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.

Is your company anti-vacation?  It’s time to rethink employee time off

Is your company anti-vacation? It’s time to rethink employee time off

Have you taken a summer vacation?  It’s almost Labor Day.

Peak vacation time is Memorial Day to Labor Day. Almost since the Industrial Revolution began, removing people from farms, the family vacation – away from work and other grinds – has been a much desired, and remembered, treasure.

If you haven’t taken all your days off, you were far from alone. Americans are increasingly skipping vacations.  According to a Glassdoor survey, half of all Americans no longer use all their company agreed-to vacation time.  Heck, 15% don’t take any vacation at all.

If you did take vacation, was your mobile device, and/or laptop, used for work?  Or did you take the job with you?  20% say they talked to “the boss” while on vacation.  1 in 4 talked to a colleague.


According to a study by GfK Public Affairs and Communications, people suffer from feeling like their employer really doesn’t want them to take time off.  In order to increase their sense of employment security, employees are trying harder every year to make themselves “indispensable.” This leads us to believe we really can’t be gone, or there will be a huge mountain of work facing us (and countless unpaid overtime hours spent digging out) when we return from a break.  Or worse, the job won’t be there when we come back.

The study creators call this the “work martyr complex.”  No matter how much we love family, we are martyrs to employers in order to keep that incredibly necessary, and fleeting paycheck.  After all, we have no job assurance in America.  Almost no white collar workers, other than C-level execs, have an employment agreement.  And union membership has dropped to lows predating WWII due to a lack of unionization of white collar and service employees.

Where Europeans and other countries have multiple worker protection laws for everyone, Americans are – by and large – “employees at will.”  Meaning an employer can fire you for just about any reason drummed up.  Even anger created because something happened while you were on vacation. After 2 decades of CEOs who lead by “operational improvements,” causing round after round of cost cuts and layoffs, employees have learned that the day they take off could be the day their budget is slashed, or their job eliminated.

We cannot underestimate the role of leaders in this situation. Nobody can be productive 24x7x365.  Everyone needs time off.  And the more important the role, the more critical the decisions, the more time off is necessary.  Just look at commercial airline pilots – would you want them doubling their flying time? A 7X7 pilot may make only a handful of important decisions every year, yet we want that cockpit filled with crews that are rested, alert and ready to make good decisions.

Why isn’t this true for a plant manager?  Compliance manager? Sales manager?  Audit manager? Communications manager?  Is their role no less critical to the operation of the corporate “aircraft” and the safety of all the corporate employee “passengers?”

Yet, far too many leaders allow the combination of mobile technology and employees’ embedded fear of losing their jobs to breed an environment where vacation goes unused.  No company tracks how often a boss calls, texts, emails or phones a subordinate when on a holiday.  No company tracks how often a boss requires a subordinate to “check in” with the office while gone.  Nobody pays any attention to how many hours an employee on vacation uses their mobile device or PC for company business while, ostensibly, “vacating” their work in order to relax and recharge.  In fact, that is considered “dedication.”

All companies track how much time every employee takes off.  Take too many days and employees are docked pay.  Take even more days and that employee could well lose his job.  But even though 95% of senior leaders espouse support for employees taking their vacations, have you ever heard of a company disciplining an employee for not taking a vacation?  If half the company’s paid time off days go unused, the employer simply takes advantage of the possible cost savings and additional productivity.  Usually saying it was the employee’s responsibility to figure out how to leave the job for several days without creating any problems.

In a quintessential example of the all-too-often real senior leader view of vacations, fifteen years ago I heard the President of Computer Sciences Corporation’s Commercial Division brag to the CEO, and a group of large clients, that only about 25% of the division’s allocated days off were ever used.  He personally took credit that via his “disciplined leadership” employees showed up for work even when they could take days off.  He even bragged about people working on major holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  He wanted everyone to know that he did not support a “lethargic” organization.

Chronic focus on the short term always has negative long-term implications.  That division of CSC lost 80% of its revenue, and employees, as burn-out drove people away.  Over and again we ovbserve that employees see themselves as not valued when they work in fear.  Unused vacation days is a simple metric of a company culture that values short-term benefits over long-term performance, and a culture that supports fear over results.

