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Home Depot Stock Underperformance: Who’s to Blame?

Home Depot Chairman and CEO Robert Nardelli resigned on Wednesday. Since early 2006, Nardelli had been under a fair amount of criticism from investors primarily for disproportionate compensation and poor performance of Home Depot’s stock [HD].

In May of last year, the New York Times estimated that Nardelli had received compensation worth $245 million during the first five years of heading the company. During this time, Home Depot’s stock had slid some. The stock performance was especially poor when compared to that of Home Depot’s archrival, Lowe’s [LOW].

Is the company management completely at fault for the fact that the share price has gone nowhere in the last six years? After all, during Nardelli’s tenure, Dec-2000 to Jan-2007, Home Depot’s has grown significantly and profit margins have improved. Here are key numbers (2007 data are Wall Street consensus estimates for the financial year ending 31-Jan-2007.)

  • Revenues increased from 45.7 billion to 91.0 billion, an increase of 100%
  • Net income increased from 2.6 billion to 6.2 billion, an increase of 140%
  • Earning per share (EPS) increased from $1.10 to $2.95, an increase of 170%
  • Dividends (per share) increased from $0.16 to $0.90, an increase of 460%

Lesson for Investors: Perspective in Valuation

During the late eighties and nineties, Home Depot grew exponentially under the leadership of its founders. Naturally, its stock was very popular on Wall Street and attracted rich valuations. The Price to Earning ratio (P/E) of the stock was high; so was the PEG ratio (the ratio of P/E to growth rate). Investors ‘bought high’ and ‘sold high’ during this period: they purchased at rich valuations and sold at rich valuations, as with any other growth stock.

Home Depot Stock Underperformance: Who is to Blame?

After Nardelli assumed leadership of the company in December 2000, investors continued to expect richer valuations. In the post-bubble period, Home Depot’s stock lost its sheen; it lost the rich valuations it once attracted. Its P/E ratio was now comparable to that of mature companies. Further, stocks of large, blue chip companies (GE, Intel, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Citigroup, Pfizer, etc.) went out of favor on Wall Street from year 2001. Despite impressive earnings growths, these companies have suffered from decreased interest in their stocks (see story and chart on Business Week’s cover story and accompanying chart from April 2006.)

Investors often have undue expectations of stock prices of rapid-growth companies and lack perspective on stock valuations as such companies mature.

Home Depot: On Governance and Investors’ Interests

On the eve of Home Depot’s [HD] annual shareholders’ meeting, a front-page article in the New York Times estimated CEO Bob Nardelli’s compensation at $245 million since 2001. The article presented ties among board members and pointed to most of the compensation committee being active/former chief executives. Investors had been increasingly upset about Bob’s and other executives’ compensation vis-à-vis the poor performance of the company’s stock.

Media outlets reported that none of the directors of the company except for Bob Nardelli attended the shareholders’ meeting and that Bob did not allow for detailed comments: microphones were shut off after the one-minute restriction for investors’ comments! A follow-up article [$] in the New York Times quoted frustrated investors describing their experience as “appalling,” “disgraceful” and “arrogant.”

The company later stated that most of the company’s directors were in Atlanta (where Home Depot is headquartered) on other company business. In my opinion, the Board is essentially a group of trustees who represent shareholders’ interests and interface with the management. Given these responsibilities, what other than attending the annual shareholders’ meeting could constitute important business? As expected, the entire Board had attended last year’s shareholders’ meeting.

The company can do a better job with respect to governance. I hope Home Depot takes appropriate steps to connect executive compensation with stock performance and financial performance, better representation of investors’ concerns and requiring that the entire Board attend shareholders’ meetings.

In March, Fortune magazine ranked Home Depot 13th among America’s most admired companies; it will be interesting to see if Home Depot drops in next year’s ranking.

Ten Rules of Management Success from Sam Walton

Sam Walton (1918–1992,) the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, was arguably the most successful entrepreneur of his generation. He was passionate about retailing, loved his work, and built and ran Walmart with boundless energy.

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) “Made in America” is Walton’s very educational, insightful, and stimulating autobiography. It’s teeming with Walton’s relentless search for better ideas, learning from competitors, managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage, asking incessant questions of day-to-day operations, listening to employees at all levels of Walmart, and inventing creative ways to foster an idea-driven culture. “Made in America” is also filled with anecdotes from Walton’s associates and family members—in fact, some of their opinions are less than flattering.

