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Closing Bell: HCA


It's a tribute to PepsiCo CEO Steve Reinemund that investors barely batted an eye at the Mar. 30 news that beverage chief Gary Rodkin is leaving voluntarily in June to pursue other opportunities. Rodkin's exit is a chance to groom two fast-rising stars, Dawn Hudson, 47, and John Compton, 43, who will split his duties. Dividing the job gives each executive a promotion. It doesn't necessarily mean the unit, which has been posting good results, is too big to manage.

Hudson, an ad exec before joining Pepsi in 1996, made her mark with the "Joy of Cola" campaign. She is now charged with expanding bottled soda sales. Compton ran Frito-Lay for two years and in 2001 helped integrate Quaker Oats and its Gatorade brand in North America with Pepsi following their merger. He takes over the Tropicana, Quaker, and Gatorade brands.

At 56, Reinemund isn't leaving PepsiCo anytime soon. But it's never too early to start grooming the talent for when he does retire. At long last, things may be looking up for airlines. American Airlines (AMR), the nation's biggest carrier, said on Mar. 29 that first-quarter unit revenue will rise as much as 3.9% from a year ago, well above analysts' forecasts. Although fuel prices remain sky-high, the carrier is benefiting from Delta Air Lines' (DAL) withdrawal from American's home hub of Dallas-Fort Worth. Bankrupt United Airlines also has been cutting domestic capacity, ceding some long-route traffic to American and others. American shares rose 11%, to $11.03, on Mar. 30, after Merrill Lynch (MER) upgraded its rating on the stock to buy from neutral. Investors shouldn't celebrate too much, though: Merrill still expects American to lose $200 million in the first quarter and $800 million for all of 2005.

Six months before he is set to become chief executive, Walt Disney (DIS) President Robert Iger is already remaking the company he will inherit from Michael Eisner. On Mar. 29, Disney ended its nearly year-long stalemate with Miramax Film (DIS) Co-Chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein, producers of such hits as Chicago and The Aviator (with Warner Bros. (TWX)). Iger agreed to fund some films from the Weinstein brothers' new studio, which will co-produce sequels to hits like Spy Kids and Scary Movie. Iger also overhauled Disney's powerful strategic planning unit, which Disney execs have blamed for squelching new initiatives. Next on Iger's to-do list: opening talks with partner Pixar Animation Studios (PIXR), which is threatening to leave Disney next year.

It won't be easy to knock the crown off leveraged buyout king Kohlberg Kravis Roberts for the biggest private equity deal in history. The New York shop paid almost $30 billion for RJR Nabisco in 1989. But now that sluggish stock market returns are driving investors into private equity, the megadeal is back in style. On Mar. 28, seven firms led by Silver Lake Partners acquired Wayne (Pa.)-based SunGard Data Systems (SDS), a data-processing and backup services outfit, for $36 a share in cash, or $11.3 billion. That deal trumped the nearly $7 billion that KKR, Bain Capital, and Vornado Realty Trust (VNO) paid earlier in the month for retailer Toys 'R' Us (TOY).

Hard-hit Central Michigan was dealt another body blow on Mar. 28, when the world's largest office-furniture maker, Steelcase (SCS), announced plans to close three factories and lay off 600 workers in its hometown of Grand Rapids. The furniture maker says it will save $35 million to $45 million a year by moving work to other plants in Michigan, Georgia, and Mexico. After three bad years, office furniture sales are picking up, but high steel prices are squeezing profits. On Mar. 30, Steelcase reported net income of $12.7 million for its fiscal year ended Feb. 25, vs. a $23.8 million loss for the previous year.

-- The IRS says taxpayers are cheating the U.S. Treasury by up to $353 billion a year.

-- The EU approved the acquisition of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) by a group led by Sony (SNE).

-- Chipmaker Micron Technology (MU) took a quarterly profit after a year-earlier loss.

Shares of HCA (HCA) climbed more than 7%, to $52.41, in the two trading days ended on Mar. 30. Two days earlier, the Nashville hospital chain forecast a first-quarter earnings gain of up to 35%. HCA cited a decline in the share of patients who don't pay their bills.


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