If you didn’t use all your vacation, it’s really not your fault.  It is the culture of your organization, the messages sent by leaders, and the metrics used by Human Resources.  When employees matter, and the company wants long-term performance, then people know they are valued and they are comfortable taking days off.  If you’re not taking all your vacation days it may well be a sign of problems in your company, and perhaps it is a good thing to use some of those days to find a different place to work.  If you lead a company where employees don’t take allotted time off, perhaps you should re-assess your leadership and procedures, before it’s too late.


Neil Armstrong’s Legacy – More Important Now Than Ever

Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon died last Saturday.  Overall, I was surprised at just how little attention this received.  The Republican convention, Hurrican Isaac and many other issues dominated the news, even though Neil Armstrong represents something that had far more impact on our lives than this hurricane, or anyone attending this convention.

Neil Armstrong represents the adventurous spirit of an innovator willing to lead from the front.  The advances in flight, and space travel, might have happened without him – or maybe not.  Neil Armstrong was willing to see what could be done, willing to experiment and take chances, without being overly concerned about failure.  Rather than worrying about what could go wrong, he was willing to see what could go right!

Most of us forget that it has been only 110 years since the Wright brothers made their 12 second, 120 foot flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  Before that, flight had been impossible.  Now, in such a short time, we have globalized travel.  My father, born in 1912, lived in a world with no planes – or much need for one.  I now live in Chicago largely because of O'Hare airport and its gateway (almost always in one leg) to any city.  Flight has transformed everything about life, and the world owes a lot to Neil Armstrong for that change.

Neil Armstrong became a pilot at 15 and spent a lifetime pushing the envelope of flight.  He not only flew planes, but he obtained an aeronautical engineering degree and used his experiences to help design better, more capable planes.  His history of try, fail, test, improve, try, succeed is an example for all leaders: 

  1. Firstly, know what you are talking about.  Have the right education, obtain data and apply good analysis to everything you do.  Don't operate just "from your gut," or on intuition, but rather know what you're talking about, and lead with knowledge.
  2. Second, don't be afraid to experiment, learn, improve and grow.  Don't rest on what people have done, and proven, before.  Don't accept limits just because that's how it was previously done.  Constantly build upon the past to reach new heights.  Just because it has not been done before does not mean it cannot be done.

Beyond his own leadership, Neil Armstrong is – for much of the world – the face of space travel.  The first man on the moon.  And that was only possible by being part of, and a leader in, NASA.  And we could desperately use NASA today.  It was, without a doubt, the most successful economic stimulus program in American history – even though politicians have been moving in the opposite direction for nearly 2 decades!

NASA offered Americans, and in fact the world, the opportunity to invest in science to see what could be done.  By setting wildly unrealistic goals the organization was forced to constantly innovate.  As a result NASA created and spun off more inventions creating more jobs than Eisenhower's interstate highway program and all other giant government programs combined. 

NASA's heyday was from the John Kennedy challenge of 1961 through the lunar landing in 1969.  Yet since 1976 alone there have been over 1,400 documented NASA inventions benefiting industry!!  Not only did NASA's experiments in flight aid physical globalization, but it was NASA that developed wireless (satellite based) long-distance communications – which now gives us nearly free global voice and data connectivity.  And the need to solve complex engineering problems pushed the computer race exponentially, giving us the digital technology now embedded in almost everything we do. 

Consider these other NASA innovations that have driven economic growth:

  • The microwave oven, and tasty, desirable frozen food used not only in homes but in countless restaurants
  • Water filtration for cities and even your refrigerator reducing disease and illness
  • High powered batteries – for everything from laptops to cordless tools to electric cars
  • Cordless phones, which led to cell phones
  • Ear thermometers (for those of us who remember using anal thermometers on sick babies this is a BIG deal)
  • Non-destructive testing of rockets and other devices led to what are now medical CAT scanners and MRI machines
  • Scratch resistant lenses now used in glasses, and invisible, easy to adjust braces at prices, adjusted for inflation, considered impossible 30 years ago
  • Superior coatings for cookware, paints and just about everything

As the American economy sputters, southern Europe looks to drag down economic growth across the continent, and growth slows in China the need for economic stimulus has never been greater.  But far too often politicians reach for outdated programs like highways, dams or other construction projects.  And monetary stimulus, in the form of lower interest rates and easier money, almost always goes into asset intensive projects like factories – at a time when capacity utilization remains far from any peak.  We keep spending, and making money cheap, but it doesn't matter.