Former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch once said, “Walton understood people the way Thomas Edison understood innovation and Henry Ford, production. He brought out the very best in his employees, gave his very best to his customers, and taught something of value to everyone he touched.”

Here are ten insightful management ideas from “Made in America” with the relevant anecdotes from Walton or his associates.

  1. When hiring employees, look for passion and desire to grow. Having the right skills and qualifications is no doubt essential in a potential employee, but a better predictor of long-term success and career advancement is his/her passion for learning new things, commitment to a task, and a drive to get things done. A former Walmart executive recalls, “Sam would take people with hardly any retail experience, give them six months with us, and if he thought they showed any real potential to merchandise a store and manage people, he’d give them a chance. He’d make them an assistant manager. They were the ones who would go around and open all the new stores and they would be next in line to manage their own store. In my opinion, most of them weren’t anywhere near ready to run stores, but Sam proved me wrong there. He finally convinced me. If you take someone who lacks the experience and the know-how but has the real desire and the willingness to work his tail off to get the job done, he’ll make up for what he lacks.”
  2. Delegate and follow up. Delegation is indispensable; yet it remains one of the most underutilized and underdeveloped managerial skills. One element of effective delegation is consistent follow-up. Far too often, managers will delegate a task and then fail to follow up to see how things are going. Such failure to follow-up is tantamount to abdication of accountability for results, which still lies with the manager. Former Walmart CEO David Glass recalls, “As famous as Sam is for being a great motivator … he is equally good at checking on the people he has motivated. You might call his style: management by looking over your shoulder.”

Management Ideas from Sam Walton

  1. Persist and rally people to the cause. Passionate managers demonstrate the energy and drive needed to rally their teams around a shared vision. They engage their employees with the same messages over and over, escalate their sense of urgency, and get their vision implemented quickly. Former Walmart CEO David Glass recalls, “When Sam feels a certain way, he is relentless. He will just wear you out. He will bring up an idea, we’ll all discuss it and then decide maybe that it’s not something we should be doing right now—or ever. Fine. Case closed. But as long as he is convinced that it is the right thing, it just keeps coming up—week after week after week—until finally everybody capitulates and says, well, it’s easier to do it than to keep fighting this fight. I guess it could be called management by wearing you down.”
  2. Mentor, critique, and inspire employees. Mentoring employees is an effective way to improve employee performance and build trust and loyalty. Effective mentoring is not merely telling employees what to do. It is helping them broaden and deepen their thinking by clarifying their goals and asking the right questions. Effective mentoring is also about supporting employees as they learn and practice new skills and habits. Walton writes, “I’ve been asked if I was a hands-on manager or an arm’s-length type. I think really I’m more of a manager by walking and flying around, and in the process I stick my fingers into everything I can to see how it’s coming along. I’ve let our executives make their decisions—and their mistakes—but I’ve critiqued and advised them.”
  3. Invest in frontline employees for better customer relationships. Much of customers’ opinions about a business come from the myriad interactions they have with customer-interfacing frontline employees, who are the face of any business. If a business doesn’t get these customer experiences right, nothing else matters. Walton writes, “The way management treats the associates is exactly how the associates will then treat the customers. And if the associates treat the customers well, the customers will return again and again, and that is where the real profit in this business lies, not in trying to drag strangers into your stores for one-time purchases based on splashy sales or expensive advertising. Satisfied, loyal, repeat customers … are loyal to us because our associates treat them better than salespeople in other stores do. So, in the whole Wal-Mart scheme of things, the most important contact ever made is between the associate in the store and the customer.”
  4. Treat employees like business partners and empower them by sharing information. Effective managers foster open communication by treating employees as co-owners of the business and sharing operational data regularly. Managers empower employees by helping them understand how their contribution makes a difference, discussing opportunities and challenges, and encouraging them to contribute to solutions. Walton writes, “Our very unusual willingness to share most of the numbers of our business with all the associates … It’s the only way they can possibly do their jobs to the best of their abilities—to know what’s going on in their business. … Sharing information and responsibility is a key to any partnership. It makes people feel responsible and involved …. In our individual stores, we show them their store’s profits, their store’s purchases, their store’s sales, and their store’s markdowns.
  5. Never be satisfied. There’s always room for improvement. Effective managers never rest on their laurels and are persistently dissatisfied with the status quo. They possess a pervasive obsession for discovering problems and improving products, services, and people. Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus recalls, “If you ask Sam how’s business, he’s never satisfied. He says, ‘Bernie, things are really lousy. Our lines are too long at the cash registers. Our people aren’t being helpful enough. I don’t know what we’re gonna do to get them motivated.’ Then you ask some of these CEOs from other retail organizations who you know are on the verge of going out of business, and they brag and tell you how great everything is. Really putting on airs. Not Sam. He is down to earth and knows who he is.”

