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.
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
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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Amid all the political news last week it was easy to miss announcements in the business world. Especially one that was relatively small, like Starbucks announcement on Thursday July 27, 2017 that it was closing all 379 of its Teavana stores. While these will be missed by some product fanatics, the decision is almost immaterial given that these units represent only about 3% of Starbucks US stores, and about 1.5% of the 25,000 Starbucks globally.
Yet, closing Teavana is a telltale sign of concern for Starbucks investors.
Starbucks founding CEO Howard Schultz returned to the top job in January, 2008, promising to get out of distractions such as music production, movie production, internet sales, grocery products, liquor products and even in-store food sales in order to return the company to its “core” coffee business. Since then Starbucks valuation has risen some 5.5-6 fold, from $9.45/share to the recent range of $54 to $60 per share. A much better return than the roughly doubling of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same timeframe.
Yet, one should take time to evaluate what this closing means for the long-term future of Starbucks. This is the second time Starbucks made an acquisition only to shut it down. In 2015 Starbucks closed all 23 La Boulange bakery cafes, with little fanfare. Now, after paying $620M to buy Teavana in 2012, they are closing all those stores. While leadership blamed its decision on declining mall visits (undoubtedly a fact) for the closures, Teavana is not missing goals due to the Amazon Effect. There are multiple options for how to market Teavana’s fresh and packaged products far beyond mall store locations. Choosing to close all stores indicates leadership has minimal interest in the brand.
Starbucks’ focus leaves little opportunity for new growth
It increasingly appears that today’s Starbucks literally isn’t interested, or able, to do anything other than build, and operate, more Starbucks stores. And Starbucks is clearly doubling down on its plans to be Starbucks store-centric. The company opened 575 new units in the last year, and announced plans to open more stores creating 68,000 additional US jobs in the next 5 years. Further, Starbucks is paying $1.3B to buy the half of its China business previously owned by a partner. Clearly, leadership continues to tighten company focus on the “core” coffee store business for the future.
This sounds great short-term, given how well things have gone the last 8 years. But there are concerns. Sales are up 4% last quarter, but that is wholly based upon higher prices. Customer counts are flat, indicating that stores are not attracting new customers from competitors. Sales gains are due to average ticket prices increasing 5%, which is marginal and likely refers to higher priced products. Starbucks is now relying completely on new stores to create incremental growth, since bringing in new customers to existing stores is not happening.
Frequently this stagnant store sales metric indicates store saturation. A bad sign. Does the US, or international markets, really need more, new Starbucks stores? It was 2010 when comedian Lewis Black had a successful viral rant (PG version) claiming that when he observed a Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks he knew it was the end of civilization.
What happens when the market doesn’t need new Starbucks stores?
One does have to wonder when the maximum number of Starbucks will be reached. Especially given the ever growing number of competitors in all markets. Direct competitors such as Caribou Coffee, The Coffee Bean, Seattle’s Best, Gloria Jean’s, Costa, Lavazza, Tully’s, Peet’s and literally dozens of chain and independent coffee shops are competing for Starbucks’ customers. Simultaneously competition from low priced alternatives is emerging from brands like Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s, now catering more to coffee lovers. And non-coffee fast casual shops are seeking to attract more people for congregating, such as Panera, Fuddruckers, Pei Wei, TGI Friday’s and others. All of these are competitors, either directly or indirectly, for the customer dollars sought by Starbucks. Are more Starbucks stores going to succeed?
As McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and other fast food chains learned the hard way, there comes a time when a brand has built all the market needs. Then leadership has to figure out how to do something else. McDonald’s invested heavily in Boston Market and Chipotle’s, but let those high growth operations go when it decided to refocus on its “core” hamburger business – leading to heavy valuation declines. Starbucks is closing Teavana, but should it? When will Starbucks saturate? And what will Starbucks do to grow when that happens?
Starbucks has had a great run. And that run appears not fully over. But long-term investors have reason to worry.
Is it smart to make such a huge bet on China?
