USAToday alerted investors that when Sears Holdings reports results 2/25/16 they will be horrible. Revenues down another 8.7% vs. last year. Same store sales down 7.1%. To deal with ongoing losses the company plans to close another 50 stores, and sell another $300million of assets. For most investors, employees and suppliers this report could easily be confused with many others the last few years, as the story is always the same. Back in January, 2014 CNBC headlined “Tracking the Slow Death of an Icon” as it listed all the things that went wrong for Sears in 2013 – and they have not changed two years later. The brand is now so tarnished that Sears Holdings is writing down the value of the Sears name by another $200million – reducing intangible value from the $4B at origination in 2004 to under $2B.
This has been quite the fall for Sears. When Chairman Ed Lampert fashioned the deal that had formerly bankrupt Kmart buying Sears in November, 2004 the company was valued at $11billion and 3,500 stores. Today the company is valued at $1.6billion (a decline of over 85%) and according to Reuters has just under 1,700 stores (a decline of 51%.) According to Bloomberg almost no analysts cover SHLD these days, but one who does (Greg Melich at Evercore ISI) says the company is no longer a viable business, and expects bankruptcy. Long-term Sears investors have suffered a horrible loss.
When I started business school in 1980 finance Professor Bill Fruhan introduced me to a concept that had never before occurred to me. Value Destruction. Through case analysis the good professor taught us that leadership could make decisions that increased company valuation. Or, they could make decisions that destroyed shareholder value. As obvious as this seems, at the time I could not imagine CEOs and their teams destroying shareholder value. It seemed anathema to the entire concept of business education. Yet, he quickly made it clear how easily misguided leaders could create really bad outcomes that seriously damaged investors.
As a case study in bad leadership, Sears under Chairman Lampert offers great lessons in Value Destruction that would serve Professor Fruhan’s teachings well:
1 – Micro-management in lieu of strategy. Mr. Lampert has been merciless in his tenacity to manage every detail at Sears. Daily morning phone calls with staff, and ridiculously tight controls that eliminate decision making by anyone other than the top officers. Additionally, every decision by the officers was questioned again and again. Explanations took precedent over action as micro-management ate up management’s time, rather than trying to run a successful company. While store employees and low- to mid-level managers could see competition – both traditional and on-line – eating away at Sears customers and core sales, they were helpless to do anything about it. Instead they were forced to follow orders given by people completely out of touch with retail trends and customer needs. Whatever chance Sears and Kmart had to grow the chain against intense competition it was lost by the Chairman’s need to micro-manage.
2 – Manage-by-the-numbers rather than trends. Mr. Lampert was a finance expert and former analyst turned hedge fund manager and investor. He truly believed that if he had enough numbers, and he studied them long enough, company success would ensue. Unfortunately, trends often are not reflected in “the numbers” until it is far, far too late to react. The trend to stores that were cleaner, and more hip with classier goods goes back before Lampert’s era, but he completely missed the trend that drove up sales at Target, H&M and even Kohl’s because he could not see that trend reflected in category sales or cost ratios. Merchandising – from buying to store layout and shelf positioning – are skills that go beyond numerical analysis but are critical to retail success. Additionally, the trend to on-line shopping goes back 20 years, but the direct impact on store sales was not obvious until customers had long ago converted. By focusing on numbers, rather than trends, Sears was constantly reacting rather than being proactive, and thus constantly retreating, cutting stores and cutting product lines.
3 – Seeking confirmation rather than disagreement. Mr. Lampert had no time for staff who did not see things his way. Mr. Lampert wanted his management team to agree with him – to confirm his Beliefs, Interpretations, Assumptions and Strategies — to believe his BIAS. By seeking managers who would confirm his views, and execute, rather than disagree Mr. Lampert had no one offering alternative data, interpretations, strategies or tactics. And, as Mr. Lampert’s plans kept faltering it led to a revolving door of managers. Leaders came and went in a year or two, blamed for failures that originated at the Chairman’s doorstep. By forcing agreement, rather than disagreement and dialogue, Sears lacked options or alternatives, and the company had no chance of turning around.
4 – Holding assets too long. In 2004 Sears had a LOT of assets. Many that could likely be redeployed at a gain for shareholders. Sears had many owned and leased store locations that were highly valuable with real estate prices climbing from then through 2008. But Mr. Lampert did not spin out that real estate in a REIT, capturing the value for SHLD shareholders while the timing was good. Instead he held those assets as real estate in general plummeted, and as retail real estate fell even further as more revenue shifted to e-commerce. By the time he was ready to sell his REIT much of the value was depleted.
Additionally, Sears had great brands in 2004. DieHard batteries, Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances and Lands End apparel were just 4 household brands that still had high customer appeal and tremendous value. Mr. Lampert could have sold those brands to another retailer (such as selling DieHard to WalMart, for example) as their house brands, capturing that value. Or he could have mass marketd the brand beyond the Sears store to increase sales and value. Or he could have taken one or more brands on-line as a product leader and “category killer” for ecommerce customers. But he did not act on those options, and as Sears and Kmart stores faded, so did these brands – which largely no longer have any value. Had he sold when value was high there were profits to be made for investors.
5 – Hubris – unfailingly believing in oneself regardless the outcomes. In May, 2012 I wrote that Mr. Lampert was the 2nd worst CEO in America and should fire himself. This was not a comment made in jest. His initial plans had all panned out very badly, and he had no strategy for a turnaround. All results, from all programs implemented during his reign as Chairman had ended badly. Yet, despite these terrible numbers Mr. Lampert refused to recognize he was the wrong person in the wrong job. While it wasn’t clear if anyone could turn around the problems at Sears at such a late date, it was clear Mr. Lampert was not the person to do it. If Mr. Lampert had been as self-analytical as he was critical of others he would have long before replaced himself as the leader at Sears. But hubris would not allow him to do this, he remained blind to his own failings and the terrible outcome of a failed company was pretty much sealed.
From $11B valuation and a $92/share stock price at time of merging KMart and Sears, to a $1.6B valuation and a $15/share stock price. A loss of $9.4B (that’s BILLION DOLLARS). That is amazing value destruction. In a world where employees are fired every day for making mistakes that cost $1,000, $100 or even $10 it is a staggering loss created by Mr. Lampert. At the very least we should learn from his mistakes in order to educate better, value creating leaders.