We have transitioned from an industrial to an information economy.  Effective economic stimulus in 2012 cannot happen by creating labor-intensive, or asset-intensive, programs.  Rather it must create jobs built upon the kind of value-added work in today's economy – and that means knowledge-intensive work.  Exactly the kind of work created by NASA, and all the subsidiary businesses born of the NASA innovations.

Nobody seems to care about going to space any more.  And I must admit, it is not my dream.  But in one of his last efforts to help America grow Neil Armstrong told a Congressional committee "It would be as if 16th century Monarchs proclaimed we need not go to the New World, we have already been there." He was so right.  We have barely begun understanding the implications of growth created by exploring space.  Only our imaginations are limited, not the opportunity.

What Neil Armstrong told us all, and practiced with his actions, was to never stop setting crazy goals.  Even when the immediate benefit may be unclear.  The journey of discovery unleashes opportunities which create their own benefits – for society, and for our economy.  Losing Neil Armstrong is an enormous loss, because we need leaders like him now more than ever.

Yes AMR, Bankruptcy is failure

Airline company AMR, owner of popular American Airlines, filed bankruptcy this week.  To which most people responded “again?”  The reaction was less about AMR, which is having a first-time filing, and more about airline bankruptcies overall.  People are simply used to airlines failing. 

Most people are so used to everything about airlines sucking that news a major filed bankruptcy simply wasn’t surprising.  What they cared most about were two questions: “Is my ticket any good?” and “Do I get to keep my frequent flyer miles?”

Conceptually, business is not hard to understand.  Create a product or service that people want.  Make it appealing enough so people will pay enough to cover costs and make a profit, allowing you to re-invest in growth and repay your investors.  Pretty simple. 

But AMR, like most airlines, simply doesn’t understand this concept.  Yes, people want to fly.  But ever since deregulation, service has become worse and worse.  Ask anyone what they think of American (or United or Delta or any “major” airline) and answers are the same.  They hate them. 

  • Pricing is incomprehensible.  You may pay $800 for a ticket, and the person beside you $200 and the reason is completely unclear.
  • There is never enough room on the plane for all the carry-on luggage, but that is free while the airline charges for checking bags. What they don’t want (carry-ons) is free, what they want (check your bags) requires you pay?
  • You are charged for a checked bag, but if the bag is late, damaged or items stolen you have no recourse to the airline
  • When planes are late or cancelled, nobody cares how much customers are inconvenienced. Literally. You have no recourse to bad, or failed, service.
  • Planes are cramped and dirty, often looking well worn – or worn out.
  • Every year planes are becoming smaller and less comfortable.
  • The food is gone – or wildly expensive.  And that little botttle of rum costs as much as a fifth at home.
  • Empllyees appear uncaring at best, or simply rude.  It’s like there are way too many customers, and not enough of them, so “PLEASE stay back and do what we tell you to do!”

This list could go on forever (readers, feel free to comment on your favorite stupid policy or practice of any airline.)  Why?  Because the airline’s leaders have completely lost track of what business is all about.  In the rush to cut prices, trying to sell that last empty seat on that midnight feeder flight to Omaha, the entire industry has driven out all the customer satisfaction, and profitability.  Everyone has learned that it doesn’t matter how much you pay, the experience is going to suck.  So the industry has taught customers to be price sensitive, above all else.

Shortly after deregulation Robert Crandall became AMR’s Chairman.  He was a notorious cost cutter.  The Wall Street Journal ran a front page article highlighting his efforts to build American, highlighting how on a flight Mr. Crandall noticed that few customers were eating the 3 black olives on their salad.  He claimed to go back to company managers and tell them to remove the olives, thereby saving (ostensibly) $700,000/year.  Nobody would notice, he claimed, and money was saved.

And that’s been the trajectory for American ever since. Cut this, cut that.  Shave costs everywhere, including employee pay, benefits and pensions.  And after 30 years, the sum total is that not only are the olives gone – the whole meal has disappeared!  Where working at an airline was once considered a great job (pilot, flight attendant, gate agent or baggage handler, ) today compensation has been cut and complicated (remember tiered compensation that has 2 people doing the same job, but at different pay just because of hire date?)  so that employees are largely overworked, under-appreciated and constantly being pushed by management one direction, while pulled by customers in another.  