Will store growth successfully continue, with all the stores that already exist?
Will direct and indirect competitors eat away at market share?
What will Starbucks do when it has reached it market maximum, and it doesn’t seem to have any emerging new store concepts to build upon?
Amazon just had another record Prime Day, with sales up 60%. And the #1 product sold was Amazon’s Echo Dot speaker. At $34.99 it surpassed last year’s unit sales by seven-fold. And the traditional Echo speaker, marked down 50% to $90, broke all previous sales records.
Amazon just took a commanding lead in the voice assistant platform market
These Echo sales most likely sealed Amazon’s long-term leadership in the war to be the #1 voice assistant. Amazon already has 70% market share in voice activated speakers, nearly 3 times #2 provider Google. And all other vendors in total barely have 5% share.
While it may seem like digital speakers are no big deal, speaker sales are analogous to iPhone sales when evaluating the emergence of smartphones and apps. The iPhone seemed like a small segment until it became clear smartphones were the new personal technology platform. Apple’s early lead allowed iOS to dominate the growth cycle, making the company intensely profitable.
Echo and Echo Dot aren’t just speakers, but interfaces to voice activated virtual assistants. For Echo the platform is Amazon’s Alexa. Alexa is to voice activated devices and applications what iOS was to Smartphones. By talking to Alexa customers are able to do many things, such as shopping, altering their thermostats, opening and closing doors, raising and lowering blinds, recording people in their homes — the list is endless. And as that list grows customers are buying more Alexa devices to gain greater productivity and enhanced lifestyle. Echos are entering more homes, and multiplying across rooms in these homes.
Do you remember when early iPhone ads touted “there’s an app for that?” That tagline told customers if they changed from a standard mobile phone to a smartphone there were a lot of advantages, measured by the number of available apps. Just like iOS apps gave an advantage to owning an iPhone, Alexa skills give an advantage to owning Echo products. In the last year the number of skills available for Alexa has exploded, growing from 135 to 15,000. Quite obviously developers are building on Alexa much faster than any other voice assistant.
By radically cutting the price of both Echo Dot and Echo, and promoting sales, Amazon is creating an installed base of units which encourages developers to write even more skills/apps.
The more Alexa devices are installed, the more likely developers will write additional skills for Alexa. As more devices lead to more skills, skills leads to more Alexa/Echo capability, which encourages more people to buy Alexa activated devices, which further encourages even more skills development. It’s a virtuous circle of goodness, all leading to more Amazon growth.
For marketers it is important to realize that success really doesn’t correlate with how “good” Alexa works. Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana perform better at voice recognition and providing appropriate responses than Alexa and Siri. But there are relatively few (almost no) devices in the marketplace built with Assistant or Cortana as the interface. Developers need their skills/apps to be on platforms customers use. If customers are buying speakers, thermostats and televisions that are embedded with Alexa, then developers will write for Alexa. Even if it has shortcomings. It’s not the product quality that determines the winner, but rather the ability to create a base of users.
It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker. Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales. By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.
It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker. Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales. By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.
This is a horrible problem for Google, #2 in this market, because Google does not have the retail clout to place millions of their speakers (and other devices) in the market. Google is not a device company, nor a powerful retailer of Android devices. The Android device makers need to profit from their devices, so they cannot afford to sell devices unprofitably in order to build an installed base for Google. And because Android’s platform is not applied consistently across device manufacturers, Google Assistant skills cannot be assured of operating on every Android phone. All of which makes the decision to build Google Assistant skills problematic for developers.
Can Apple Stop the Alexa juggernaut?
The game is not over. Apple would like customers to use Siri on their iPhones to accomplish what Amazon and Alexa do with Echo. Apple has an enormous iPhone base, and all have Siri embedded. Perhaps Apple can encourage developers to create Siri-integrated apps which will beat back the Amazon onslaught?
