Amazon Alexa Is Becoming Ubiquitous – And That’s an Apple Threat

Amazon Alexa Is Becoming Ubiquitous – And That’s an Apple Threat

One in five American homes with wifi now has an Amazon Alexa. And the acceptance rate is growing. To me that seems remarkable. I remember when we feared Google keeping all those searches we did. Then the fears people seemed to have about Facebook knowing our friends, families and what we talked about. Now it appears that people have no fear of “big brother” as they rapidly adopt a technology into their homes which can hear pretty near everything that is said, or that happens.

It goes to show that for most people, convenience is still incredibly important. Give us mobile phones and we let land-lines go, because mobile is so convenient – even if more expensive and lower quality. Give us laptops we let go of the traditional office, taking our work everywhere, even at a loss of work-life balance. Give us e-commerce and we start letting retailers keep our credit card information, even if it threatens our credit security. Give us digital documents via Kindle, or a smart device on the web grabbing short articles and pdf files, and we get rid of paper books and magazines. Give us streaming and we let go of physical entertainment platforms, choosing to download movies for one-time use, even though we once thought “owning” our entertainment was important.

With each new technology we make the trade-off between convenience and something we formerly thought was important. Such as quality, price, face-to-face communications, shopping in a store, owning a book or our entertainment – and even security and privacy. For all the hubbub that regulators, politicians and the “old guard” throws up about how important these things were, it did not take long for these factors to not matter as convenience outweighed what we used to think we wanted.

Now, voice activation is becoming radically important. With Google Assistant and Alexa we no longer have to bother with a keyboard interface (who wants to type?) or even a small keypad – we can just talk to our smart device. There is no doubt that is convenient. Especially when that device learns from what we say (using augmented intelligence) so it increasingly is able to accurately respond to our needs with minimal commands. Yes, this device is invading our homes, our workplaces and our lives – but it is increasingly clear that for the convenience offered we will make that trade-off. And thus what Alexa can do (measured in number of skills) has grown from zero to over 45,000 in just under 3 years.

And now, Amazon is going to explode the things Alexa can do for us. Historically Amazon controlled Alexa’s Skills market, allowing very few companies to make money off Alexa transactions. But going forward Amazon is monetizing Alexa, and developers can keep 70% of the in-skill purchase revenues customers make. Buy a product or service via Alexa and developers can now make a lot of money. And, simultaneously, Amazon is offering a “code-free” skills developer, expanding the group of people who can write skills in just minutes. In other words, Amazon is setting off a gold rush for Alexa skills development, while simultaneously making the products remarkably cheap to own.

This is horrible news for Apple. Apple’s revenue stagnated in 2016, declining year over year for 3 consecutive quarters. I warned folks then that this was a Growth Stall, which often implies a gap is developing between the company and the market. While Apple revenues have recovered, we can now see that gap. Apple still relies on iPhone and iPad sales, coupled with the stuff people buy from iTunes, for most of its revenue and growth. But many analysts think smartphone sales may have peaked. And while focusing on that core, Apple has NOT invested heavily in Siri, its voice platform. Today, Siri lags all other voice platforms in quality of recognition, quality of understanding, and number of services. And Apple’s smart speaker sales are a drop in the ocean of Amazon Echo and Echo Dot sales.

By all indications the market for a lot of what we use our mobile devices for is shifting to voice interactivity. And Apple is far behind the leader Amazon, and the strong #2 Google. Even Microsoft’s Cortana quality is considered significantly better than Siri. If this market moves as fast as the smartphone market grew it will rob sales of smartphones and iTunes, and Apple could be in a lot of trouble faster than most people think. Relevancy is a currency quickly lost in the competitive personal technology business.

The Decline of CDs and PCs – Trends Affect Us All More Than We Think

The Decline of CDs and PCs – Trends Affect Us All More Than We Think

Do you still have a pile of compact discs? If so, why? When was the last time you listened to one? Like almost everyone else, you probably stream your music today. If you are just outdated, you listen to music you bought from iTunes or GooglePlay and store on your mobile device. But it would be considered prehistoric to tell people you carry around CDs for listening in your car – because you surely don’t own a portable CD player.

As the chart shows, CD sales exploded from nothing in 1983 to nearly 1B units in 2000. Now sales are less than 1/10th that number, due to the market shift expanded bandwidth allowed.

demand for compact discs CDs, statista  sales of personal computers PCs, statista

 

 

 

 

 

Do you still carry a laptop? If so, you are a dying minority. As PCs became more portable they became indispensable. Nobody left the office, or attended a meeting, without their laptop. That trend exploded until 2011, when PC sales peaked at 365M units. As the chart shows, in the 6 years since, PC sales have dropped by over 100M units, a 30% decline. The advent of mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) coupled with expanded connectivity and growing cloud services allowed mobility to reach entirely new levels – and people stopped carrying their PCs. And just like CDs are disappearing, so will PCs.