Where once we didn’t mind flying, maybe even enjoyed it,now everyone thinks of flying as the opportunity to learn what life is like as herded, and penned, livestock!

It has been a fallacy of “modern management” that leaders have a primary job to optimize the business – largely by limiting innovation and cutting costs.  The famous business guru, Jim Collins (author of Good to Great,) actively advocates (IndustryWeek.com 11/29/2011) that businesses focus exactly on the kind of business optimization that has driven AMR to bankruptcy!  His recommendations have inevitably lead businesses down a road of commoditization as they offer less and less to customers, and fall into vicious price wars.  Ineveitably a market shift happens that undercuts their ability to compete at all!

Great companies do not fall into this trap.  They constantly add customer value, utilizing new technology and business processes to improve performance.  They grow revenues, rather than focus on cutting costs.

Think about how Google has made doing research easier, and placing internet advertisements.  Or how Apple has improved personal music and mobile information access.  Or how Whole Foods has delivered more organic and tasty products.  Or how Amazon has made access to books, periodicals and much of retailing a better experience.  These companies have seen their market capitalization explode as they eschewed optimization in favor of innovation to make things better – not just cheaper.  Where AMR’s value went from $40/share to zero the last 5 years, you would have had big gains in these companies that focused on innovation and delivering better customer results.

AMR chart 12.1.11
Chart Source Yahoo 1 December, 2011

AMR’s leaders, and airline industry analysts, can try to put perfume on this bankruptcy pig by saying it is a “strategic action” taken to re-align costs (CuriousCapitalist.com.)  That’s code for union-busting, in yet one more effort to ignore the real problem of no innovation.  Rather than actually improve the airline this is more of the same old strategy –  cut more olives (cost,) chasing the spiral yet further down toward even worse performance.

It’s time to be honest.  AMR’s bankruptcy is a failure.  Leadership’s inability to address customer needs well enough to price at a profit.  Gimmicks like loyalty programs, bag charges, reservation fees, change fees, seat location fees and drink charges merely obscure the fact that the leaders cannot profitably run an airline!  Their service is so poor that they cannot charge enough to cover costs. Continuing to cut costs, further hindering service, is NOT the answer in a service industry! 

It certainly is prossble to make money in service industries.  Most do.  It is even possible to make money as an airline – just look at Southwest (which has made more profit than all its [much larager] competitors combined.) And the first step is for AMR to recognize that its strategy for 30 years is wrong!  The company needs to end the cost-price spiral and introduce some innovation!  Change the game AMR, or you’ll forever remain a crappy company for investors, customers and employees.

Get Rich – behave like Richard Branson — Virgin, hotels


  • Most people misunderstand the way toward building a valuable company
  • Richard Branson has developed massive wealth by finding and entering growth markets
  • Success comes from developing new solutions that fulfill unmet needs – not maximizing performance of core capabilities
  • Virgin is now moving into luxury hotels, a market being ignored by most investors, with new products that fit still unmet needs

Very few people are as wealthy as Richard Branson.  But few people can manage like he does.

Branson started out selling records via mail-order in Britain.  Over the years he got into retailing, international airlines, domestic airlines, mobile telephony, international lending (amongst other businesses) – and now his company is investing $500milion in hotels and hotel management.  According to Bloomberg.comBranson’s Virgin Group to Invest $500million in Hotels.”

Despite all we hear about how impossible it is to be an entrepreneur in Europe, Sir Branson has done quite well, building a wildly successful, profitable company.  Although he didn’t follow conventional wisdom.  Instead of “sticking to his core” Sir Branson has built a company that invests in opportunities which are highly profitable – regardless of the industry or market.  He doesn’t grow by doing more of the same better, faster or cheaper.  Instead, he takes advantage of shifting markets – getting into businesses with opportunities and exiting those that don’t earn high rates of return.

During last decade’s building boom there were a lot of high-end hotels built.  Now, with the economy not growing, excess capacity has made it difficult for these to cover the mortgage.  Bankers don’t want to refinance – they want out of the buildings.  Occupancy has been so low that many traditional name brands, such as Ritz Carlton or Intercontinental, have been forced to abandon properties.  As a result, several hotels have closed, and the property offered for sale at a fraction of original construction cost.  With most investors shying away from all things real estate, prices have plummeted. Some hotels, nearly new, have sold for the value of underlying land.