Today, Apple customers still cannot use Siri to control their Apple TV (Though as of August, 2017, it’s been improved.), or make payments with ApplePay, for example. Nor can iPhone users tell Siri to execute commands for remote systems which are controlled by apps, like unlocking doors, turning on appliances, shooting remote security video or placing an on-line order. Apple has a lot of devices, and apps, but so far Siri is not integrated in a way that allows voice activation like can be done with Alexa.
Additionally, as big as the iPhone installed base has become, when comparing markets the actual raw number of speakers could catch up with iPhones. Echo Dot is $35. The cheapest iPhone is the SE, at $399 (on the Apple site although available from Best Buy at $160.) And an iPhone 7 starts at $650. The huge untapped Apple markets, such as China and India, will find it a lot easier to purchase low cost speakers than iPhones, especially if their focus is to use some of those 15,000 skills. And because of the low pricing ($35 to $90) it is easy to buy multiple devices for multiple locations in one’s home or office.
Will we look back and call Echo a Disruptive Innovation?
Recall the wisdom of Clayton Christensen‘s “Innovator’s Dilemma.” The incumbent keeps improving their product, hoping to maintain a capability lead over the competition. But eventually the incumbent far overshoots customer needs, developing a product that is overly enhanced. The disruptive innovator enters the market with a considerably “less good” product, but it meets customer needs at a much lower price. People buy the cheaper product to meet their limited goal, and bypass the more capable but more expensive early market leader.
Doesn’t this sound remarkably similar to the development of iPhones (now on version 8 and expected to sell at over $1,000) compared with a $35 speaker that is far less capable, but still does 15,000 interesting things?
The biggest loser in this new market is Microsoft
This week Microsoft announced another 1,500 layoffs in what has become an annual bloodletting ritual for the PC software giant. But even worse was the announcement that Microsoft would no longer support any version of Windows Phone OS version 8.1 or older – which is 80% of the Windows Phone market. Given that Microsoft has less than 2% market share, and that less than .4% of the installed smartphone base operates on Windows Phone, killing support for these phones will lead to sales declines. This action, along with gutting the internal developer team last year, clearly indicates Microsoft has given up on the phone business for good. This means that now Microsoft has no device platform for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant, to use.
Microsoft ignored smartphones, allowing Apple’s iOS to become the early standard. Apple rapidly grew its installed base. Microsoft could not convince developers to write for Windows Phone because there weren’t enough devices in the market. Without a phone base, with tablet and hybrid sales flat to declining, and with PC sales in the gutter Cortana enters the market DOA (Dead On Arrival.) Even if it were the best voice assistant on the planet developers will not create skills for Cortana because there are no devices out there using Cortana as the interface.
So Microsoft completely missed yet another market. This time the market for voice activated devices in the smart phone, smart car or any other smart device in the IoT marketplace. It missed mobile, and now it has missed voice assist. As PC sales decline, Microsoft’s only hope is to somehow emerge a big winner in cloud storage and services (IaaS or Infrastructure as a Service) with Azure. But, Azure was a late-comer to the cloud market and is far behind Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services.) Amazon has +40% market share, which is 40% more than the share of Microsoft, Google and IBM combined.
Build the base and developers will come…
Tuesday American celebrates Independence Day, and the decision to break away as a colony from England. Since then America has been on quite a growth journey, and today most Americans cannot imagine a world where the USA is not the dominant power. They were born post World War II and simply believe that America was once the great world power, and always will be. Like it is some God-given immutable right.
But it’s not.
Statista, UN Division
From the early 1800s well into the middle 1900s America had one of the fastest population growth rates in the world. “Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is on the Statue of Liberty for no small reason – America accepted floods of immigrants from around the world as westward expansion and the industrial age created huge opportunity for everyone. People flooded America, and many people had very large families. Well into the 1900s it was not uncommon for people to have 6, 8 or 10 siblings.
