Understand Growth Stalls So You Can Avoid GM, JCPenney and Chipotle

Understand Growth Stalls So You Can Avoid GM, JCPenney and Chipotle

Companies, like aircraft, stall when they don’t have enough “power” to continue to climb.
Everybody wants to be part of a winning company.  As investors, winners maximize portfolio returns.  As employees winners offer job stability and career growth.  As communities winners create real estate value growth and money to maintain infrastructure.  So if we can understand how to avoid the losers, we can be better at picking winners.
It has been 20 years since we recognized the predictive power of Growth Stalls.  Growth Stalls are very easy to identify.  A company enters a Growth Stall when it has 2 consecutive quarters, or 2 successive quarters vs the prior year, of lower revenues or profits.  What’s powerful is how this simple measure indicates the inability of a company to ever grow again.

Only 7% of the time will a company that has a Growth Stall  ever grow at greater than 2%/year.  93% of these companies will never achieve even this minimal growth rate.  38% will trudge along with -2% to 2% growth, losing relevancy as it develops no growth opportunities.  But worse, 55% of companies will go into decline, with sales dropping at 2% or more per year.  In fact 20% will see sales drop at 6% or more per year.  In other words, 93% of companies that have a Growth Stall simply will not grow, and 55% will go into immediate decline.

Growth Stalls happen because the company is somehow “out of step” with its marketplace.  Often this is a problem with the product line becoming less desirable.  Or it can be an increase in new competitors.  Or a change in technology either within the products or in how they are manufactured.  The point is, something has changed making the company less competitive, thus losing sales and/or profits.

Unfortunately, leadership of most companies react to a Growth Stall by doubling down on what they already do.  They vow to cut costs in order to regain lost margin, but this rarely works because the market has shifted.  They also vow to make better products, but this rarely matters because the market is moving toward a more competitive product.  So the company in a Growth Stall keeps doing more of the same, and fortunes worsen.

 But, inevitably, this means someone else, some company who is better aligned with market forces, starts doing considerably better.

This week analysts at Goldman Sachs lowered GM to a sell rating.  This killed a recent rally, and the stock is headed back to $40/share, or lower, values it has not maintained since recovering from bankruptcy after the Great Recession.  GM is an example of a company that had a Growth Stall, was saved by a government bailout, and now just trudges along, doing little for employees, investors or the communities where it has plants in Michigan.

tesla going up a hill

Tesla- enough market power to gain share “uphill”?

By understanding that GM, Ford and Chrysler (now owned by Fiat) all hit Growth Stalls we can start to understand why they have simply been a poor place to invest one’s resources.  They have tried to make cars cheaper, and marginally better.  But who has seen their fortunes skyrocket?  Tesla.  While GM keeps trying to make a lot of cars using outdated processes and technologies Tesla has connected with the customer desire for a different auto experience, selling out its capacity of Model S sedans and creating an enormous backlog for Model 3.  Understanding GM’s Growth Stall would have encouraged you to put your money, career, or community resources into the newer competitor far earlier, rather than the no growth General Motors.

This week, JCPenney’s stock fell to under $3/share.  As JCPenney keeps selling real estate and clearing out inventory to generate cash, analysts now say JCPenney is the next Sears, expecting it to eventually run out of assets and fail. Since 2012 JCP has lost 93% of its market value amidst closing stores, laying off people and leaving more retail real estate empty in its communities.

In 2010 JCPenney entered a Growth Stall.  Hoping to turn around the board hired Ron Johnson, leader of Apple’s retail stores, as CEO.  But Mr. Johnson cut his teeth at Target, and he set out to cut costs and restructure JCPenney in traditional retail fashion.  This met great fanfare at first, but within months the turnaround wasn’t happening, Johnson was ousted and the returning CEO dramatically upped the cost cutting.

The problem was that retail had already started changing dramatically, due to the rapid growth of e-commerce.  Looking around one could see Growth Stalls not only at JCPenney, but at Sears and Radio Shack.  The smart thing to do was exit those traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and move one’s career, or investment, to the huge leader in on-line sales, Amazon.com.  Understanding Growth Stalls would have helped you make a good decision much earlier.

