With the planned departure of Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer in the next year, there is no shortage of critics out there who have maligned not only the exec but his entire company.
And while I have my issues with Mr. Ballmer’s leadership and with Microsoft in general, it’s a bit harsh to write off this entire company as a dying star that would be downright maddening to call your employer.
I mean, Microsoft boasts almost $88 billion in cash and investments and annual operating cash flow of over $31 billion. This is not a company that is collapsing, nor is it a company that doesn’t have resources to reinvent itself with the right person at the helm and the right plan in place.
On the other hand, there are a host of companies out there that seem to be doomed no matter who is in the CEO seat. Those kind of businesses would indeed be painful to run, and might have trouble finding a warm body in the corner office as a result.
Here are five companies with CEO jobs that nobody wants:
Five-Year Return: -92%
YTD Return: -12%
BlackBerry (BBRY) recently made a fuss by saying it is “open to going private.” But after a failed relaunch with its Z10 and Q10 smartphone line and a stock that continues to be priced at a steep discount to book value in anticipation of bankruptcy in the next few years, BlackBerry has proved it is going nowhere.
Current CEO Thorsten Heins has been with the company since 2007, which was pretty much the beginning of the end as the Apple (AAPL) iPhone debuted its first-generation model that same year. He took the reins in January 2012, but hasn’t quite delivered on his promises of to reinvigorate the company.
Shareholders have been loyal to the company thus far, almost absurdly so, but even if that changes and they pick up the pitchforks to oust Heins and other leaders … who would want to lead this dying tech company?
The only real hope here is for someone to take over BlackBerry and find a buyer … but who wants a job taking a battered company around and presenting it like a shiny tech stalwart?
Five-Year Return: -65%
YTD Return: -32%
When Ron Johnson, the former Apple retail darling, took over JCPenney (JCP) investors hoped for a reinvention of the embattled department store. But after Johnson was unceremoniously sacked about a year after joining the company, Myron “Mike” Ullman returned to the company in April as CEO, despite the fact that he was the one who presided over the company’s decline from 2004 to 2012.
Shareholders didn’t really have a choice, and the 66-year-old-Ullman is obviously a stopgap solution. But a stopgap for what? Will he drive the company in to the ground quickly enough to be its last CEO? Or will the JCP board have to find another sucker to run this retailer until the end of the line?
It’s not a fun place to be when Ron Johnson’s downfall was his plan to do something completely different. But the status quo at JCP is characterized by rumors that it can’t even make payments on its loans.
Barnes & Noble
Five-Year Return: -43%
YTD Return: -5%
In a separate segment of retail, it’s not fun to be at the helm of a bookseller in a digital age, and while William Lynch has done a decent job at Barnes & Noble (BKS) since 2010, there’s just nowhere left to go for this company.
Lynch made a decent run at e-books with the Nook reader from Barnes and Noble. The device got a second life a year ago, when Microsoft invested $300 million in Barnes & Noble’s digital business, but it has been downhill since. Now B&N has slashed prices on existing inventory and is looking to discontinue its tablet business.
What’s left is a company that continues to bleed red ink and see revenue decline … but oddly, those challenges aren’t enough to sink Barnes & Noble anytime soon, thanks to fairly lean operations and decent online sales. Eventually, there’s going to have to be someone else at the helm here as Lynch either bears the brunt of the pain or simply decides it’s time to move on.
But who the heck would want that job?
Five-Year Return: -45%
YTD Return: +36%
Carl Icahn has turned his evil eye on Dell (DELL) as its founder and CEO Michael Dell continues to fight for a deal to take the company private. If Icahn succeeds in winning over shareholders, he has made it painfully clear that someone else is going to have to run Dell instead of its namesake founder.
But who would want the job of running Dell in his stead? The company has been in a holding pattern for all of 2013 on continued drama over a buyout, which has assuredly sapped morale and sent top talent (if any is left) heading for the exits.
A buyout to go private typically comes with a host of layoffs, and surely employees see the writing on the wall. With the broader business pressures of a post-PC age coupled with stormy Carl Icahn ruling the board and a battered rank-and-file after this buyout drama … running Dell is not going to be a picnic.
Five-Year Return: -53%
YTD Return: +58%
Speaking of post-PC pain, the trouble at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) just got worse as the company’s five-year turnaround plan stalled almost right out of the gate. Revealed at the end of 2012, the plan was supposed to give the company a big push into enterprise and software services … but current CEO Meg Whitman told analysts last week that HP is way behind on revenue plans.
Whitman, a former head of eBay (EBAY), was named CEO of HP in late 2011 after musical chairs that included seven CEOs since 1999. She has put in almost two years, and has had plenty of time to explain her turnaround plan and vision to investors.
If that turnaround is doomed … well, Meg Whitman may be doomed too. But before shareholders kick her out, they should probably ask themselves who in the world would be happy taking over HP after yet another management failure.
Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com and the author of The Frugal Investor’s Guide to Finding Great Stocks. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.