- Boomers were raised being told “eat your dinner, there’s a starving child in India who would love to have that. India struggled to build its own economy after Ghandi evicted the English. And in the 1950s and 1960s it was a remarkably poor country. But today, India is a thriving, growing advanced society. Yes, there are still many poor in India. But it is no longer a country to be pooh-poohed as an also ran. It has a flourishing economy, advanced home developed technology and a sophisticated military. Today about 15% of Indians are Muslim; so about 175M people. But the Muslim population is the fastest growing, and by 2050 there will be 310M Indian Muslims, or a population about 80% the size of the entire United States.
- American’s treat Africa as the home of former slaves. Far too many Americans simply ignore the continent and its issues of civil wars and genocide entirely – as if it is unimportant. However, by 2050 there will be more people in Nigeria than America. Today about half of Nigerians are Muslim. By 2050 that will grow to 60%, or 245M, which will be almost 2/3 the entire U.S. population. Additionally, Nigeria is an oil rich country that is a major player in energy markets. And a strong trading partner with China.
- Americans think of countries like Indonesia and Pakistan as small and remote. But by 2050 these two countries will have 630M people, which will be 50% more than the USA. And their populations are almost entirely Muslim. Additionally, Indonesia is an oil rich country that is also a major player in energy markets.
- Americans’ ignorance of Africa will be forced to change, as other African countries continue to grow. Areas Americans think of as barren, poverty-stricken wastelands in the Congo and Ethiopia will grow to over 300M people. The famine and bloodshed from internal strife will expand, creating ongoing refugee problems and spreading of global diseases.
- While China’s population is shrinking, the country’s emergence from the draconian times of Chairman Mao and his infamous Gang of Four is long gone. China is no longer a backwater country lacking infrastructure, technology or an advanced military. China now has nuclear capability, and has an active space program. The Chinese have demonstrated they can move resources very fast on everything from infrastructure projects to technology, and China is a very active investor in projects across Africa and Latin America. As American policy has retrenched from these areas, the Chinese are actively stepping in with money, one-upping the USA in using capitalism to win hearts, minds and foreign policy partners.
When the boomers were born America was rich in natural resources, had a growing economy, and had avoided the devastation that was left behind in Japan, Europe parts of southeast Asia and north Africa. India was an emerging country, finding its way after refuting colonialism. And China was off the world stage due to the inwardly focused leadership. So Americans have lived a very long time thinking that the world will always be a Christian, capitalist, democratic place where the USA’s domination could not be challenged.
But many things have changed dramatically, and many more changes are coming soon enough. In a few short years population growth will make America a relatively far smaller country. And both technology skill development and understanding how to use capitalism have unleashed dramatic growth in what were formerly derisively referred to as “emerging” countries. “Emerging” implying that America had nothing to concern itself as regards these countries.
Zulu were some of the most feared warriors in Africa. But, they had a practice of being inwardly focused. As they looked inward they did not fear external enemies, but only those who came into their inner circle. Approaching their internal circle could invite attack, and demolition. But, eventually the external enemies became too many, and too far reaching, and the inwardly focused Zulu were attacked on multiple fronts from a growing host of enemies. The Zulu lost their domination as Africa’s military leaders.
Americans must address their inclination for inwardly focusing on “what’s good for America.” It is naively affixing self-blinders to think policy decisions can be made independently of the world community, and without harmful retribution. There are a lot more “of them” than their are “of us.” And the majority of “them” have nuclear weapons just as powerful as “ours.” And “their” economies are just as strong as “ours.” In many cases actually a lot stronger. These countries can stand on their own without U.S. support, and they can implement policies which can be very destructive to U.S. economic interests globally. And they can form their own coalitions to avoid working with America.
As other countries grow, those that choose to ignore immigration and the global movement of people will be big losers. Today Japan is struggling, losing economic power annually, because it refuses to endorse a robust immigration policy. Unfortunately, the same thing cold happen to America as its population growth rate falls, and its economic growth falls with it. Outlawing sanctuary cities that help immigrants merge into American society is a misbegotten policy based on false assumptions about America’s lack of need for immigrants to remain globally competitive.