And now Virgin enters the market.  Although Virgin has no background in real estate or hotel management, it is clear that there is demand for luxury goods and luxury travel — if someone can make it attractive and affordable.  By purchasing premier properties at a fraction (literally 10-25% of their initial cost) Virgin will be able to offer hotel guests a superior experience at an attractive price!  Management sees an unmet need by high-income, well educated “creative class” customers.  By getting into the market Virgin will learn, just as it did in airlines, how to meet customer expectations in a way that allows for highly profitable delivery when meeting a currently unmet need.

While some would say that if the current competitors, steeped in experience and tradition, can’t succeed Virgin should not think it can.  But a Virgin executive rightly says “If you look at Virgin’s history, we have come into markets with big powerful players, where customers are generally satisfied but not in love, and we have been able to cut through that.”  Well said.  Virgin doesn’t do what competitors do – it develops a solution that locks competitors into their position while positioning Virgin to meet the untapped market.

Even though this opportunity is available to everyone, almost no companies are interested in buying these undervalued hotels.  “It’s not our business.”  “We don’t know how to operate hotels.”  “We don’t invest in real estate.” “I’m too busy taking care of my current business to consider something new.”  “What if we’re wrong?”  These are all things people say to stop themselves from taking action to enter new opportunities with high rates of return. The magic of Virgin is its willingness to overcome Lock-in to its existing business, look for market opportunities, and then (as Nike advertises) Do It!

Scenario Planning – the U.S. Dollar implications

Most Americans pay no attention at all to the value of the U.S. dollar.  As an island nation, and largely an importer of goods, all most Americans care about is how much something costs at the store.  Since the vast majority of Americans never set foot on foreign soil in any year, they just don’t think about how many Euros or Yen you get for a dollar.

But they should.  We now live in a global economy.  People in foreign countries have a direct impact on the lives of Americans every day.  And they watch the value of the dollar constantly.  Just look at outsourcing – the transfer of jobs offshore.  Or the cost of products at Wal-Mart – mostly made in foreign countries (China) in foreign currency values.  All scenarios of the future, all planning, has to include scenarios for the value of America’s currency.  And that is true for all companies, in all countries, because the U.S. dollar is the primary basis for pricing everything in the world.

There’s a great chart showing the U.S. dollar value at FXStreet.com.  This shows that in 2001 the dollar compared to other currencies was at a value of 120.  Since then the value has plummeted to about 75 (there was a rally earlier in 2009, but almost all of that has been given up.)  This means if you went to Paris on holiday in 2001 you could buy a Euro for $.75.  So taking your own personal “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” was affordable.  Now, a Euro costs you almost $1.50.  So, it costs twice as much.  With all that value loss happening prior to 2009 (during the previous administration and the previous stock market highs.)

So you don’t plan to go to Europe on vacation, you say.  That’s a good thing, because you probably can’t afford it.  But, as American homes go into foreclosure, who do you suppose is buying them?  To foreigners, American houses are extremely cheap.  In coastal areas of Florida, as many as half of all home sales are to foreigners – and upwards of 90% of those are cash transactions – no loan!  While Americans struggle with mortgages, others are buying American houses as vacation spots. 

One way to think about this is how many ounces of gold does it take to buy a house?  Gold is a store of value, like a house.  Its limited supply and abundant uses to allow it to remain a good measure of value.  InvestmentTools.com has a great chart showing the value of U.S. houses. in 1985, as America was crauling out of the horrible 1982 recession it took about 280 ounces In 2000, the value peaked at about 780 ounces – so by global standards, American houses had tripled in value.  But today, the value has declined again to 280!  So globally, we’re no more wealthy now than we were at the worst recession since the Great Depression – and value is falling as we’re still in a major recession.

If Americans have trouble paying their child’s college fund, that’s not the problem for students from offshore.  Many are so relatively wealthy they now can buy condo’s for $200,000 or $300,000 to live in while attending schools.  They relative wealth of their offshore parents means that there are dramatically more offshore students who find an American education affordable – while Americans are finding education increasingly unaffordable for their own citizens.

