"We're not terribly optimistic." — Home Depot CEO Frank Blake in a Feb. 20 conference call with analysts, reacting to the company's 28% profit drop in the fourth quarter of 2006. Blake acknowledged that housing's decline may continue to hurt the business
Political change in Washington and the public debate on CEO pay are giving the shareholder rights movement a mighty tailwind—momentum that's being sensed in Europe, too.
At home, as House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) prepares to hold hearings on executive compensation, a coterie of corporate giants sat down with pension fund activists pushing for an advisory role on pay. The Feb. 9 meeting, held at TIAA-CREF's New York office, was the brainchild of Pfizer (PFE) Corporate Secretary Peggy Foran; Richard Ferlauto, director of pension policy at the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees; and Timothy Smith, director of socially responsive investment at Walden Asset Management.
Also at the table: Intel (INTC), Schering-Plough (SGP), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), AIG (AIG), and other blue chips. The agenda: to draft guidelines on how to give shareholders an advisory vote on pay, an effort business hopes will help it avoid legislation or regulation. (Frank's office has taken note of the meeting.)
Around the same time, four big global investors in U.S. stocks were flexing their collective muscle. Norway's Norges Bank Investment Management, Hermes Pension Management of Britain, and Dutch funds ABP and PGGM, with combined assets of $800 billion, have begun lobbying the SEC for more say in electing directors and an advisory vote on pay. (British and other EU shareholders play such roles.) Former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt is informally advising the group, and Hermes last year hired a veteran U.S. hand as its CEO—Mark Anson, former CIO of CalPers, who met with SEC Chairman Christopher Cox on Feb. 7. "With all the capital we're investing in the U.S. from Europe, we should have a chance to weigh in," says Anson.
Some U.S. business leaders think otherwise. "European pensions should no more impose proxy access requirements on American companies than we should force Sarbanes-Oxley on European ones," says John Berlau, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. Maybe, says Norges' Knut Kjaer. On the other hand, "we are quite free to move our assets."
Asked to name their dream job, nearly a quarter of U.S. workers in a recent survey pointed to the Oval Office. Queried about their childhood aspirations, however, they recalled a slew of non-Presidential fantasies as well. Here, a look at the youthful ambitions of adults in specific occupations.
Top Childhood Dream Job, by Current Profession:
Administrative professionals: Princess (33%)
Lawyers/Judges: U.S. President (59%)
Executives: Firefighter (29%)
Firefighters: Firefighter (41%)
Data: Harris Interactive 2006 online survey of 6,169 full-time U.S. workers, on behalf of CareerBuilder.com
At many large corporations, a full-time philanthropy staff selects charities to support. For small companies lacking a strategic philanthropic mission, Gratus Capital Management in Atlanta has created CompanyGivingTest.com. The site uses an online questionnaire to help employers find charities from a pool of about 80 nonprofits that Gratus has vetted for soundness.
Employers (or employees) taking the survey agree or disagree with 55 statements to pinpoint causes that fit a company's values or employees' preferences. (Sample: "The problem of homelessness is perhaps the greatest tragedy of our society.") Gratus uses the results to recommend three to five charities.
The month-old service, which starts at $2,500 for 1 to 50 test takers, has been used by the 15 employees at Access Worldwide in Atlanta, a mailing services operation that paid about $1,000 for a customized questionnaire. It was "a great tool," says Access CEO Adam Langston.
General Electric (GE) got out of the consumer-electronics business years ago. But to woo a new generation of buyers, the company now known for wind turbines and jet engines has decided to lend its brand name to a new line of digital cameras and photo printers. "We are looking at the products that connect with young people," says Marc Bertino, president of GE Trademark Licensing.
Under a licensing agreement, eight digital cameras and a photo printer will be designed and marketed by a startup to be sold worldwide under the GE brand. In March, General Imaging in Torrance, Calif., will unveil the gadgets at the annual Photo Marketing Assn. trade show in Las Vegas. Prices haven't been announced, but the cameras will be available in the U.S. in mid-April. ("Introducing the first digital cameras worthy of the GE name," reads the slogan on General Imaging's Web site.)
GE and General Imaging executives won't disclose their financial arrangements or the names of major investors. But it's clear that GE had a big hand in setting up its licensee. Last summer it persuaded Hiroshi Komiya, the former president of camera maker Olympus (OCPNY) Imaging, to give up retirement to start the company. General Imaging's chief designer is Takeyoshi Kawano, the man who created the Sony (SNE) Walkman, the Sony VAIO laptop, and the Olympus Stylus camera series.
Few industry analysts believe putting the ge name on new gadgets will strengthen the brand. The digital camera market is already mature, they say. And there's a risk of diluting the GE name should the licensee have quality problems. Given GE's history in consumer electronics, says Geordie McClelland, director of strategy at branding consultancy Straightline International, "consumers may well assume that the products were made in-house."
Aiming to burnish its Web 2.0 credentials, Penguin Books in the U.K. is hosting a wiki Web site that allows people to write a novel collectively. So far the experiment has been playfully challenging the notion of the wisdom of crowds.
Since its launch on Feb. 1, the novel-in-progress at amillionpenguins.com has grown from a single, Penguin-supplied sentence ("There was no possibility of taking a walk that day," the opening line from Jane Eyre) to 36,000 words and 11 different versions with 59 characters, including a dancer who tangos people to death. The content changes just about every minute as the wiki's 1,300 registered users world-wide rewrite the story, with some 8,500 in-dividual edits so far.
