Killing Me Softly - Sara Lee
- It sounds good to refocus a business on its core
- It sounds good to centralize for cost reductions and belt tightening as part of refocusing
- It sounds good to sell "non-essential" businesses to raise cash
- It sounds good to have a company buy back shares
- But these efforts serve to destroy the company, killing it softly as it sounds good, but guts the business of revenues and innovation
- Sara Lee's CEO destroyed the company softly by following such a strategy
The vultures are swirling around Sara Lee. "Sara Lee Said to Get Bid from Bain, Apollo Group Exceeding $18.70 a Share" was the Bloomberg headline. JBS and Blackstone Group are reportedly considering making an offer, according to the Wall Street Journal. This has, of course, driven up the share price from its steady decline of 67% between 2006 and 2009.. But unless you're a short-term trader, even this acquisition offer is barely going to get you back to break even for your 5 year old investment.
Five years ago Brenda Barnes took leadership at Sara Lee to much fanfare, as she broke the long-problematic glass ceiling for women executives. But her plan for Sara Lee hasn't worked out so well. Although her compensation has been in the millions, for investors, employees and suppliers this has been a very rough 5 years.
Ms. Barnes took over Sara Lee saying it was a "hodgepodge" of inefficient brands and businesses. Her goal was to streamline Sara Lee, refocus the company and regenerate its core. That certainly sounded good.
Her first steps were to consolidate operations into a central headquarters, including all R&D for the far-flung businesses. She started cutting costs, and heads, as she reduced the number of marketers and centralized purchasing. Going after "synergies," consolidations were forced on all functions, and the re-launched R&D was staffed at a fraction of earlier product development efforts. The intent, accomplished, was to launch fewer products, and focus on cost reductions. To many listeners, this sounded so soothing. After all, who wouldn't think there was "fat" to be cut? Who ever believes cost-cutting reaches an end? Why not try to "milk" more out of the old products rather than undertake costly new product launches?
Simultaneously, Ms. Barnes began selling businesses. Gone was the European meats and apparel units, soon followed by the direct sales business sale to Tupperware, and the Body Care business sale to Unilever. Branded apparel was spun out as a seperate company, and the bakery business was sold to Group Bimbo [transaction not yet closed.] Revenues declined from $13.2B in June, 2008 to $10.8B in June 2010 - and after the bakery sale would fall to $8.7B - a revenue drop of 1/3 in just a few years. But this was to refocus, and generate billions of cash for share buybacks. To many that sounded good as well.
All of this streamlining, cost cutting, consolidating and refocusing did raise cash. But, for investors, quarterly dividends were cut from 19.75 cents/share in April, 2006 to 10 cents/share in August, 2006. Only recently have dividends been raised to 11.5 cents/share, but this is still a reduction of over 40% from where dividends were prior to implementing the new refocusing strategy.
After years of implementation, Sara Lee investors in 2010 were holding stock worth less, and had lower dividends, than before this new plan was put into effect.
It all sounded so good, like the lyrics of a lullaby. Refocus. Go back to the business core. Get out of non-essential businesses. Consolidate operations with belt-tightening. Centralize functions to get more done with fewer resources. Sell businesses to raise cash. And invest that cash in share buybacks that would raise the company value. (The alchemy of this last statement still mystifies me. At the end, you've sold all the businesses to raise money to buy the last shares - and nobody is left with anything. It's like selling parts of the house to pay the maintenance - eventually there's nowhere left to live. How anybody thinks this is good for any constituency of the company is hard to fathom.)
What has been accomplished under the Barnes leadership?
- The equity value cratered, only to be uplifted by a private equity takeover effort that may allow investors to regain their original investment
- Cash dividends have been gutted
- Sara Lee is now a much smaller company, with no new products and no growth plan
- Operating cash flow has declined
- Cash has been dispersed in meaningless stock buybacks that have accomplished nothing
- Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost
- Suppliers have been squeezed out, or if still selling to Sara Lee had their margins squeezed
- Downers Grove, IL ,where the headquarters is located, can link declines in commercial and residential real estate to the downfall of Sara Lee
While it may sound like a comforting song, business leadership that turns to cutting the business throws it into a growth stall from which there is almost no hope of recovery. Even though short-term there may be bragging about the effort to refocus, cut costs and raise cash, these actions simply kill the business - softly and slowly perhaps, but kill it nonetheless.
Sales and profit problems are the result of remaining stuck in old market approaches long after the market has shifted to superior solutions. The only way to "fix" the business is to get closer to the market and launch new products, technologies, processes or solutions that are aligned with emerging market trends. You can't cost-cut, refocus or re-align a business to success. You have to grow it.