These charts dramatically show how quickly a new technology, or package of technologies, can change the way we behave. Simultaneously, they change the competitive landscape. Sony dominated the music industry, as a producer and supplier of hardware, when CDs dominated. But, as I wrote in 2012, the shift to more portable music caused Sony to fall into a rapid decline, and the company suffered 6 consecutive years (24 quarters) of falling sales and losses. The one-time giant was crippled by a technology shift they did not adopt. And they weren’t alone, as big box retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City also faltered when these sales disappeared.

Once, Microsoft was synonymous with personal technology. Nobody maximized the value in PC growth more than Microsoft. But changing technology altered the competitive landscape, with Apple, Google, Samsung and Amazon emerging as the leaders. Microsoft, as the almost unnoticed launch of Windows 10 demonstrated, is struggling to maintain relevancy.

Too often we discount trends. Like Sony and Microsoft we think historical growth will continue, unabated. We find ways to discount market shifts, saying the products are “niche” and denigrating their quality. We will express our view that the market has “hiccuped” and will return to growth again. By the time we admit the shift is permanent new competitors have overtaken the lead, and we risk becoming totally obsolete. Like Toys-R-Us, Radio Shack, Sears and Motorola.

Aircraft stalls when power is too low to climb

Aircraft stalls when not enough power to climb

The time for action is when the very first signs of shift happened. I’ve written a lot about “Growth Stalls” and they occur in just 2 quarters. 93% of the time a stalled company never again grows at a mere 2%/year. Look at how fast GE went from the best company in America to the worst. It is incredibly important that leadership react FAST when trends push customers toward new solutions, because it often takes very little time for the trend to make dying markets completely untenable.

Warren Buffett Is Loading Up On Apple – Why You Should be Wary

Warren Buffett Is Loading Up On Apple – Why You Should be Wary

In February, Berkshire Hathaway revealed it had dumped its IBM position. Good riddance to a stock that has gone down for 5 years while the S&P went up! What did Buffett do with the money? He loaded up on Apple – making that high-flyer Berkshire’s #1 holding. So, isn’t the smart thing now to buy Apple?

First, don’t confuse your investing goals with Berkshire Hathaway’s. It may seem that everyone has the same objective, to buy stocks that go up. But Berkshire is a very special case. As I pointed out in 2014, we mere mortals can’t invest like Buffett, and shouldn’t try. Berkshire Hathaway has the opportunity to make investments in special situations with tremendous return potential that we don’t have. Berkshire’s investment strategy is to invest where it can create cash to prepare for special situations, or to park money where it can make a decent return, and hopefully generate cash while it waits.

Apple is the #1 most cash-rich company on the planet, and with the new tax laws it can repatriate that cash. This is an opportunity for a “special dividend” to investors, and that is the kind of thing that Buffett loves. He isn’t a venture capitalist looking for a 10x price appreciation. He wants a decent 5% rate of return, and hopefully dividends, so he can grow cash for his special situation opportunities. Apple, the most valuable company on any exchange, is exactly the kind of company where he can place a few billion dollars without driving up the price and let it sit making a solid 5-6%, collect dividends and maybe get a few kickers from things like the cash repatriation.

Second, let’s not forget that Buffett’s IBM buying spree lost money. If he was a great tech investor, he never would have bought IBM. He bought it for the same reason he’s buying Apple, only he was wrong about what was going to happen to IBM as it continued to lose relevancy.

I pointed out in May, 2016 that Apple was showing us all a lot of sustaining innovations, with new rev levels of existing products, but almost no new disruptive innovations. The company that once gave us iPods, iTunes, iPhones and iPads was increasingly relying on the next version of everything to drive sales. Lots of incremental improvement. But little discussion about any breakthrough products, like iBeacon, ApplePay or even the Apple Watch. In a real way, Apple was looking a lot more like the old Microsoft with its Windows and Office fascination than the old Apple.

By October, 2016 Apple hit a Growth Stall. While this may have seemed like “no big deal,” recall that only 7% of the time do companies maintain a 2% growth rate after stalling. Is Apple going to be in that 7%? With the launch of the less-than-overwhelming iPhone X, and the actual drop in iPhone sales in Q4, 2017 it looks increasingly like Apple is on the same road as all other stalled companies.

In the short term Apple has said it is milking its installed base. By constantly bringing out new apps it has raised iTunes sales to over $30B/quarter. And it has a dedicated cadre of developers making over $25B/year creating new apps. So Apple is doing its best to get as much revenue out of that installed base of iPhones as it can, even if device sales slow (or decline.) For Buffett, this is no big deal. After all, he’s parking cash and hoping to get dividends. Milking the base is a cash generation strategy he would love – like a railroad, or Coca-Cola.

But if you’re interested in maintaining high returns in your portfolio, be aware of what’s happening. Apple is changing. It’s not going to falter and fail any time soon. But don’t be lulled by Berkshire’s big purchases into thinking Apple in 2018 is anything like it was in 2012 – or through 2014. Instead, keep your eyes on game changers like Netflix, Tesla and Amazon.

Walmart’s Surprising Tumble – Analysts Never Learn, Will You?

Walmart’s Surprising Tumble – Analysts Never Learn, Will You?