Insightful Management Ideas from Sam Walton

  1. Appreciate employees and give honest feedback. A key determinant of employee engagement is whether employees feel their managers genuinely care. Do the managers provide regular, direct feedback, both appreciative and corrective? Do they coach employees in their learning and career growth? Walton writes, “Keeping so many people motivated to do the best job possible involves … appreciation. All of us like praise. So what we try to practice in our company is to look for things to praise. … We want to let our folks know when they are doing something outstanding, and let them know they are important to us. You can’t praise something that’s not done well. You can’t be insincere. You have to follow up on things that aren’t done well. There is no substitute for being honest with someone and letting them know they didn’t do a good job. All of us profit from being corrected—if we’re corrected in a positive way.”
  2. Listening to employee’s complaints and concerns could be a positive force for change. Effective managers provide their employees the opportunity to not only contribute their ideas, but also air concerns and complaints. By fostering an environment of open communication, managers who handle employee opinions effectively not only boost employee motivation, performance, and morale, but also benefit from learning directly about problems with teams, organizations, and businesses. Walton writes, “Executives who hold themselves aloof from their associates, who won’t listen to their associates when they have a problem, can never be true partners with them. … Folks who stand on their feet all day stocking shelves or pushing carts of merchandise out of the back room get exhausted and frustrated too, and occasionally they dwell on problems that they just can’t let go of until they’ve shared it with somebody who they feel is in a position to find a solution. … We have really tried to maintain an open-door policy at Wal-Mart. … If the associate happens to be right, it’s important to overrule their manager, or whoever they’re having the problem … . The associates would know pretty soon that it was just something we paid lip service to, but didn’t really believe.”
  3. Learn from the competition. Effective managers understand that keeping tabs on competitors, copying their innovations as much as possible, and reaching out to customers the way competitors do is a great strategy for growing business. Sam Walton’s brother Bud recalls, “There may not be anything (Walton) enjoys more than going into a competitor’s store trying to learn something from it.” A former K-Mart board member recalls, “(Walton) had adopted almost all of the original Kmart ideas. I always had great admiration for the way he implemented—and later enlarged those ideas. Much later on, when I was retired still a K-Mart board member, I tried to advise (K-Mart) management of just what a serious threat I thought he was. But it wasn’t until recently that they took him seriously.”

No Swearing & Profanity: Mind Your Language

Do not allow swearing in the workplace

Last week, Time Magazine discussed research that suggests that using curse words can help cope with physical pain. This reminds me of a 2007 research that implies that regular swearing helps employees better express their feelings in stressful circumstances and boosts team morale.

Such research is misleading in that the findings may be perceived as approving of profanity at work. As work environments have become more laid-back over the years, swearing is more commonplace than in the past, especially in blue-collar environments and certain other workplace cultures.

Harry S. Dennis III of The Executive Committee (TEC) in Wisconsin and Michigan explores two bases for the tolerance of profanity in workplaces.

  • The laid-back we-are-all-in-this-together culture is almost like a fraternity environment. The use of profanity somehow communicates a symbolic unity. Employees believe that their degree of comfort with one another means it’s OK to let down their guard. It becomes a casual exchange and falsely suggests a degree of communication intimacy.
  • In the hard-driving aggressive environment, employees use profanity to communicate urgency, a need for action. Most swear words are one syllable, so they carry a bullet-like impact and light a fire under the butt of the person on the receiving end so they get the job done. It is, in fact, a terrible negative motivator.

Swearing and Profanity: Mind Your Language

Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, Bob Nardelli at Home Depot, Carol Betz at Yahoo! and other executives are reported to have cussed at work. When leaders and managers swear without restraint to express annoyance at an employee, colleague, competitor, customer or circumstance, the message they convey to their organizations is that profanity is acceptable. This is akin to potty-mouthed parents hinting that it is probably OK for their watchful kids to use curse words.