This recent quarter Chipotle Mexican Grill saw analysts downgrade the company, and the stock took another hit, now trading at a value not seen since the end of 2012.  Chipotle leadership blamed bad results on higher avocado prices, temporary store closings due to hurricanes, paying out damages due to a “one time event” of hacking, and public relations nightmares from rats falling out of a store ceiling in Texas and a norovirus outbreak in Virginia.  But this is the typical “things will all be OK soon” sorts of explanations from a leadership team that failed to recognize Chipotle’s Growth Stall.

chipotle employeesPrior to 2015, Chipotle was on a hot streak.  It poured all its cash into new store openings, and the share price went from $50 from the 2006 IPO to over $700 by end of 2015; a 14x improvement in 9 years.  But when it was discovered that ecoli was in Chipotle’s food the company’s sales dropped like a stone.  It turned out that runaway growth had not been supported by effective food safety processes, nor effective store operations processes that would meet the demands of a very large national chain.

But ever since that problem was discovered, management has failed to recognize its Growth Stall required a significant set of changes at Chipotle.  They have attacked each problem like it was something needing individualized attention, and could be rectified quickly so they could “get back to normal.”  And they hoped to turn around public opinion by launching nationwide a new cheese dip product in 2017, despite less than good social media feedback on the product from early customers. They kept attempting piecemeal solutions when the Growth Stall indicated something much bigger was engulfing the company.

What’s needed at Chipotle is a recognition of the wholesale change required to meet customer demands amidst a shift to more growth in independent restaurants, and changing millennial tastes.  From the menu options, to app ordering and immediate delivery, to the importance of social media branding programs and customer testimonials as well as demonstrating commitment to social causes and healthier food Chipotle has fallen out-of-step with its marketplace.  The stock has now lost 66% of its value in just 2 years amidst sales declines and growth stagnation.

We don’t like to study losers.  But understanding the importance of Growth Stalls can be very helpful for your career and investments.  If you identify who is likely to do poorly you can avoid big negatives.  And understanding why the market shifted can lead you to finding a job, or investing, where leadership is headed in the right direction.

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1 – Apply the First Rule of Holes

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

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

Will rogers, american humorist

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

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

Step 2 – Identify the Trend that will Guide Your Strategy

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

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

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

Step 3 – Place Your Bets and Monetize

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

chess pieces and cash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL ratings stalled in 2015

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

Colin Kaepernick kneels 2016, CNN photo

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

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

Live sports is not attracting new, younger viewers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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McDonald’s: Here’s Why Your New Big Mac Is Doomed

(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.

Source: (c) Adam Hartung

Source: (c) Adam Hartung

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.

Why McDonald’s and Apple Investors Should Be Very Wary

Why McDonald’s and Apple Investors Should Be Very Wary

Growth Stalls are deadly for valuation, and both Mcdonald’s and Apple are in one.

August, 2014 I wrote about McDonald’s Growth Stall.  The company had 7 straight months of revenue declines, and leadership was predicting the trend would continue.  Using data from several thousand companies across more than 3 decades, companies in a Growth Stall are unable to maintain a mere 2% growth rate 93% of the time. 55% fall into a consistent revenue decline of more than 2%. 20% drop into a negative 6%/year revenue slide. 69% of Growth Stalled companies will lose at least half their market capitalization in just a few years. 95% will lose more than 25% of their market value.  So it is a long-term concern when any company hits a Growth Stall.

Growth StallA new CEO was hired, and he implemented several changes.  He implemented all-day breakfast, and multiple new promotions.  He also closed 700 stores in 2015, and 500 in 2016.  And he announced the company would move its headquarters from suburban Oakbrook to downtown Chicago, IL. While doing something, none of these actions addressed the fundamental problem of customers switching to competitive options that meet modern consumer food trends far better than McDonald’s.

McDonald’s stock languished around $94/share from 8/2014 through 8/2015 – but then broke out to $112 in 2 months on investor hopes for a turnaround.  At the time I warned investors not to follow the herd, because there was nothing to indicate that trends had changed – and McDonald’s still had not altered its business in any meaningful way to address the new market realities.