If America chooses to start all-out trade wars to protect its economy, America could be isolated and likely lose more than it gains. Where once American resources and technology were essential, that is far less true today. European countries have every bit the technology and investment skills of Americans, as do the Chinese and many other countries. Just look at how many of your beloved products, such as mobile phones, computers, TVs, and game consoles, are not made in America at all. There are ample trade opportunities between all countries to supply each other with goods and products, including commodities such as wheat, coal, oil, lumber and gold, that could bypass America entirely.
If America starts a shooting war it is far from clear that it will be as untouched as WWII. And far from clear who will “win,” especially if nuclear war ensues.
And while it is tempting to think that God is on the side of Christians, ignoring the growth of Islam is as foolish as the Romans attempting to ignore the growth of Christianity. Thinking that the growth of Islam is a “Middle Eastern problem” is a dramatic understatement of the situation. Population growth rates of Muslims are far greater globally than other religions. It is ridiculous to think that Islam will not be a major part of the world religious landscape. Thinking that Islam is a problem is hyperbole. Thinking America can isolate itself from Islam is simply an hallucination.
Demographic trends are powerful forecasters. They are very easy to predict, and almost always correct. And they foretell a lot about how we will live and work in the future. The key to good policy making is understanding these trends and working to take advantage of them for growth. Ignoring them is a perilous journey that always ends very badly. Since many of the trends are obvious, isn’t it time to plan for them effectively?
Last week Microsoft announced its new Surface Pro 5 tablet would be available June 15. Did you miss it? Do you care?
Do you remember when it was a big deal that a major tech company released a new, or upgraded, device? Does it seem like increasingly nobody cares?
Non-phone device sales are declining, while smartphone sales accelerate
This chart compares IDC sales data, and forecasts, with adjustments to the forecast made by the author. The adjustments offer a fix to IDC’s historical underestimates of PC and tablet sales declines, while simultaneously underestimating sales growth in smartphones.
Since 2010 people are buying fewer desktops and laptops. And after tablet sales ramped up through 2013, tablet purchases have declined precipitously as well. Meanwhile, since 2014 sales of smartphones have doubled, or more, sales of all non-phone devices. And it’s also pretty clear that these trends show no signs of changing.
Why such a stark market shift? After all desktop and laptop sales grew consistently for some 3 decades. Why are they in such decline? And why did the tablet market make such a rapid up, then down movement? It seems pretty clear that people have determined they no longer need large internal hard drives to work locally, nor big keyboards and big screens of non-phone devices. Instead, they can do so much with a phone that this device is becoming the only one they need.
Today a new desktop starts at $350-$400. Laptops start as low as $180, and pretty powerful ones can be had for $500-$700. Tablets also start at about$180, and the newest Microsoft Surface 5 costs $800. Smartphones too start at about $150, and top of the line are $600-$800. So the purchase decision today is not based on price. All devices are more-or-less affordable, and with a range of capabilities that makes price not the determining factor.
Smartphones let most people do most of what they need to do
Every month the Internet-of-Things (IoT) is putting more data in the cloud. And developers are figuring out how to access that data from a smartphone. And smartphone apps are making it increasingly easy to find data, and interact with it, without doing a lot of typing. And without doing a lot of local processing like was commonplace on PCs. Instead, people access the data – whether it is financial information, customer sales and order data, inventory, delivery schedules, plant performance, equipment performance, maintenance specs, throughput, other operating data, web-based news, weather, etc. — via their phone. And they are able to analyze the data with apps they either buy, or that their companies have built or purchased, that don’t rely on an office suite.
Additionally, people are eschewing the old forms of connecting — like email, which benefits from a keyboard — for a combination of texting and social media sites. Why type a lot of words when a picture and a couple of emojis can do the trick?
And nobody listens to CD-based, or watches DVD-based, entertainment any longer. They either stream it live from an app like Pandora, Spotify, StreamUp, Ustream, GoGo or Facebook Live, or they download it from the cloud onto their phone.
