Ex-New York City Mayor Ed Koch was famous for walking around the city and asking residents, “How am I doing?” Wouldn’t it be great if Wall Street CEOs did the same?
I know I’d have some feedback.
Wall Street is littered with a number of banged-up businesses with hopes of turning things around. For instance, Office Depot (NYSE:ODP) boomed last week amid news of activist-investor interest. But as InvestorPlace colleague Dan Burrows points out, the idea behind the stock surge had nothing to do with any plans of improving Office Depot — it really had to do with the mere hope that a little red-hot poker could jostle management.
But what about companies who aren’t acting under outside pressure to “unlock” shareholder value as much as they actually want to create it — through concrete action — in an effort to make a bad company better?
I have three stocks in mind — and while they aren’t exactly 10 minutes from bankruptcy, they are struggling enough that big changes have become necessary to hold the fort together. How are they doing? Let’s find out:
To say J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) is in a tough spot would be a gross understatement. Sales against any measure are lagging, and JCP is getting killed from all sides by Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Kohl’s (NYSE:KSS) and Macy’s (NYSE:M), just to name a few. The company brought in Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) marketing wunderkind Ron Johnson late last year to turn around its fortunes. How is he doing?
Strategy: Roll out a “new” JCP focused on “Fair and Square Pricing,” and store-within-a-store marketing, with around 80 to 100 of these stores located in every JCP location by 2015.
Reality: Well, so far the company has rolled out the store-within-a-store concept to about 700 of its stores, with a minimum “10-shop” model in each one. JCP is working fairly successfully to integrate the stores with more names, perhaps the biggest (certainly the most contentious, if you ask Macy’s) being the Martha Stewart Living (NYSE:MSO) line. It’s still a long way from done, but at least some momentum on the strategy is proceeding.
Results: So far, so bad. Second-quarter revenues and profits were ugly — though admittedly not as bad as Q1’s in May — and the company continues to lay off employees. JCP shares are down 17% year-to-date, though that’s including a market-crushing 30% rally in the past three months.
What’s Next? Rolling out more brands into more stores certainly can’t hurt, though providing free haircuts to kids seems like more of a stretch. The upcoming holiday season is critical to Johnson & Co., who will find out whether they scared customers off for good. At least on that front, there’s some promise.
Where to start with Best Buy (NYSE:BBY)?
A total mess, that’s where.
Boardroom scandal and embarrassment. Corporate mismanagement. Intense, brutal competition from Wal-Mart and Target (NYSE:TGT) on the ground, and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) online. Founder Richard Schulze made a pitch in August to take his old company private. After some back and forth, Schulze got his wish to open the books and make an offer. The discussed price? Between $24-$26 per share, a hefty 45% premium from its recent price.
Strategy: This part’s a bit in reverse. Before any real changes can be discussed, BBY must decide whether to eventually sell out to Schulze. Once that happens, it’s a race to remake Best Buy’s stores. But to what? Well, at least something more than a showroom.
Reality: So far, all that’s happened is BBY hired a buyout guru named Hubert Joly, and the company is directing its store employees to be more friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Now that is a strategy. Nothing else seems to be in play.
Result: The stock is languishing — down 23% YTD — investors no longer have any dividend to fall back on, the outstanding purchase price appears hard to either justify or finance, and again, a change in the stores seems unlikely until a final decision is made.
What’s Next? Truthfully, I think investors are just hoping to see a realization of the original offer price, even if it’s on the low ($24) side, just to end the limbo before BBY circles the Circuit City drain.
I’m trying to limit myself to an hour on this piece, so let’s just leave it at this: Meg Whitman is the latest in a line of failed CEOs trying to turn this stinker around.
Strategy: Cut, cut and cut to prosperity, apparently. That starts with the work force. The most recent cut of 2,000 employees will go toward meeting a target of a 29,000-person reduction in payroll by 2014. HP merged two dying units — printers and PCs — earlier this year to, well, cut costs of course.
Reality: Well, expectedly, you’ve got more people entering unemployment lines, and of course the resulting “operating efficiencies” promised by management. In the meantime, the most recent quarter’s earnings sure weren’t pretty. No sign yet of how that cutting transforms into profitability, as the company wrote off $8 billion last quarter on its EDS investment, so time will tell.
Results: The stock is down 30% year-to-date, 26% in the past six months and 16% in the past three months. Frankly, not a lot of people have Whitman’s faith.
What’s Next? The PC business isn’t getting better, so I don’t know. What’s left to cut?
Outlook: Comatose. If it weren’t for HPQ’s good cash situation, it might be worse.
Marc Bastow is an Assistant Editor at InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he was long AAPL.