It’s telling when a stock goes up after a CEO is fired. Such was the case for Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) stock on Monday. Ford’s surprising dismissal of CEO Mark Fields led the company’s stock to gain more than 2%. That doesn’t sound like a big move, but Ford added almost $1 billion in market capitalization in a day, just for switching out CEOs.
Replacing the top executive isn’t always a path to success in the long-term — and sometimes in the short-term.
One of the best examples of that problem occurred at BlackBerry Ltd (NASDAQ:BBRY) back in 2012, when the company was still known as Research in Motion. CEO Thorsten Heins cost RIMM more than a billion dollars in market capitalization in his first hour on the job. Heins was gone in less than two years.
Fields certainly wasn’t the sole problem at Ford, nor the reason for the disappointing performance in Ford stock. And as our James Brumley argued, new CEO Jim Hackett might not be the answer, either. Still, Ford’s board felt it was time for new blood.
Ford is far from the only company that could benefit from a change at the top, however. Today, we’ll look at 10 CEOs guilty of poor leadership, dismal stock returns and other shortcomings, and might best serve their companies by taking a walk.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: Jeffrey Immelt
Company: General Electric
General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) CEO Jeffrey Immelt has been under fire for what seems like most of his 16-year tenure. And to be fair, Immelt’s mixed reputation — and the similarly mixed performance of GE stock — is not 100% his fault.
For one, Immelt is constantly compared to his predecessor, the legendary Jack Welch. Yet Welch’s sterling reputation came in part from his building of profits through GE Capital. Immelt has been left with the thankless task of unwinding that business over the past 16 years — an effort that is nearing an end.
That said, for CEOs, the stock price is the scorecard, and GE has been a laggard under Immelt. General Electric shares have actually declined by 28% since Immelt officially replaced Welch on Sept. 7, 2001. With dividends, GE stock has provided positive total returns of 18%. But ~1% a year, compounded, is hardly enough to please investors. And even on a total return basis, GE has badly lagged both the S&P 500 and its rival Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE:HON), which has returned 441% (including dividends) over Immelt’s tenure.
It’s starting to look like Immelt’s tenure may be coming to an end. Activist investor Nelson Peltz reportedly is unhappy with GE’s CEO. The news of Peltz’ displeasure in March spiked General Electric shares by more than 2%.
Fair or not, an official end to Immelt’s reign could have a much bigger impact on GE.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: Jack Dorsey
As I’ve written in the past, I remain stunned that Twitter Inc (NYSE:TWTR) CEO Jack Dorsey doesn’t receive more notoriety for his stewardship of two different publicly traded companies. Dorsey, of course, is also the CEO of payment processor Square Inc (NYSE:SQ).
It’s an arrangement that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented. It’s like Bo Jackson playing football and baseball — but at the same time, and year-round.
The irony is that as far as Square goes, Dorsey has proven himself to be a reasonably competent CEO. Square’s IPO priced at $9 — though it did have to cut its price — and closed its first day at $13. The stock now trades above $20, providing 100%-plus returns for shareholders who received an initial allocation and outperforming the Nasdaq-100 over that 18-month stretch even off its first-day closing price.
For Twitter shareholders, however, Dorsey’s tenure since replacing Dick Costolo in October 2015 has been a disaster. TWTR has declined 35% over that period, while the Nasdaq-100 has gained 32%. Twitter has seen executives flee en masse. It’s still unprofitable when considering the heavy issuance of Twitter stock to executives and employees. And any dreams of the platform challenging Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) for social media dominance have long since been shattered.
Twitter needs real leadership, and the return of co-founder Biz Stone isn’t enough. Turning Twitter into a consistently profitable business is hard enough. It’s likely impossible for a CEO with another billion-dollar company on the side.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: Eddie Lampert
Sears Holdings Corp (NASDAQ:SHLD) CEO Eddie Lampert almost certainly isn’t going anywhere at this point. Through various vehicles, Lampert controls more than half of SHLD. And the idea that Lampert might step down is belied by his staunch belief — against all evidence — that his strategy for Sears Holdings will work in the long-term.
At this point, it might be too late for a new CEO to change course, anyhow. Sears is overwhelmed with debt, facing collapsing sales and even had to warn of a potential bankruptcy in its most recent 10-K filing. Lampert’s various strategies — merging Sears and Kmart, forsaking investments in store improvements, intense micromanagement at the corporate level, focusing on a loyalty program for a company that’s shown no loyalty to its employees or shoppers — continue to fail.