Yet, hopes remained high and the stock peaked at $130 in May, 2016.  But since then, the lack of incremental revenue growth has become obvious again. Customers are switching from lunch food to breakfast food, and often switching to lower priced items – but these are almost wholly existing customers.  Not new, incremental customers.  Thus, the company trumpets small gains in revenue per store (recall, the number of stores were cut) but the growth is less than the predicted 2%.  The only incremental growth is in China and Russia, 2 markets known for unpredictable leadership.  The stock has now fallen back to $120.

Given that the realization is growing as to the McDonald’s inability to fundamentally change its business competitively, the prognosis is not good that a turnaround will really happen.  Instead, the common pattern emerges of investors hoping that the Growth Stall was a “blip,” and will be easily reversed.  They think the business is fundamentally sound, and a little management “tweaking” will fix everything.  Small changes will lead to the  classic hockey-stick forecast of higher future growth.  So the stock pops up on short-term news, only to fall back when reality sets in that the long-term doesn’t look so good.

Unfortunately, Apple’s Q3 2016 results (reported yesterday) clearly show the company is now in its own Growth Stall.  Revenues were down 11% vs. last year (YOY or year-over-year,) and EPS (earnings per share) were down 23% YOY.  2 consecutive quarters of either defines a Growth Stall, and Apple hit both.  Further evidence of a Growth Stall exists in iPhone unit sales declining 15% YOY, iPad unit sales off 9% YOY, Mac unit sales down 11% YOY and “other products” revenue down 16% YOY.

This was not unanticipated.  Apple started communicating growth concerns in January, causing its stock to tank. And in April, revealing Q2 results, the company not only verified its first down quarter, but predicted Q3 would be soft.  From its peak in May, 2015 of $132 to its low in May, 2016 of $90, Apple’s valuation fell a whopping 32%!  One could say it met the valuation prediction of a Growth Stall already – and incredibly quickly!

But now analysts are ready to say “the worst is behind it” for Apple investors.  They are cheering results that beat expectations, even though they are clearly very poor compared to last year.  Analysts are hoping that a new, lower baseline is being set for investors that only look backward 52 weeks, and the stock price will move up on additional company share repurchases, a successful iPhone 7 launch, higher sales in emerging countries like India, and more app revenue as the installed base grows – all leading to a higher P/E (price/earnings) multiple. The stock improved 7% on the latest news.

So far, Apple still has not addressed its big problem.  What will be the next product or solution that will replace “core” iPhone and iPad revenues?  Increasingly competitors are making smartphones far cheaper that are “good enough,” especially in markets like China.  And iPhone/iPad product improvements are no longer as powerful as before, causing new product releases to be less exciting.  And products like Apple Watch, Apple Pay, Apple TV and IBeacon are not “moving the needle” on revenues nearly enough.  And while experienced companies like HBO, Netflix and Amazon grow their expanding content creation, Apple has said it is growing its original content offerings by buying the exclusive rights to “Carpool Karaoke – yet this is very small compared to the revenue growth needs created by slowing “core” products.

Like McDonald’s stock, Apple’s stock is likely to move upward short-term.  Investor hopes are hard to kill.  Long-term investors will hold their stock, waiting to see if something good emerges.  Traders will buy, based upon beating analyst expectations or technical analysis of price movements. Or just belief that the P/E will expand closer to tech industry norms. But long-term, unless the fundamental need for new products that fulfill customer trends – as the iPad, iPhone and iPod did for mobile – it is unclear how Apple’s valuation grows.

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

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

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

But whether a decision is good, or not, has a lot of interpretations.  Often the immediate aftermath of a decision may look great.  It might appear as if that decision was obvious.  And often decisions make a lot of people happy.  As we are entering the most intense part of the U.S. Presidential election, both candidates are eager to tell you what decisions they have made – and what decisions they will make if elected.  And most people will look no further than the immediate expected impact of those decisions.

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

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

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

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

President Obama worked the Congress hard to create the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, for everyone in America.  One intention was to make sure employers covered all their workers, so the law required that if an employer had health care for any workers he had to offer that health care to all employees who work over 30 hours per week.  So almost all employers of part time workers suddenly said that none could work more than 30 hours.  Those that worked 32 (4 days/week) or 36 suddenly had their hours cut.  Now those lower-income people not only had no health care, but less money in their pay envelopes.  Oops.  Unintended consequence.