To someone from outside America, the country is on sale!  Because everything in America costs half – or often far less than half because America has no excise or Value Added Taxes.  So people from Europe, Asia and the middle east fly to New York to go shopping – and save enough to pay for the plane ticket!  Some even fly to America to buy goods from their own country because the products are cheaper priced in dollars and without the taxes!

And actually, America is acting just like a business facing foreclosure.  Debts have been mounting.  Each year, America sells more assets in order to pay interest on the debt.  In this bad economy, as income has declined, even more asset sales happen.  States are selling highways to foreigners in order to get cash today in exchange for road tolls the next 100 years.  Or in Chicago – the sale of all the parking meters.  Those in other countries are buying fire-sale assets to give Americans the money just to pay the interest.

Meanwhile, the debt keeps rising.  Each month sales of bonds exceeds redemptions.  For those buying the bonds offshore, this is pretty amazing.  If a bond yields 3% (or say even 5% of 6%) that value has been overwhelming wiped out by the decline in the principle value.  Remember, the dollar value of those bonds has dropped by 50% just in this decade!  There’s no way to recover that through interest collection.

So why do these offshore folks buy the American bonds?  It’s kind of like townspeople buying bonds to prop up a local business.  If the local plant goes bust, then the jobs go away.   Then the restaurant has to close shop.  Then the bank has to close because the plant can’t repay its loan.  So the people keep buying plant bonds to keep it open – to forestall an imminent disaster.  And because they hope that the plant will someday start making enough money to repay the bonds.  That it will someday see employment rise, not fall.  And the restaurateur, and the machine shop owner, and the car dealer all keep buying bonds to keep the plant going.  The American central bank calls those folks who buy U.S. bonds the central banks of China and other countries.

How low will the dollar go?  If people quit buying bonds, really low.  Increasingly, those who produce commodities like oil and gas are asking to price commodities in something other than dollars.  They don’t like seeing their prices halved due to currency devaluation.  If businesses don’t have to trade in dollars, then they don’t need the dollar value to remain high – and they lose interest in buying bonds to prop it up.

American’s don’t pay attention to other currencies either.  So most don’t remember the 1994 Mexican Peso crisis.  Mexico had incurred a huge debt, and was selling more debt from the 1970s into the 1990s.  The primary source of revenue had been oil and gas sales, but prices collapsed in the 1980s, and production failed to keep up with that from other countries.  There was more spending than revenue collection.  When the Mexican government stopped propping up the Peso, it dropped more than 50% in a week!  Currency devaluations can happen fast, and can be devastating, because suddenly a flood of buyers become sellers – reversing position and cratering the value.  To keep the government and economy from collapsing the U.S. central bank stepped in to buy bonds and stop further devaluation.

This blog is sure to not be one of the more popular.  Because most Americans simply don’t care about the dollar’s value
– and even more don’t understand anything about currency values.  Americans are so used to assuming that the dollar will be the world’s currency, and that it will be propped up by foreign debt buyers, that they simply expect the future to be like the past.

I’m not predicting the future value of the dollar.  But what’s clear is that the dollar’s value is really important to the future of your business.  Whether in America, or notWhat kills businesses isn’t the things management knows and plan for, it’s what they don’t plan for.  And most American business planners pay very little attention to the value of the dollar.  But having a robust scenario around the future value of the dollar could prove to be the difference between many winners and losers  in as quick as 12 to 24 months.  There are plans that can leverage these shifts in ways to create enormous value.

Is your company, as it prepares budgets for 2010, prepared to deal with a dramatic shift – up or down – in the value of the U.S. dollar?  Have you considered the impact, and developed contingency plans?  Do you have White Space projects that will leverage currency shifts?  If you’re planning from the past, you may well not be prepared for a very different future if the U.S. dollar’s value shifts dramatically.  Especially if it continues falling.

When you gotta go -:) P&G toilet database

If you can read this blog and not grin (or maybe even laugh) you're more grisly than me.

MediaPost.com posted "P&G Backs Public Toilet Database Site, App."  Proctor & Gamble, supporting Charmin branding, has agreed to financially support the web site www.SitorSquat.com, which was originally developed by a New York homemaker.  According to the Charmin brand manager this is considered part of the overall marketing effort which includes providing toilets at public events.  His goal is that by helping people find clean places to go, it will help them remember to buy Charmin when they are at the grocery.