About 75,000 people have visited the wiki, which Penguin now locks for two hours a day to give its volunteer monitors?? few Penguin employees and eight graduate students from Leicester's De Montfort University??ime to absorb changes and to delete pornography and obscenities. Jeremy Ettinghausen, head of digital publishing for Penguin UK, praises the "astonishingly creative" work he has seen. As for initial plans to publish the novel when the five-week wiki ends: "That would be virtually impossible because of the way the wiki has evolved," he says. "But I am looking at how we could produce an e-book."
Lee Iacocca is mad as hell. "Let's tell 'em all we've had enough," writes the 82-year-old onetime savior of Chrysler (DCX), in Where Have All the Leaders Gone? to be published in April by Simon & Schuster's Scribner imprint.
What's wrong with America? Low voter turnout, the Iraq war (including Abu Ghraib), Dick Cheney's energy task force, unfair trade, the national debt, flabby education and children, Richard Grasso's pay package, and—as the title implies—inept leaders. High on that list: George W. Bush. "We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff," Iacocca opines.
Among Bush's failings, says the author, who supported the President in 2000: He alienated America's allies and, perhaps, Detroit—Iacocca is still steaming over the months-long delay preceding Bush's 2006 meeting with the heads of GM (GM), Ford (F), and Chrysler. "Bush had time to meet with the winner of American Idol, but he couldn't squeeze in the leaders of the auto industry."
Iacocca lists "Nine C's of Leadership," by which he says Presidential and CEO candidates should be judged. (First, "curiosity;" last, "common sense.") And with talk of Chrysler being spun off from Daimler, readers may be interested to know that Iacocca likes current DaimlerChrysler (DCX) CEO Dieter Zetsche. He also sketches a plan to revive the U.S. auto industry—one that involves cutting losses and the collaboration of carmakers, the unions, and government.
What prompted the book? Simon & Schuster CEO Jack Romanos says he called Iacocca after seeing his 2005 Chrysler TV ad that also featured rapper Snoop Dogg. "He definitely had something to say," says Romanos. The unhappiness with the Administration came as no surprise. "We expected him to unload on Washington, and he didn't disappoint," Romanos says. "He didn't sell 6 million copies of his previous work by pulling his punches."
Some quiet but high-wattage models may steal a bit of the limelight at the Academy Awards: More green cars than ever are ferrying Hollywood's environmentally friendly stars to the red carpet, thanks to Global Green USA, a nonprofit that supplies eco-rides for the event. This year the tinted-window, luxe version of Toyota's Prius hybrid—which was Cameron Diaz' ride a few Oscars back—may be upstaged by a plug-in version that gets 100 mpg. And look for a leading-man type to screech up in a fast-as-it-looks battery-powered Tesla sportster. ZAP Car's Xebra, a petite electric three-wheeler is also slated to makes its debut, probably wrapped around a diminutive starlet.
Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce.com (CRM), likes to take on the big guys. In the 1990s, his startup set out to compete with Siebel Systems, the customer-management software giant, and wound up playing a major role in upending it. Now Benioff has a far more entrenched player in his sights: Bloomberg, the dominant provider of financial information to Wall Street.
Bloomberg's $1,500-a-month terminal is considered essential gear for stock and bond traders, who value its real-time market data, analytical tools, and financial news. Benioff isn't targeting hard-core traders but rather the roughly half-million U.S. financial advisers and stockbrokers, some of whom also hold Bloomberg subscriptions.
Salesforce.com's new wealth-management service, slated to be unveiled on Feb. 27, costs $500 a month per user. It combines the company's usual customer-relationship-tracking features with data streams and market intelligence from a range of free or for-a-fee sources, including Thomson Financial (TOC) and Dow Jones (DJ). Predicts Benioff: "We're going to move Bloomberg off the desktops of the brokerages and replace it with commodity PCs and Internet services."
The first customer, Merrill Lynch (MER) (which has an equity investment in Bloomberg), has signed up for 25,000 subscriptions for financial advisers, but is leaving Bloomberg terminals on the desks of its traders, according to Salesforce.com.
As with a Bloomberg subscription, financial advisers using Benioff's service can set up alerts when information affecting their clients comes across the wires, tap into fully integrated e-mail or Web phone services to call those investors, and monitor every communication for regulatory compliance purposes.
Analysts who have been briefed by Salesforce came away impressed. "I bet there are a lot of people on Wall Street who would like to get out of paying the fees that made Mike Bloomberg a billionaire," says Bruce Richardson of AMR Research. But Richardson and others in the industry say Benioff's latest target will be much harder to damage than Siebel Systems was. "Bloomberg's base is built on bedrock," says analyst Jack McConville of the McConville Group. Bloomberg declined comment.
Undaunted, Salesforce plans to use the financial adviser desktops as a beachhead, both at big Wall Street firms and at smaller regional operations. Bloomberg, unlike Salesforce, offers few customer-management features. Once he gains a foothold, Benioff figures, he can expand into new markets with banking, mortgage, insurance, and capital markets editions of the service. "If we succeed, we'll define the future of the financial-services workstation," he says.
Aflac's board has announced it will give shareholders an advisory vote on executive compensation starting in 2009. Is investor "say on pay" a good idea?
"Shareholders should absolutely have a say on executive pay. The big question is: How will it be executed? Will small individual investors have a chance to be heard? " — Michelle Leder, founder and editor, footnoted.org
"Bad idea. It substitutes a shareholder referendum for the business judgment of the board and will make it difficult to hire and retain the most qualified senior executives." — Martin Lipton, founding partner, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz
"Typical! The guys who don't need to do this are doing it. I like the resolution, but it's unfortunate that only the good guys do this." — Jim Cramer, markets commentator, TheStreet.com; host, Mad Money with Jim Cramer