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

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

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

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

Business leaders should follow the same practice.  Every time a decision is necessary, is the best effort made to obtain all the information you could on the topic?  Do you obtain input from your detractors, as well as admirers?  Do you think through not only what is popular, but what will happen months into the future?  Do you consider the potential reaction by your customers?  Employees?  Suppliers?  Competitors?

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

‘Pokémon GO’ – How Nintendo Beat Microsoft and Sony With an End Run

‘Pokémon GO’ – How Nintendo Beat Microsoft and Sony With an End Run

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.

Poke'Mon GoSome 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.

Facebook’s Surge, Apple’s Slide and Chipotle’s Stall – It’s All About Growth

Facebook’s Surge, Apple’s Slide and Chipotle’s Stall – It’s All About Growth

Growth fixes a multitude of sins.  If you grow revenues enough (you don’t even need profits, as Amazon has proven) investors will look past a lot of things.  With revenue growth high enough, companies can offer employees free meals and massages. Executives and senior managers can fly around in private jets.  Companies can build colossal buildings as testaments to their brand, or pay to have thier names on  public buildings.  R&D budgets can soar, and product launches can fail. Acquisitions are made with no concerns for price. Bonuses can be huge.  All is accepted if revenues grow enough.

Just look at Facebook.  Today Facebook announced today that for the quarter ended March, 2016 revenues jumped to $5.4B from $3.5B a year ago.  Net income tripled to $1.5B from $500M.  And the company is basically making all its revenue – 82% – from 1 product, mobile ads.  In the last few years Facebook paid enormous premiums to buy WhatsApp and Instagram – but who cares when revenues grow this fast.

Anticipating good news, Facebook’s stock was up a touch today. But once the news came out, after-hours traders pumped the stock to over $118//share, a new all time high. That’s a price/earnings (p/e) multiple of something like 84.  With growth like that Facebook’s leadership can do anything it wants.

But, when revenues slide it can become a veritable poop puddle. As Apple found out.

Rumors had swirled that Apple was going to say sales were down.  And the stock had struggled to make gains from lows earlier in 2016. When the company’s CEO announced Tuesday that sales were down 13% versus a year ago the stock cratered after-hours, and opened this morning down 10%.  Breaking a streak of 51 straight quarters of revenue growth (since 2003) really sent investors fleeing.  From trading around $105/share the last 4 days, Apple closed today at ~$97.  $40B of equity value was wiped out in 1 day, and the stock trades at a p/e multiple of 10.

The new iPhone 6se outsold projections, iPads beat expectations.  First year Apple Watch sales exceeded first year iPhone sales.  Mac sales remain much stronger than any other PC manufacturer. Apple iBeacons and Apple Pay continue their march as major technologies in the IoT (Internet of Things) market. And Apple TV keeps growing.  There are about 13M users of Apple’s iMusic.  There are 1.5M apps on the iTunes store.  And the installed base keeps the iTunes store growing.  Share buybacks will grow, and the dividend was increased yet again.  But, none of that mattered when people heard sales growth had stopped.  Now many investors don’t think Apple’s leadership can do anything right.

Growth StallYet, that was just one quarter.  Many companies bounce back from a bad quarter.  There is no statistical evidence that one bad quarter is predictive of the next.  But we do know that if sales decline versus a year ago for 2 consecutive quarters that is a Growth Stall.  And companies that hit a Growth Stall rarely (93% of the time) find a consistent growth path ever again.  Regardless of the explanations, Growth Stalls are remarkable predictors of companies that are developing a gap between their offerings, and the marketplace.

Which leads us to Chipotle.  Chipotle announced that same store sales fell almost 30% in Q1, 2016.  That was after a 15% decline in Q4, 2015. And profits turned to losses for the quarter.  That is a growth stall.  Chipotle shares were $750/share back in early October. Now they are $417 – a drop of over 44%.

Customer illnesses have pointed to a company that grew fast, but apparently didn’t have its act together for safe sourcing of local ingredients, and safe food handling by employees.  What seemed like a tactical problem has plagued the company, as more customers became ill in March.

Whether that is all that’s wrong at Chipotle is less clear, however.  There is a lot more competition in the fast casual segment than 2 years ago when Chipotle seemed unable to do anything wrong.  And although the company stresses healthy food, the calorie count on most portions would add pounds to anyone other than an athlete or construction worker – not exactly in line with current trends toward dieting.  What frequently looks like a single problem when a company’s sales dip often turns out to have multiple origins, and regaining growth is nearly always a lot more difficult than leadership expects.