To obtain additional insight into just how prevalent this shift to smartphones has become look beyond the USA. According to IDC there are about 1.8 billion smartphone users globally. China has nearly 600M users, and India has over 300 million users — so they account for at least half the market today. And those markets are growing by far the fastest, increasing purchases every quarter in the range of 15-25% more than previous years.
Chinese manufacturers are rapidly catching up to Apple and Samsung – there will be losers
Clayton Christensen often discusses how technology developers “overshoot” user needs. Early market leaders keep developing enhancements long after their products do all people want, producing upgrades that offer little user benefit. And that has happened with PCs and most tablets. They simply do more than people need today, due to the capabilities of the cloud, IoT and apps. Thus, in markets like China and India we see the rapid uptake of smartphones, while demand for PCs, laptops and tablets languish. People just don’t need those capabilities when the smartphone does what they want — and provides greater levels of portability and 24x7 access, which are benefits greatly treasured.
And that is why companies like Microsoft, Dell and HP really have to worry. Their “core” products such as Windows, Office, PCs, laptops and tablets are getting smaller. And these companies are barely marginal competitors in the high growth sales of smartphones and apps. As the market shifts, where will their revenues originate? Cloud services, versus Amazon AWS? Game consoles?
Even Apple and Samsung have reasons to worry. In China Apple has 8.4% market share, while Samsung has 6%. But the Chinese suppliers Oppo, Vivo, Huawei and Xiaomi have 58.4%. And as 2016 ended Chinese manufacturers, including Lenovo, OnePlus and Gionee, were grabbing over 50% of the Indian market, while Samsung has about 20% and Apple is yet to participate. How long will Apple and Samsung dominate the global market as these Chinese manufacturers grow, and increase product development?
When looking at trends it’s easy to lose track of the forest while focusing on individual trees. Don’t become mired in the differences, and specs, comparing laptops, hybrids, tablets and smartphones. Recognize the big shift is away from all devices other than smartphones, which are constantly increasing their capabilities as cloud services and IoT grows. So buy what suits your, and your company’s, needs — without “overbuying” because capabilities just keep improving. And keep your eyes on new, emerging competitors because they have Apple and Samsung in their sites.
Writing on trends, I frequently profile tech companies that use trends to outperform competitors. But using trends is not restricted to tech companies.
By following trends, since 1998 Alexandria Real Estate Equities has tripled the performance of the NASDAQ, quadrupled returns of the S&P 500, and quintupled the Russell 2000. Alexandria has even outperformed technology stalwart Microsoft, and investment guru Berkshire Hathaway by 230%.
Although you probably never heard of it, Alexandria has trounced its real estate peers. Over the last three years Alexandria has returned double the FTSE NAREIT Equity Office Index, and double the SNL US REIT Office Index. Alexandria’s value has almost doubled during this time, and produced returns 2.3 times better than such well known competitors as Vornado Realty Trust and Boston Properties.
In 1983, Joel Marcus was a lawyer in the IPO market when he noticed the high value launch of biotech firms like Amgen and Genentech. He began tracking the growth of biotechs to see what kind of opportunity might appear to serve these high growth companies.
By 1994 Marcus realized that these companies were struggling to find appropriate real estate to serve their unique needs for laboratory space, and the infrastructure these labs require. It was a classic under-served market, and it was growing fast.
Jacobs Engineering (NYSE:JEC) was serving some of these companies’ needs, including erecting structures for them. But Jacobs did not own any buildings or consider itself a real estate developer. So Marcus approached Jacobs about starting a company to meet the real estate needs of this high growth biotech industry. Marcus put up some money, Jacobs put up some money, and other friends/associates combined to raise $19 million. There was no professionally managed money involved – and no real estate developers.
Focusing on the rapidly expanding biotech scene in San Diego, the newly created Alexandria bought 4 buildings. They refocused the buildings on the unserved needs of local biotech companies and did a quick flip, breaking even on the transaction. With just a bit of money Alexandria had proven that the market existed, the trend was real and users were under-served.
