract new growth to the traditional, nearly 4 decade old market of game consoles that extends all the way back to Atari.
Both companies did little to address the growing market for mobile gaming. The limited power of mobile devices, and the small screens and poor sound systems made mobile seem like a poor platform for “serious gaming.” While game apps did come out, these were seen as extremely limited and poor quality, not at all competitive to the Sony or Microsoft products. Yes, theoretically Windows 10 would make gaming possible on a Microsoft phone. But the company was not putting investment there. Mobile gaming was simply not serious, and not of interest to the two Goliaths slugging it out for market share.
Building on trends makes all the difference
Back in 2014 I recognized that the console gladiator war was not good for either big company, and recommended Microsoft exit the market. Possibly seeing if Nintendo would take the business in order to remove the cash drain and distraction from Microsoft. Fortunately for Nintendo, that did not happen.
Nintendo observed the ongoing growth in mobile gaming. While Candy Crush may have been a game ignored by serious gamers, it nonetheless developed a big market of users who loved the product. Clearly this demonstrated there was an under-served market for mobile gaming. The mobile trend was real, and it’s gaming needs were unmet.
Simultaneously Nintendo recognized the trend to social. People wanted to play games with other people. And, if possible, the game could bring people together. Even people who don’t know each other. Rather than playing with unseen people located anywhere on the globe, in a pre-organized competition, as console games provided, why not combine the social media elements of connecting with those around you to play a game? Make it both mobile, and social. And the basics of Poke’Mon Go were born.
Then, build out the financial model. Don’t charge to play the game. But once people are in the game charge for in-game elements to help them be more successful. Just as Facebook did in its wildly successful social media game Farmville. The more people enjoyed meeting other people through the game, and the more they played, the more they would buy in-app, or in-game, elements. The social media aspect would keep them wanting to stay connected, and the game is the tool for remaining connected. So you use mobile to connect with vastly more people and draw them together, then social to keep them playing – and spending money.
The underserved market is vastly larger than the over-served market
Nintendo recognized that the under-served mobile gaming market is vastly larger than the overserved console market. Those console gamers have ever more powerful machines, but they are in some ways over-served by all that power. Games do so much that many people simply don’t want to take the time to learn the games, or invest in playing them sitting in a home or office. For many people who never became serious gaming hobbyists, the learning and intensity of serious gaming simply left them with little interest.
But almost everyone has a mobile phone. And almost everyone does some form of social media. And almost everyone enjoys a good game. Give them the right game, built on trends, to catch their attention and the number of potential customers is – literally – in the billions. And all they have to do is download the app. No expensive up-front cost, not much learning, and lots of fun. And thus in two weeks you have millions of new users. Some are traditional gamers. But many are people who would never be a serious gamer – they don’t want a new console or new complicated game. People of all ages and backgrounds could become immediate customers.
David can beat Goliath if you use trends
In the Biblical story, smallish David beat the giant Goliath by using a sling. His new technology allowed him to compete from far enough away that Goliath couldn’t reach David. And David’s tool allowed for delivering a fatal blow without ever touching the giant. The trend toward using tools for hunting and fighting allowed the younger, smaller competitor to beat the incumbent giant.
In business trends are just as important. Any competitor can study trends, see what people want, and then expand their thinking to discover a new way to compete. Nintendo lost the console war, and there was little value in spending vast sums to compete with Sony and Microsoft toe-to-toe. Nintendo saw the mobile game market disintegrate as smartphones emerged. It could have become a footnote in history.
But, instead Nintendo’s leaders built on trends to deliver a product that filled an unmet need – a game that was mobile and social. By meeting that need Nintendo has avoided direct competition, and found a way to dramatically grow its revenues. This is a story about how any competitor can succeed, if they learn how to leverage trends to bring out new products for under-served customers, and avoid costly gladiator competition trying to defend and extend past products.