Growth is magical.  It allows companies to invest in new products and services, and buoy’s a stock’s value enhancing acquisition ability.  It allows for experimentation into new markets, and discovering other growth avenues.  But lack of growth is a vital predictor of future performance.  Companies without growth find themselves cost cutting and taking actions which often cause valuations to decline.

Right now Facebook is in a wonderful position.  Apple has investors rightly concerned.  Will next quarter signal a return to growth, or a Growth Stall?  And Chipotle has investors heading for the exits, as there is now ample reason to question whether the company will recover its luster of yore.

What’s Really Happening with United’s Board?

What’s Really Happening with United’s Board?

United Continental Holdings is the most recent public company to come under attack by hedge funds. Last week Altimeter Capital and PAR Capital announced they were using their combined 7.1% ownership of United to propose a slate of 6 new directors to the company’s board. As is common in such hedge fund moves, they expressed strongly their lack of confidence in United’s board, and pointed out multiple years of underperformance.

UALUnited’s leadership is certainly in a tough place. The airline consistently ranks near the bottom in customer satisfaction, and on-time performance. It has struggled for years with labor strife, and the mechanics union just rejected their proposed contract – again. The flight attendant’s union has been in mediation for months. And few companies have had more consistently bad public relations, as customers have loudly complained about how they are treated – including one fellow making a music and speaking career out of how he was abused by United personnel for months after they destroyed his guitar.

But is changing the directors going to change the company? Or is it just changing the guest list for an haute couture affair? Should customers, employees, suppliers and investors expect things to really improve, or is this a selection between the devil and the deep blue sea?

Much was made of the fact that one of the proposed new directors is the former CEO of Continental, Gordon Bethune, who was very willing to speak out loudly and negatively regarding United’s current board. But Mr. Bethune is 74 years old. Today most companies have mandatory director retirement somewhere between age 68 and 72. Retired since 2004, is Mr. Bethune really in step with the needs of airline customers today? Does he really have a current understanding of how the best performing airlines keep customers happy while making money?

And, don’t forget, Mr. Bethune hand picked Mr. Jeff Smisek to replace him at Continental. Mr. Smisek was the fellow who took over Mr. Bethune’s board seat in 2004 after being appointed President and COO when Mr. Bethune retired. Smisek became CEO in 2010, and CEO of United Continental after the merger, and led the ongoing deterioration in United’s performance as well as declining employee moral. And then there’s that pesky problem of Mr. Smisek bribing government officials to improve United’s gate situation in Newark, NJ which caused him to be fired by the current board. Is it coincidental that this attack on the Board did not happen for years, but happens now that there is a new CEO – who happens to be recently recovering from a heart replacement?

Although Mr. Bethune has commented that the new board would be one that understands the airline industry, the slate does not reflect this. Mr. Gerstner is head of Altimiter and by all accounts appears to be a finance expert. That was the background Ed Lampert brought to Sears, another big Chicago company, when he took over that board. And that has not worked out too well at all for any constituents – including investors.

One can give great kudos to the hedge funds for proposing a very diverse slate. Half the proposed directors are either female or of color. And, other than Mr. Bethune, the slate is pretty young – with 2 proposed directors under age 50. Congratulations on achieving diversification! But a deeper look can cause us to wonder exactly what these directors bring to the challenges, and what they are likely to want to change at United.

Rodney O’Neal was the former CEO of Delphi Automotive. A lifelong automotive manager and executive, he graduated from the General Motors Institute and spent his career at GM before going to the parts unit GM had created in 1997 as a Vice President. Many may have forgotten that Delphi famously filed for bankruptcy in 2005, and proceeded to close over half its U.S. plants, then close or sell almost all of the other half in 2006. Mr. O’Neal became CEO in 2007, after which the company closed its plants in Spain despite having signed a commitment letter not to do so. He was CEO in 2008 when the company sued its shareholders.  And in 2009 when the company sold its core assets to private investors, then dumped assets into the bankrupt GM, cancelled the stock and renamed the old Delphi DPH Holdings.  Cutting, selling and reorganizing seem to be his dominant executive experience.