But, like any idea based on an emerging trend, growing was not easy. Using their first transaction as “proof of concept” CEO Marcus and his team set out to raise $100 million. Quickly Paine Webber (now UBS) secured $75 million in debt financing. But moving forward required raising $25 million in equity.
Over the next few weeks Alexandria pitched a slew of nay-sayers. From GE Capital to CALPERS investors felt that their first deal was a “1-trick pony,” and this “niche market” was not a sustainable business. Finally, after 29 failed pitches, the AEW pension fund, an early stage real estate investor, saw the trend and invested.
The Alexandria team realized that fast client growth meant there was no time to develop from ground up. They focused on high growth geographies for biotech, places where the trend was more pronounced, and bought 11 existing properties:
- In Seattle they found a cancer center they could buy, improve and do a sale-leaseback
- In San Francisco they identified a portfolio of properties in Alameda they could improve, lease to biotech companies and even suit the needs of the FDA as a tenant
- In Maryland they identified opportunities to support the lab needs of the Army Corps of Engineers forensic research lab, and ATF testing lab for imported vodka, and a medical testing lab near Dulles – which is now leased to Quest Diagnostics
Realizing that companies needing labs tended to cluster, leadership focused on finding locations where clusters were likely to emerge. They bought land in San Francisco, San Diego, New York and Worcester, MA. What looked like risky locations to others looked like profitable opportunities to Alexandria due to their superior trend research.
Historically pharma companies built their headquarters, and labs, in suburban locations where development was easy, and labs were welcome. Alexandria realized the new trend for emerging companies was to be near universities in urban environments, and although land was costly — and development more difficult — this was the right place to leverage the trend.
Today Alexandria is the bona fide market leader in labs and tech facilities in the USA. By seeing the trend early they bought land which is now so expensive it is practically untouchable – even for $1 billion. Their development pipeline includes Mission Bay, Kendall Square, the Manhattan borough of New York City and RTP (Research Triangle Park.) Today companies want to be where the lab is — and frequently the lab space is now owned, or being developed, by Alexandria.
This didn’t happen by accident. Not at the beginning nor as Alexandria plans its future growth. The company maintains a team of 13 researchers studying market trends in technology, and under-served real estate needs. They constantly track employers of tech/research people, competitors, historical and emerging customers — and identify prospective tech tenants who will need specialized real estate. A few of the leading trends Alexandria follows include:
- Urbanization — The siloed campuses set in bucolic suburbs is the past
- Innovation externalization — Over 50% of innovation in big pharma is now outsourced. And universities are spinning out innovations faster than ever into development centers for testing and commercialization
- Nutrition and disease management — These are emerging markets ripe with new products making their way to commercialization, and needing space to grow
Alexandria’s historical and ongoing successes relied first and foremost on using trends to understand underserved markets where needs will soon be the greatest. This is an important lesson for all businesses. No matter what you do, what you sell, or your industry you can generate higher returns, outperform your peers, and outperform the market rewarding investors by identifying trends and investing in them.
Thanks to Joel Marcus for providing an interview to explain the history and current practices at Alexandria.
(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.
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Traditional retailers just keep providing more bad news. Payless Shoes said it plans to file bankruptcy next week, closing 500 of its 4,000 stores. Most likely it will follow the path of Radio Shack, which hasn’t made a profit since 2011. Radio Shack filed bankruptcy and shut a gob of stores as part of its “turnaround plan.” Then in February Radio Shack filed its second bankruptcy — most likely killing the chain entirely this time.
Sears Holdings finally admitted it probably can’t survive as a going concern this week. Sears has lost over $10 billion since 2010 — when it last showed a profit — and owes over $4 billion to its creditors. Retail stocks cratered Monday as the list of retailers closing stores accelerated: Sears, KMart, Macy’s, Radio Shack, JCPenney, American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Limited, CVS, GNC, Office Depot, HHGregg, The Children’s Place and Crocs are just some of the household names that are slowly (or not so slowly) dying.
