Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Broken Business Models: Sears & Kmart

The NY Post’s article and others seem surprised that Sears Holdings may not be able to continue as a going concern. Clearly sale of its Craftsman brand was a signal that Sears was in serious financial straits.

The acquisition of Sears and Kmart was completed ten years ago. But twenty years ago, before e-commerce became a major competitor, it was painfully obvious that Sears and Kmart were in serious trouble. Vendors selling to both companies at that time were questioning whether they could survive against Wal-Mart.

Could it be accurate that Wal-Mart’s physical distribution and information technology systems are so efficient that Wal-Mart receives cash for its products prior to having to pay its vendors for the purchases? All? Some? If true, tough to compete against.

Sears’ and Kmart’s business models were unmistakably broken starting in the 1990s. It is virtually impossible to repair a business model once it is broken. At minimum it would have required major capital investments in information technology and restructuring of their physical distribution operation with its high overhead and slow inventory replenishment. Would there have been a positive return on investment?

Mr. Edward Lampert was certainly considered a successful investor when he acquired Sears and Kmart. Possibly he was optimistic that he could repair both companies. Perhaps taking over as chief executive officer was a mistake as he apparently had never worked as CEO of a large retail company.

To be qualified to be CEO of a retail, manufacturing or service company – particularly one as large as Sears and Kmart - one needs to have started their career in the bowels of a company – at the bottom. Mr. JackWelch is an example of a successful CEO who started at the bottom.

Working ones way up from the bowels gives experience with all the functions (departments) of a business. How do these functions work together. Why is cross-functional communication so critically important - while simple in concept it is difficult to practice. How to submerge oneself into the lower organization levels to find out the priority problems and solutions without being a distraction. CEOs who started at the bottom are more calmly self-confident and make better decisions when they get to the top position.

Regardless of any mistakes that have been made Sears and Kmart seem to fit the axiom: “not every business can be turned around” – particularly if their business model is broken.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Second Best Company to Work For

As Inc. Magazine’s article reports, Wegmans does not pay the highest wages compared to many of the other companies on Fortune’s list. However, it does have some attractive perks for tuition reimbursement and health care insurance but, in comparison to others on the best to work for list, it falls well short.

Why the high rating? Its culture and its management style receive high grades. This is true even though Wegmans has strict rules for its employees such as: the precise number of minutes for a break and the speed at which cashiers check out customers’ purchases.

Marriott International is number 33 on Fortune’s Best to Work For list. I became aware of Marriott’s rating when I was Chief Executive Officer of a distressed company in Austin Texas. The company I was managing had high hourly employee turnover. We paid minimum wage. Marriott also paid minimum wage to its hourly employees but had virtually zero turnover. I met with the hotel manager. Spent time learning how it was accomplished.

Marriott has similar reasons for being on Fortune’s list. Its culture and its management style. Heavy on employee recognition. Its support of employees and their families when they have a medical or personal issue. At the same time, Marriott also has strict performance measurements for it employees.

One minor example. A Marriott hourly laundry employee’s mother died. The hotel gave him paid time off to take care of the funeral arrangements. The hotel manager attended the funeral. The employee deeply appreciated it. He was moved to tears because the manager attended the funeral. He had thought he was a nobody at Marriott, fungible. He never forgot this gesture. He stayed with Marriott and was eventually promoted to a supervisory position.

It is not difficult to have a Wegmans’ and Marriott’s culture. It is not expensive. It pays off with higher than average profit margins and return on total capital.

Wegmans is a privately owned company. Some estimates put its operating profit margin at above 7% - higher than its largest competitors and Whole Foods.