Barney Harford is a young, talented tech executive.  He headed Orbitz, where Mr. Gerstner was on the board.  Orbitz was originally created as the Travelocity and Expedia killer by the major airlines.  Unfortunately, it never did too well and Mr. Harford actually changed the company direction from primarily selling airline tickets to selling hotel rooms.

It is always good to see more women proposed for board positions.  However, Ms. Brenda Yester Baty is an executive with Lennar, a very large Florida-based home builder.  And Ms. Tina Stark leads Sherpa Foundry which has a 1 page web site saying “Sherpa Foundry builds 
bridges between the world’s leading Corporations and the Innovation Economy.”  What that means leaves a lot of room for one’s imagination, and precious little specifics.  What either of these people have to do with creating a major turnaround in the operations of United is unclear.

There is no doubt that United is ripe for change.  Replacing the CEO was clearly a step in the right direction – if a bit late.  But one has to wonder if the new directors are there to make some specific change?  If so, what kind of change?  Despite the rough rhetoric, there has been no proclamation of what the new director slate would actually do differently.  No discussion of a change in strategy – or any changes in any operating characteristics.  Just vague statements about better governance.

Historically most activists take firm aim at cutting costs.  And this is probably why the 2 largest unions have already denounced the new slate, and put their full support behind the existing board of directors. After so many years of ill-will between management and labor at United, one would wonder why these unions would not welcome change.  Unless they fear the new board will be mostly focused on cost-cutting, and further attempts at downsizing and pay/benefits reductions.

Investors will most likely get to vote on this decision.  Keep existing board members, or throw them out in favor of a new slate?  One would like to see United’s reputation, and operations, improve dramatically.  But is changing out 6 directors the answer?  Or are investors facing a vote that has them selecting between 2 less than optimal options?  It would be good if there was less rhetoric, and more focus on actual proposals for change.

The 5 Ways Chairman Lampert Destroyed Sears’ Value

The 5 Ways Chairman Lampert Destroyed Sears’ Value

USAToday alerted investors that when Sears Holdings reports results 2/25/16 they will be horrible.  Revenues down another 8.7% vs. last year. Same store sales down 7.1%. To deal with ongoing losses the company plans to close another 50 stores, and sell another $300million of assets.  For most investors, employees and suppliers this report could easily be confused with many others the last few years, as the story is always the same.  Back in January, 2014 CNBC headlined “Tracking the Slow Death of an Icon” as it listed all the things that went wrong for Sears in 2013 – and they have not changed two years later.  The brand is now so tarnished that Sears Holdings is writing down the value of the Sears name by another $200million – reducing intangible value from the $4B at origination in 2004 to under $2B.

This  has been quite the fall for Sears.  When Chairman Ed Lampert fashioned the deal that had formerly bankrupt Kmart buying Sears in November, 2004 the company was valued at $11billion and 3,500 stores.  Today the company is valued at $1.6billion (a decline of over 85%) and according to Reuters has just under 1,700 stores (a decline of 51%.) According to Bloomberg almost no analysts cover SHLD these days, but one who does (Greg Melich at Evercore ISI) says the company is no longer a viable business, and expects bankruptcy.  Long-term Sears investors have suffered a horrible loss.

When I started business school in 1980 finance Professor Bill Fruhan introduced me to a concept that had never before occurred to me.  Value Destruction.  Through case analysis the good professor taught us that leadership could make decisions that increased company valuation.  Or, they could make decisions that destroyed shareholder value.  As obvious as this seems, at the time I could not imagine CEOs and their teams destroying shareholder value.  It seemed anathema to the entire concept of business education.  Yet, he quickly made it clear how easily misguided leaders could create really bad outcomes that seriously damaged investors.

sears closingAs a case study in bad leadership, Sears under Chairman Lampert offers great lessons in Value Destruction that would serve Professor Fruhan’s teachings well:

1 – Micro-management in lieu of strategy.  Mr. Lampert has been merciless in his tenacity to manage every detail at Sears.  Daily morning phone calls with staff, and ridiculously tight controls that eliminate decision making by anyone other than the top officers.  Additionally, every decision by the officers was questioned again and again.  Explanations took precedent over action as micro-management ate up management’s time, rather than trying to run a successful company.  While store employees and low- to mid-level managers could see competition – both traditional and on-line – eating away at Sears customers and core sales, they were helpless to do anything about it.  Instead they were forced to follow orders given by people completely out of touch with retail trends and customer needs.  Whatever chance Sears and Kmart had to grow the chain against intense competition it was lost by the Chairman’s need to micro-manage.