Nearly all of Sears’ assets have been stripped, including the Craftsman brand, Lands End, Inc. (NASDAQ:LE), and much of its real estate. There’s little left to support the debt load — and little left of options for Sears Holdings. Lampert’s response this month was to blame the media for raising the specter of bankruptcy, and lash out at suppliers for supposedly taking advantage of that perception. SHLD stock has fallen 25% since Lampert criticized vendors in a blog post, and looks headed for a new all-time low.
Yes, Sears reached a deal to push back the maturity of some of its debt, but that’s likely not going to stave off bankruptcy.
At this point, it’s probably too late for a turnaround under a new CEO, even if SHLD shareholders could move Lampert out. But with the stock down 95% from highs of a decade ago, even the slim possibility of success under new management certainly would be welcomed by the market.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: Nicholas Woodman
The dilemma of whether a great founder can be a great (or even good) CEO has a long history, particularly in Silicon Valley. Most famously, Steve Jobs left Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) before returning to turn his company into the world’s most valuable.
The “founder’s dilemma,” as it has been termed, has been amplified by dual-class stock structures that give founding shareholders majority control of voting power. That’s the case at GoPro Inc (NASDAQ:GPRO), where founder and CEO Nicholas Woodman controls 77% of the voting power through his Class B shares.
GPRO stock has bounced 24% since hitting an all-time low in March, but it remains more than 90% below all-time highs reached in late 2014. And it’s hard to see the company’s missteps without believing that a fresh pair of eyes at the top would do the company some good. The company was extremely late in pivoting to the drone market, losing an opportunity to extend his dominance in action cameras to that segment. Legacy GoPro unit sales tumbled through most of 2016, though performance has improved somewhat of late.
More broadly, GoPro looks increasingly like a “one-trick pony” under Woodman’s leadership — a common problem under founder-CEOs. Without experience in and knowledge of the broader consumer space, those CEOs struggle in moving into adjacent markets.
From that standpoint, it sure looks like GoPro could benefit from a more experienced leader at the top. So would Woodman, who lost his spot as a billionaire (on paper, anyway) amidst the long slide in GPRO stock.
A new CEO might not return Woodman’s stake to past heights, but he or she certainly would be welcomed by the market.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: Richard Hayne
Company: Urban Outfitters
It’s a bit unfair to criticize any retail CEO too harshly in this environment. Same-store sales are collapsing throughout the industry. Competition from Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) and other e-commerce providers is pummeling brick-and-mortar retailers, whose fixed costs lead to operating deleverage and sharply declining earnings.
But even on a relative basis, Urban Outfitters, Inc. (NASDAQ:URBN) has struggled badly of late under CEO Richard Hayne. Hayne himself has pointed to a bubble in U.S. retail square footage as causing some of URBN’s problems – and he’s not wrong. But many of Urban Outfitters’ wounds are self-inflicted.
A disappointing Q1 earnings report drove URBN stock to an eight-year low. Management admitted on the Q1 call that it had missed on dresses, and that the Anthropologie brand overcorrected in chasing the “athleisure” trend made fashionable by Lululemon Athletica inc. (NASDAQ:LULU). In response to brick-and-mortar weakness, URBN has focused on direct to consumer sales but hasn’t executed well there, either. And none of the company’s three brands look particularly on-point, after not that long ago being among the most popular in the country.
It’s true there have been external factors pressuring Urban Outfitters. But the company’s own mistakes have been a factor as well. Industry pressures don’t excuse those errors, and they don’t absolve Hayne from responsibility.
In an increasingly competitive and difficult space, new leadership might serve URBN shareholders well.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: Travis Kalanick
Uber isn’t a publicly traded company — at least not yet — but it’s covered in the media as much or as more as any stock. Lately, that media coverage has been predominantly negative, in large part due to CEO Travis Kalanick.
Kalanick got in a shouting match with an Uber driver, a tape of which was leaked online. Executives are fleeing. Allegations of sexism are rampant. Uber’s valuation appears to have held — it’s reported to be in the range of $70 billion — but it’s likely that major investors are getting nervous.
To his credit, Kalanick has taken responsibility, saying publicly that he needs to “grow up.” The company is looking for a new COO to support that effort.
But it might take more than that for Uber to satisfy its revolutionary goals. At this point, a new COO might not be enough — Uber very well may need a new chief executive.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: Oscar Munoz
Company: United Continental
For the most part, United Continental Holdings Inc (NYSE:UAL) shareholders likely are reasonably happy with CEO Oscar Munoz. UAL stock is up 37% since Munoz took over in September 2015. Of the major airlines, only Southwest Airlines Co (NYSE:LUV) has performed better over that period.
At the same time, United’s recent success is due in large part to an improvement in the industry as a whole. U.S. airlines finally have stopped the “circular firing squad” of endless fare cuts. Consolidation in the industry — notably the mergers of United and Continental and American Airlines and US Airways — has lessened competition tremendously.