On February 20, 2018 Walmart’s stock had its biggest price drop ever. And the second biggest percentage decline ever. Even though same store sales improved, investors sold off the stock in droves. And after a pretty healthy recent valuation run-up.

What happened? Simply put, Walmart said its on-line sales slowed and its cost of operations rose, slowing growth and cramping margins. In other words, even though it bought Jet.com Walmart is still a long, long way from coming close to matching the customer relationship and growth of Amazon.com. And (surprise, surprise) margins in on-line aren’t an easy thing — as Amazon’s thin margins for 15 years have demonstrated.

In other words, this was completely to be expected. Walmart is a behemoth with no adaptability. For decades the company has been focused on how to operate its warehouses and stores, and beat up its suppliers. Management had to be drug, kicking and screaming, into e-commerce. And failing regularly it finally made an acquisition. But to think that Jet.com was going to change WalMart’s business model into a growing, high profit operation any time soon was foolish. Management still wants people in the store, first and foremost, and really doesn’t understand how to do anything else.

All the way back in 2005, I wrote that Walmart was too big to learn, and was unwilling to create white space teams to really explore growing e-commerce (hence the belated Jet-com acquisition.) In 2007, I wrote that calling Walmart a “mature” competitor with huge advantages was the wrong way to view the company already under attack by all the e-commerce players. In July, 2015 Amazon’s market cap exceeded Walmart’s, showing the importance of retail transformation on investor expectations. By February, 2016 there were 10 telltale signs Walmart was in big trouble by a changing retail market. And by October, 2017 it was clear the Waltons were cashing out of Walmart, questioning why any investor should remain holding the stock.

It really is possible to watch trends and predict future markets. And that can lead to good predictions about the fates of companies. The signs were all there that Walmart shouldn’t be going up in value. Hope had too many investors thinking that Walmart was too big to stumble – or fail. But hope is not how you should invest. Not for your portfolio, and not for your business. Walmart should have dedicated huge sums to e-commerce 15 years ago, now it is playing catch up with Amazon.com, and that’s a race it simply won’t win. Are you making the right investment decisions for your business early enough? Or will you stumble like Walmart?

Warren Buffett’s Painful IBM Lesson – Have You Learned It?

Warren Buffett’s Painful IBM Lesson – Have You Learned It?

This February, Warren Buffett admitted he had no faith in IBM. After accumulating a huge position, by 4th quarter of 2017 he sold out almost the entire Berkshire Hathaway position. He lost faith in the IBM CEO Virginia (Ginni) Rometty, who talked big about a turnaround, but it never happened.

Mr. Buffett would have been wise to stopped having “faith” long ago. All the way back in May, 2014 I wrote that IBM was not going to be a turnaround. CEO Rommetty was spending ALL its money on share buybacks, rather than growing its business. The Washington Post made IBM the “poster child” for stupid share buybacks, pointing out that spending over $8B on repurchases had maintained earnings-per-share, and propped up the stock price, but giving IBM the largest debt-to-equity ratio of comparable companies.

IBM was already in a Growth Stall, something about which I’ve written often. Once a company stalls, its odds Virginia Rometty, CEO IBM. Growth?of growing at 2%/year fall to a mere 7%. But it was clear then that the CEO was more interested in financial machinations, borrowing money to repurchase shares and prop up the stock, rather than actually investing in growing the company. The once great IBM was out of step with the tech market, and had no programs in place to make it an industry leader in the future.

By April, 2017 it was clear IBM was a disaster. By then we had 20 consecutive quarters of declining revenue. Amazing. How Rometty kept her job was completely unclear. Five years of shrinkage, while all investments were in buying the stock of its shrinking enterprise – intended to hide the shrink! CEO Rometty continued promising a turnaround, with vague references to the “wonderful” Watson program. But it was clear, Buffett (and everyone else) needed to get out in 2014. So Berkshire ate its losses, took the money and ran.

Have you learned your lesson? As an investor are you holding onto stocks long after leadership has shown they have no idea how to grow revenues? If so, why? Hope is not a strategy.

As a leader, are you still forecasting hockey stick turnarounds, while continuing to invest in outdated products and businesses? Are you hoping your past will somehow create your future, even though competitors and markets have moved on? Are you leading like Rometty, hoping you can hide your failures with financial machinations and Powerpoint presentations about how things will turn your way in the future – even though those assumptions are made out of hole cloth?

It’s time to get real about your investments, and your business. When revenues are challenged, something bad is happening. It’s time to do something. Fast. Before a bad quarter becomes 20, and everyone is giving up.

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 Only Surprise At GE Was That Anyone Was Surprised

The Only Surprise At GE Was That Anyone Was Surprised

GE Sign in Schenectady, NY- Hearst Newspapers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WalMart has limited growth plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buybacks signal Strategy

Walmart annual meeting 2014, walmart.com

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

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

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

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

Or where the owners are cashing out?

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Starbucks Closing Teavana Is A Long-Term Troubling Sign For Investors

Starbucks Closing Teavana Is A Long-Term Troubling Sign For Investors

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

Starbucks under construction. Photo by Jamie Lytle

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.

Lewis Black and Starbucks, end of universe rant

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?