2 – Manage-by-the-numbers rather than trends.  Mr. Lampert was a finance expert and former analyst turned hedge fund manager and investor.  He truly believed that if he had enough numbers, and he studied them long enough, company success would ensue.  Unfortunately, trends often are not reflected in “the numbers” until it is far, far too late to react. The trend to stores that were cleaner, and more hip with classier goods goes back before Lampert’s era, but he completely missed the trend that drove up sales at Target, H&M and even Kohl’s because he could not see that trend reflected in category sales or cost ratios.  Merchandising – from buying to store layout and shelf positioning – are skills that go beyond numerical analysis but are critical to retail success.  Additionally, the trend to on-line shopping goes back 20 years, but the direct impact on store sales was not obvious until customers had long ago converted.  By focusing on numbers, rather than trends, Sears was constantly reacting rather than being proactive, and thus constantly retreating, cutting stores and cutting product lines.

3 – Seeking confirmation rather than disagreement. Mr. Lampert had no time for staff who did not see things his way.  Mr. Lampert wanted his management team to agree with him – to confirm his Beliefs, Interpretations, Assumptions and Strategies — to believe his BIAS.  By seeking managers who would confirm his views, and execute, rather than disagree Mr. Lampert had no one offering alternative data, interpretations, strategies or tactics.  And, as Mr. Lampert’s plans kept faltering it led to a revolving door of managers.  Leaders came and went in a year or two, blamed for failures that originated at the Chairman’s doorstep.  By forcing agreement, rather than disagreement and dialogue, Sears lacked options or alternatives, and the company had no chance of turning around.

4 – Holding assets too long. In 2004 Sears had a LOT of assets.  Many that could likely be redeployed at a gain for shareholders.  Sears had many owned and leased store locations that were highly valuable with real estate prices climbing from then through 2008.  But Mr. Lampert did not spin out that real estate in a REIT, capturing the value for SHLD shareholders while the timing was good.  Instead he held those assets as real estate in general plummeted, and as retail real estate fell even further as more revenue shifted to e-commerce.  By the time he was ready to sell his REIT much of the value was depleted.

Additionally, Sears had great brands in 2004.  DieHard batteries, Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances and Lands End apparel were just 4 household brands that still had high customer appeal and tremendous value.  Mr. Lampert could have sold those brands to another retailer (such as selling DieHard to WalMart, for example) as their house brands, capturing that value.  Or he could have mass marketd the brand beyond the Sears store to increase sales and value.  Or he could have taken one or more brands on-line as a product leader and “category killer” for ecommerce customers.  But he did not act on those options, and as Sears and Kmart stores faded, so did these brands – which largely no longer have any value.  Had he sold when value was high there were profits to be made for investors.

5 – Hubris – unfailingly believing in oneself regardless the outcomes.  In May, 2012 I wrote that Mr. Lampert was the 2nd worst CEO in America and should fire himself. This was not a comment made in jest.  His initial plans had all panned out very badly, and he had no strategy for a turnaround.  All results, from all programs implemented during his reign as Chairman had ended badly.  Yet, despite these terrible numbers Mr. Lampert refused to recognize he was the wrong person in the wrong job.  While it wasn’t clear if anyone could turn around the problems at Sears at such a late date, it was clear Mr. Lampert was not the person to do it.  If Mr. Lampert had been as self-analytical as he was critical of others he would have long before replaced himself as the leader at Sears.  But hubris would not allow him to do this, he remained blind to his own failings and the terrible outcome of a failed company was pretty much sealed.

From $11B valuation and a $92/share stock price at time of merging KMart and Sears, to a $1.6B valuation and a $15/share stock price.  A loss of $9.4B (that’s BILLION DOLLARS).  That is amazing value destruction. In a world where employees are fired every day for making mistakes that cost $1,000, $100 or even $10 it is a staggering loss created by Mr. Lampert.  At the very least we should learn from his mistakes in order to educate better, value creating leaders.