You have to admit, it's a clever and far from traditional idea.  And certainly most of us have been in situations whether for ourselves or for someone with us (including children) we'd like to know the location of a toilet – especially a clean one.  That the database can be downloaded, or accessed via the web or iPhone or Blackberry makes it a usable tool.  Perhaps as valuable as an on-line restaurant guide. In times of "crisis" it could be the most valuable app on your iPhone.

But, despite the cleverness, P&G is operating in D&E mode rather than really growing toilet paper sales.  The app does not discern whether the facility's paper is nice, soft Charmin, or more industrial single ply product.  Nor does it even promote Charmin in rating the toilets.  The stars seem to be more closely tied to mop and rag use by janitors, and accessibility, than anything else.  It's unclear that this will increase demand for Charmin, much less toilet paper, and probably does little more than reinforce the brand name, by merely putting it on the site.

If P&G really wanted to grow the market for toilet paper, it would be more aggressive.  For us world travelers, there are many places where toilet paper isn't as common as the USA – such as India.  We all know of various health risks in India (mostly due to water issues), and P&G would be well served to promote hygiene in the developing world, including the use of disposable personal cleaning products like toilet paper.  Further, P&G could develop products that use less wood pulp thus having less environmental impact, in effect a "green" toilet paper, that would incent additional use by the ecology-oriented.  Or P&G could develop product from recycled or other waste material that has an even lower carbon footprint than paper (corn stalks? corn husks? banana leaves? straw?), again promoting use in the developing world (that often lacks enough wood) as well as environmental advocates.

While the database is interesting, and no doubt will get used, its business value will most likely be nill.  A funny news column, but of no value to P&G shareholders. It doesn't help P&G address future needs of people regarding toilet paper (ecology, etc.), nor does it address the use of competitive products (which is non-use, or natural fibers [leaves] in the developing world).  P&G has taken a clever new generation product like an iPhone app, and turned it into a very traditional, industrial use which is basic brand awareness reinforcement.  Really not White Space, because no goals are given the project nor any positive results expected from it. 

But, you have to admit, it's definitely "outside the box" thinking – especially for a company as stodgy as P&G.  There is no doubt, this is an innovative (if sustaining) innovation in brand marketing – including the building of a web/iPhone app to promote a product.  You'd just like to see P&G go a bit further in its efforts to find growth for shareholders.  Have a happy weekend!

Are you relevant? – Xerox, United, Airlines

"Xerox chops earnings outlook as sales slide" is the headline on Marketwatch.com.  Do you remember when Xerox was considered the most powerful sales company on earth?  In the 1970s and into the 1980s corporations marveled at the sales processes at Xerox – because those processes brought in quarter after quarter of increasing profitable revenue.  Xerox practically wiped out competitors – the small printing press manufacturers – during this period, and "carbon paper" was quickly becoming a museum relic (if you are under 30 you'll have to ask someone older what carbon paper is – because it requires an explanation of something called a typewriter as well [lol]). 

But today, do you care about Xerox?  If you have a copier, you don't care who made it.  It could be from Sharp, or Canon, or anybody.  You don't care if it's Xerox unless you work in a "copy store" like Kinko's or run the copy center for the corporation – and possibly not even in those jobs.  And because desktop printers have practically made copiers obsolete, you may not care about copiers at all.  In short, even though Xerox invented the marketplace for widespread duplicating, because the company stayed in its old market of big copiers it has seen revenue declines and has largely become irrelevant.

"U.S. airline revenue plunges for another month" is another Marketwatch.com headline.  And I ask again, do you care?  The airlines were deregulated 30 years ago, and since then as a group they've never consistently made money (only 1 airline – Southwest – is the exception to this discussion.)  The big players in the early days included TWA, Eastern, Braniff, PanAm – names long gone from the skies.  They've been replaced by Delta, American and United – as we've watched the near collapse of US Airways, Northwest and Continental.  But we've grown so used to the big airlines losing money, and going bankrupt, and screaming about unions and fuel costs, that we've pretty much quit caring.  The only thing frequent travelers care about now is their "frequent flier miles" and how they can use them.  The airline itself is irrelevant – just so long as I get those miles and get my status and they let me board early.