Swearing and poor language is not acceptable in any professional setting. Swearing is dysfunctional to the cohesiveness of teams. Many employees find use of expletives as discourteous and quickly lose respect for those using profane language. Managers’ abusive management style can quickly intimidate employees who may hesitate to speak out.

Bad language is unacceptable behavior. Organizations should require that employees exercise common sense and avoid using colorful language. HR must deal with issues of swearing in the workplace as they occur and institute disciplinary procedures to prevent charges of workplace bullying, abuse or discrimination. Leaders and managers should curb their own language and comply privately and publicly. Employees, even high-performing ones, who repeatedly disregard such requirements and undermine the trust and morale of workplace environments must go openly.

Get the Recognition to Help Career Advancement

Robert Nardelli, the former CEO of retailing giant Home Depot, offered great career advice in a “CEO Series” interview at the Stern School of Business, New York University, in 2003. Here is a video and a transcript of his interview.

Robert Nardelli’s on Getting Recognition

Robert Nardelli interview at the Stern School of Business, New York University I started my career in General Electric (GE) as a manufacturing engineer in the refrigeration plant. When I had an opportunity to volunteer in the ‘feature and appearance council’ or to help design new handles, I would snap the opportunity so that I was able to get tremendous exposure to the thinking and be recognized as someone that could do functional crossover. It served me well throughout my whole career.

When GE implemented a new financial accounting system, the company was looking for someone to volunteer to be the program manager. I did not know anything about accounting and finance, but still said I will lead the initiative. Of course, this was in addition to my day job.

Such opportunities exist in every organization. You can seize those opportunities and learn through broader experiences. They gave me a base of understanding and confidence. When I faced adversity at higher positions, I felt good about my experience and abilities.

Call for Action

Getting Recognition to Help Career Advancement Getting management to recognize you for promotions and leadership positions can be challenging, especially at large companies. Career success is often said to be not about what you know but about “who you know.” In the new world of work, where competition is more intense than ever before, what really matters more is who knows you and what they know about you.

Robert Nardelli recommends that volunteering on a variety of organizational initiatives is one way to get the recognition you deserve. When you volunteer on cross-functional committees for product improvement or professional development, the decision-makers can get to know you, your skills, abilities and career interests. Such exposure will help them consider you for challenging assignments in the future.

Volunteer in your company’s initiatives, connect with other functions, broaden your skills, and, build a network.

[Notes: (1) Robert Nardelli’s photo from the website of the Stern School of Business, New York University, (2) Robert Nardelli’s words (above) were altered for clarity and conciseness for this article.]

Philanthropy: Collaborative Initiatives to Transfer Corporate Values to the Social Sector

Collaborative Initiatives to Transfer Corporate Values to the Social Sector Traditional philanthropy, whether personal, institutional or corporate, takes three forms: cash capital, volunteer-time in programming support, and cause-related sponsorship. I believe a fourth avenue, corporate and non-profit collaboration, can make an important difference in the society.

Following last year’s Katrina hurricane, Wal-Mart [WMT], Home Depot [HD] and FedEx [FDX] reached out to vulnerable victims by providing hundreds of truckloads of vital supplies, thanks to their immense supply chain infrastructures. These companies highlighted one promising area of effective corporate outreach and community collaboration. Can the corporate sector transfer logistical knowledge to relief agencies and aid them to set-up an infrastructure to support nimble disaster planning in the future?

One of the most significant characteristics of successful corporate leaders is their ability to clearly recognize new social, political and economic influences and to adapt their enterprises to developing circumstances rapidly and economically. These corporate leaders possess the dynamism, the ability to innovate and the mechanisms for spurring efficiency and allocating resources in entirely new channels.

Non-profits have limited access to such visionary individuals and the expertise necessary for social investments to overcome barriers in resources and operational efficiencies. Therefore, there is a pressing need for corporate leaders from all levels to collaborate with the social sector. I expect innovative corporations to launch and expand their philanthropy programs to create partnerships for sustainable initiatives and transfer corporate practices, values, oversight and accountability measures to non-profits.

*Keyword(s): Philanthropy, outreach, non-profits, Katrina, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, FedEx