Why Bankruptcies Don't Work - Tribune Corporation and General Motors
"Tribune Company Profitability Continues to Deteriorate" is the Crain's headline. Even though Tribune filed for bankruptcy several months ago, its sales, profits and cash flow have continued deteriorating. The company is selling assets, like the Chicago Cubs, in order to raise cash. But its media businesses, anchored by The Chicago Tribune, are a sinking ship which management has no idea how to plug. While the judge can wipe out debt, he cannot get rid of the internet and competitors that are reshaping the business in which Tribune participates. Bankruptcy doesn't "protect" the business, it merely delays what increasingly appears to be inevitable failure.
"GM Clears Key Hurdles to Bankruptcy Exit" is the BusinessWeek headline. In record time a judge has decided to let GM shift all its assets and employees into a "new" GM, leaving all the bondholders, employee contracts and lawsuits in the "old" GM. This will wipe out all the debt, obligations and lawsuits GM has complained about so vociferously. But it won't wipe out lower cost competitors like Kia, Hyuandai or Tata Motors. And it won't wipe out competitors with newer technology and faster product development cycles like Toyota or Honda. GM will still have to compete - but it has no real plan for overcoming competitive weaknesses in almost all aspects of the business.
It was 30 years ago when I first head the term "strategic bankruptcy." The idea was that a business could hide behind bankruptcy protection to fix some minor problem, and a clever management could thereby "save" a distressed business. But this is a wholly misapplied way to think about bankruptcy. In reality, bankruptcy is just another financial machination intended to allow Locked-in existing management to Defend & Extend a poorly performing Success Formula. Bankruptcy addresses a symptom of the weak business - debts and obligations - but does not address what's really wrong - a business model out of step with a shifted marketplace.
The people running GM are the same people that got it into so much trouble. The decision-making processes, product development processes, marketing approaches are all still Locked-in and the same. GM hasn't been Disrupted any more than Tribune company has. Quite to the contrary, instead of being Disrupted bankruptcy preserves most of the Locked-in status quo and breathes new life into it by eliminating the symptoms of a very diseased Success Formula. Meanwhile, White Space is obliterated as the reorganized company kills everything that smacks of doing anything new in a cost-cutting mania intended to further preserve the old Success Formula.
Everyone in the bankruptcy process talks about "lowering cost" as the way to save the business. When in fact the bankrupt business is so out of step with the market that lowering costs has only a minor impact on competititveness. Just look at the perennial bankruptcy filers - United Airlines, American Airlines and their brethren. Bankruptcy has never allowed them to be more competitive with much more profitable competitors like Southwest. Even after 2 or 3 trips through the overhaul process.
Bankruptcy does not bode well for any organization. It's a step on the road to either having your assets acquired by someone who's better market aligned, or failure. Those who think Tribune will emerge a strong media competitor are ignoring the lack of investment in internet development now happening - while Huffington Post et.al. are growing every week. Those who think the "new" GM will be a strong auto company are ignoring the market shifts that threw GM to the brink of failure over the last year. Both companies are still Defending & Extending the past in a greatly shifted world - and nobody can succeed following that formula.
Don't forget to download the ebook "The Fall of GM: What Went Wrong and How To Avoid Its Mistakes" for a primer on how to keep your business out of bankruptcy court during these market shifts.