So drastic has the change been that even Warren Buffett, who long avoided the industry, has bought stocks in the space, including UAL.
But Munoz’ tone-deaf reaction to a passenger being dragged off a flight, along with other mini-scandals, has hurt United’s brand of late. Surprisingly, UAL stock has gained despite the bad news — but there’s still a risk that revenue and profits will take a hit as 2017 rolls on. At the very least, the series of customer incidents, and the typically poor communication that follows, suggests that execution at UAL could be improved.
United’s board already turned down Munoz’ bid to add the role of chairman — and if United can’t fix its brand, it may take away the title of CEO as well.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: Brian Cornell
Again, retail is a tough space. But Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) hasn’t done itself any favors, and execution under CEO Brian Cornell has been spotty at best.
TGT stock hit a five-year low after a huge plunge following Q4 earnings, and while the Q1 report was better than expected, it wasn’t good. Same-store sales fell 1.3%, and the company still expects revenue and profits to decline in 2017.
That weakness can’t be chalked up to industry weakness, either. Rightly or wrongly, Target wound up the focus of a boycott last year over its restroom policy. The company hasn’t invested in its stores, and only now is targeting some $7 billion in capex for upgrades and improvements — many of which likely should have been completed by now.
Rival Wal-Mart Stores Inc (NYSE:WMT) suffered through some underperformance of its own — but now appears to be benefiting from its turnaround efforts. Target’s turnaround appears to be only just beginning, and beginning too late at that.
Much of the blame for recent weakness has to fall at Cornell’s feet, and Target should consider whether a new strategy might benefit from a new CEO.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: James Park
Fitbit Inc (NYSE:FIT) CEO James Park represents another prime example of the founder’s dilemma. And like at GoPro, a dual-class stock structure gives Park, in conjunction with Chief Technology Officer Eric Friedman, voting control of the company.
But Park should consider stepping down, for the good of himself and his fellow shareholders.
FIT stock trades near an all-time low, and almost 90% below levels seen in 2015. Execution has been poor, with a series of manufacturing problems leading to delays. Distribution problems have led to mismanaged inventory, and required extensive discounting that decimated margins in the key Q4. (Gross margin fell year-over-year from 39% to 22.1%.)
Most notably, the company has been far too slow to develop a true smartwatch – and thus a legitimate competitor to Apple Watch. With other players such as Garmin Ltd. (NASDAQ:GRMN) and even Under Armour in the wearables space, a single-product company can’t move slowly. And a single-product company has no excuse for moving slowly.
Fitbit is (finally!) developing a true smartwatch, as well as Bluetooth headphones. But their release has been delayed by production and design problems. Meanwhile, Park has said publicly that Fitbit actually is a “fitness social network,” an odd claim and one concerning in the light of consistent product failures and delays.
It’s simply all too much at this point. It’s clear that FIT needs new management — even beyond a series of executive firings and hirings. Change needs to start at the top for Fitbit before it’s too late.
CEOs Who Should Get the Boot: Kevin Plank
Company: Under Armour
Even with Under Armour Inc (NYSE:UA,UAA) stock down more than 50% from August levels, it might be a bit early to call for a change at the top.
Former Maryland football player Kevin Plank built Under Armour, and even after a poor performance in the second half of 2016, it’s not as if his efforts have been suddenly erased in a matter of months. Under Armour’s space has become much tougher of late. The bankruptcies of Sports Authority and Sports Chalet impacted inventory — and demand — from other customers like Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc (NYSE:DKS). The resurgence of adidas AG (ADR) (OTCMKTS:ADDYY) has added a newly formidable competitor. Even industry leader Nike Inc (NYSE:NKE) has underperformed of late.
But, again, the founder’s dilemma poses a problem for Under Armour, as execution and strategy remain major concerns.
Distribution agreements with Kohl’s Corporation (NYSE:KSS) and DSW Inc. (NYSE:DSW) risk the exclusivity of the Under Armour brand. The company clearly has had trouble expanding its reach beyond core customers. Assortments have been off as well. And Plank wound up being criticized by his company’s biggest endorser, Stephen Curry, over political comments earlier this year.
Like other founder-CEOs on this list, Plank isn’t going anywhere if he doesn’t want to; his ownership of Class C stock gives him controlling voting power. But it’s hard not to imagine that a maturing Under Armour might not benefit from a more seasoned executive in the top spot.
Plank still has time to turn Under Armour around. But shareholder criticisms likely will get louder if he can’t deliver.
As of this writing, Vince Martin did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.