None of this should be surprising. By the time CEO Ed Lampert merged KMart with Sears the trend to e-commerce was already pronounced. Anyone could build an excel spreadsheet that would demonstrate as online retail grew, brick-and-mortar retail would decline. In the low margin world of retail, profits would evaporate. It would be a blood bath. Any retailer with any weakness simply would not survive this market shift — and that clearly included outdated store concepts like Sears, KMart and Radio Shack which long ago were outflanked by on-line shopping and trendier storefronts.
Yet, not everyone is ready to give up on some retailers. Walmart, for example, still trades at $70 per share, which is higher than it traded in 2015 and about where it traded back in 2012. Some investors still think that there are brick-and-mortar outfits that are either immune to the trends, or will survive the shake-out and have higher profits in the future.
And that is why we have to be very careful about business myths. There are a lot of people that believe as markets shrink the ultimate consolidation will leave one, or a few, competitors who will be very profitable. Capacity will go away, and profits will return. In the end, they believe if you are the last buggy whip maker you will be profitable — so investors just need to pick who will be the survivor and wait it out. And, if you believe this, then you have justified owning Walmart.
Only, markets don’t work that way. As industries consolidate they end up with competitors who either lose money or just barely eke out a small profit. Think about the auto industry, airlines or land-line telecom companies.
Two factors exist which effectively forces all the profits out of these businesses and therefore make it impossible for investors to make money long-term.
First, competitive capacity always remains just a bit too much for the market need. Management, and often investors, simply don’t want to give up in the face of industry consolidation. They keep hoping to reach a rainbow that will save them. So capacity lingers and lingers — always pushing prices down even as costs increase. Even after someone fails, and that capacity theoretically goes away, someone jumps in with great hopes for the future and boosts capacity again. Therefore, excess capacity overhangs the marketplace forcing prices down to break-even, or below, and never really goes away.
Given the amount of retail real estate out there and the bargains being offered to anyone who wants to open, or expand, stores this problem will persist for decades in retail.
Second, demand in most markets keeps declining. Hopefuls project that demand will “stabilize,” thus balancing the capacity and allowing for price increases. Because demand changes aren’t linear, there are often plateaus that make it appear as if demand won’t go down more. But then something changes — an innovation, regulatory change, taste change — and demand takes another hit. And all the hope goes away as profits drop, again.
It is not a successful strategy to try being the “last man standing” in any declining market. No competitor is immune to these forces when markets shift. No matter how big, when trends shift and new forms of competition start growing every old-line company will be negatively affected. Whether fast, or slow, the value of these companies will continue declining until they eventually become worthless.
Nor is it successful long-term to try and segment the business into small groupings which management thinks can be protected. When Xerox brought to market photocopying, small offset press manufacturers (ABDick and Multigraphics ) said not to worry. Xeroxing might be OK in some office installations, but there were customer segments that would forever use lithography. Even as demand shrunk, well into the 1990s, they said that big corporations, industrial users, government entities, schools and other segments would forever need the benefits of lithography, so investors were safe. Today the small offset press market is a tiny fraction of its size in the 1960s. ABDick and Multigraphics both went through rounds of bankruptcies before disappearing. Xerography, its child desktop publishing, and its grandchild electronic screens, killed offset for almost all applications.
So don’t be lured into false hopes by retailers who claim their segment is “protected.” Short-term things might not look bad. But the market has already shifted to e-commerce and this is just round one of change. More and more innovations are coming that will make the need for traditional stores increasingly unnecessary.
Many readers have expressed their disappointment in my chronic warnings about Walmart. But those warnings are no different than my warnings about Sears Holdings. It’s just that the timing may be different. Both companies have been over-investing in assets (brick-and-mortar stores) that are declining in value as they have attempted to defend and extend their old business model. Both radically under-invested in new markets which were cannibalizing their old business. And, in the end, both will end up with the same results.
And this is true for all retailers that depend on traditional brick-and-mortar sales for their revenues and profits — it’s only a matter of when things will go badly, not if. So traditional retail is nowhere that any investor wants to be.
(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.
Ten Deadly Sins Of Networking
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.