When you don't grow, you lose relevance.  In the mid-1980s the battle raged between Apple's Macintosh and the PC (generically, from all manufacturers) as to which was going to be the dominant desktop computer.  By the 1990s that question had been answered, and as Macintosh sales lagged Apple lost relevance.  But then when the iPod, iTunes, iTouch and iPhone came along suddenly Apple gained a LOT of relevanceWhen companies grow, they demonstrate the ability to serve markets.  They are relevant.  When they don't grow, like GM and Citibank, they lose relevance.  It's not about cash flow or even profitability.  When you grow, like Amazon with its Kindle launch, you get attention because you demonstrate you are connected to where markets are headed.

Is your business obsessing about costs to the point it is hurting revenue?  If so, you are at risk of losing relevance.  Like Sara Lee in consumer goods, or Sears in retailing, even if the companies are able to make a profit – possibly even grow profits after some bad years – if you can't grow the top line you just aren't relevant.  And if you aren't relevant, you can't get more customers interested in your products/services, and you can't encourage investors.  People want to be part of Google, not Kodak.

To maintain (or regain) relevance today, you have to focus on growth.  Cutting costs is not enough.  If you lose relevance, you lose your customer base and financing, and you make it a whole lot easier for competitors to grow.  While you're looking internally, or managing the bottom line, competitors are figuring out the market direction, and proving it by demonstrating growth.  And that's why today, even more than before, it is so critical you focus planning on future markets for growth, obsess about competitors, use Disruptions to change behavior and implement White Space to experiment with new business opportunities.  Because if you don't do those things you are far, far too likely to simply become irrelevant.

[note: Thanks for feedback that my spelling and grammar have gotten pretty sloppy lately.  I'm going to allocate more time to review, as well as writing.  And hopefully pick up some proofreading to see if this can improve.  Sorry for the recent problems, and I appreciate your feedback on errors.]

Thanksgiving Travel- Airlines Struggle to Profit

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, so the crush of people flying through O’Hare airport has started.  It’s natural to think about the largest airline in Chicago – United.

United was on the brink of failure last summer as jet fuel prices skyrocketed.  In response, United started charging people for baggage.  Take a couple of bags along and your baggage costs could be 50% or more of your ticket price for a round trip.  United also raised prices, and cut flights.  None of these actions were likely to make United a more competitive airline – and weren’t designed to.  United leadership was using “foxhole management” – trying to survive.  Of course the problem is that it doesn’t take long sitting in a foxhole to get blown up.

Last week I had a business trip from Chicago to south Florida.  Imagine my surprise to learn that United no longer services 2 of the 3 airports in south Florida, and for the remaining destination it has one flight each direction daily.  The result?  To get to south Florida from Chicago (something done by many people in the winter), I had to fly U.S. Airways connecting through Charlotte.  Not supporting any loyalty to United.  And the latest word is that United intends to further cut flights (read article here).  United is the example of a company that is slowly killing itself in its effort to save its old Success Formula.

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines keeps growing.  After United left South Florida, Southwest raised its fares on those flights, from its lower-cost Midway airport, to over $800!  It has been a profit boon for Southwest that United is cutting flights – and allowing Southwest to keep on growing.

When oil prices took their dramatic rise last summer, United was already a very weak competitor.  Although it was large, it had never addressed the market changes making its hub-and-spoke system and militaristic operating practices less viable.  Not the shutdown on 9/11/01, nor the bankruptcy filing, caused United to alter its business practices established 3 decades ago.  Thus the oil run-up put a weak competitor on the edge of viability – with a nudge over the other side.  United’s reaction demonstrates how, when confronted with the non-viability of its outdated Success Formula, an organization can remain entrenched – and uwilling to take actions that would save it.  Locked-in, without White Space, United was unprepared to deal with yet another market shift.  Intead, United chose to take minimal actions short term, HOPING somehow things would change back to the good old days, long ago, when the company was less unprofitable (keep in mind that over its lifetime since deregulation United has never consistently been profitable.)

Trying to save a troubled business, in rough economic waters, during a period of market change, cannot be done by doing more of the same – “better, faster, cheaper.”  Market Challenges pile up, until a punctuated equilibrium changes the market for all competitors – and rendering some no longer viable.  To be viable long-term takes a willingness to recognize the future must be different from the past, that competitors are more successfully growing and are worthy of intense study, that Disrupting old patterns which keep the status quo in place makes it possible to leverage White Space to create a new Success Formula.  Unfortunately for all those travelers out there this holiday – that’s not what United has done.