A single-minded focus on revenue can blind you to how badly your business is really doing.
A single-minded focus on revenue can blind you to how badly your business is really doing.
THE new app for an upmarket British department store certainly looks the part. Released on Google Play, a shop for Android software, on September 5th, it has the right logo, the correct vibrant colour and offers fashionable clothes and accessories. But…
SHAREHOLDER meetings in Ohio are not usually the stuff of high drama, but a recent gathering was a nail-biter. Nelson Peltz of Trian Fund Management, an activist hedge fund, sought a seat on the board of Procter & Gamble (P&G), the world’s largest consumer-goods company, in a proxy vote on October 10th. It was the biggest such battle ever. In the weeks leading up to P&G’s shareholder meeting, the fight resembled a political contest, complete with carefully crafted videos, lengthy white papers, mass mailings and tens of thousands of phone calls urging shareholders to vote blue (P&G) or white (Trian).
As The Economist went to press, P&G said it had won and Mr Peltz was contesting the tally. “Everybody but [P&G’s] current employees voted for us,” he said after P&G declared victory. “Maybe that’s why they keep so much overhead.” So the brawl is not over. Yet the outcome may not matter much. Mr Peltz will push P&G for…Continue reading
THE port city of Kobe, on the southern side of Japan’s main island, is known for luxury beef from pampered cattle, fine sake and precision engineering. Its reputation for the last of those products took a blow on October 8th when one of its oldest industrial firms, Kobe Steel, admitted that that it had falsified data on many of its aluminium, copper and steel products. By October 11th, the company’s shares had fallen by a third, reducing its market value by ¥180bn ($1.6bn).
Kobe Steel has admitted to falsification over the past year relating to large quantities of four types of material; 19,300 tonnes of aluminium sheets and poles; 19,400 aluminium components; 2,200 tonnes of copper products and an unspecified amount of iron powder that was supplied to over 200 customers. These items were certified as having properties—such as a level of tensile strength, meaning stiffness—that they did not in fact possess.
No deaths or accidents have yet resulted, but the…Continue reading
MCKINSEY, a global management consultancy known for its discreet profile and rarefied air, is unused to the sort of tub-thumping popular revolt it is experiencing in South Africa. Such is public outrage over the Guptas, an Indian-born business dynasty accused of growing rich off their relationship with President Jacob Zuma, that a few professional-services firms linked to the family, including McKinsey—as well as SAP, a German software giant—have become targets of Twitter storms and protest banners.
Anti-corruption groups and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) have drawn blood in the case of Bell Pottinger, a British public-relations firm accused of orchestrating a racially divisive public-relations campaign on behalf of the Guptas. A complaint by the DA to a British PR industry association set in motion Bell Pottinger’s swift implosion in September. At KPMG, a global audit firm, eight senior executives in South…Continue reading
“WE ARE always short ten to 20 people,” says Jack Marshall, the manager of PPG’s plant in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The company makes coatings, paint and speciality materials for customers such as Harley Davidson, a motorcycle manufacturer based in the state, with a palette ranging from black denim to candy orange. His factory employs 550 people, many of whom must work overtime. It is hard to fill jobs, he explains, because many still think factory work involves repetitive assembly-line tasks, as in the candy factory on the old TV sitcom “I Love Lucy”.
As part of trying to shed this outdated image, America’s manufacturing industry has for the past five years celebrated the first Friday in October as National Manufacturing Day. Some 2,800 events across the country were organised this time round, ranging from factory tours to banquets. Intel, a chip giant, displayed its wafer-fabrication equipment at its enormous…Continue reading
DEREGULATION, along with tax cuts and trade reform, is one of the three pillars of President Donald Trump’s economic agenda. Republicans promise that, freed of red tape, American firms will invest more and unleash faster economic growth. And while Mr Trump has yet to unite his party around a major piece of legislation, the White House has plenty of sway over regulatory policy. For a start, the government agencies Mr Trump commands can regulate and deregulate on their own (subject only to the instructions that Congress has given them in the past). How much red tape have they managed to tear down since Mr Trump took office?
Regulation is difficult to measure precisely, but the long-term trend towards excessive rulemaking has been obvious. In 1970 there were about 400,000 prescriptive words such as “shall” or “must” in the code of federal regulations, according to the Mercatus Centre, a libertarian-leaning think-tank. Today there are 1.1m (see chart). Wonks of many stripes agree…Continue reading
WARS are fought with weapons, but also with money. To understand the global balance of power in the coming decades, it helps to pay attention to the commercial subplot of the North Korean crisis. For the first time, America is attempting to use its full legal and financial might to change the behaviour of Chinese companies and banks, which it believes are propping up North Korea by breaking UN and American sanctions. Some American politicians have concluded that, as China’s firms have integrated with the global economy, they have become more vulnerable to Uncle Sam’s wrath. America has potent weapons, but the trouble is that China can retaliate in devastating fashion.
North Korea is highly dependent on China. Some 60-90% of its trade is with its northern neighbour. China’s state-run energy giant, CNPC, is thought to have sold it oil in recent years—and is the parent of PetroChina, which has depositary receipts listed in New York. North Korean banks and firms operate in China, and…Continue reading
HERE’S the job spec. Unite a deeply divided board. Keep a strong-willed founder under control. Immediately recruit a new chief financial officer. Negotiate with angry local regulators intent on closing down the business in their city. Convince courts that the company does not have to provide its contract workers with the benefits due to full-time employees. Change a cut-throat culture without curbing employees’ drive. On top of all this, deal not only with an intellectual-property (IP) lawsuit that could cost the firm nearly $2bn, but also cope with a criminal investigation by the FBI that could see some managers end up in prison.
No one sane, you would think, would even apply for such misery. But after some hesitation Dara Khosrowshahi (pronounced cause-ro-SHAH-hee), until recently the chief executive of Expedia, an online travel agency, returned the headhunter’s call. Now he is boss of Uber, which, at $68bn, is the world’s most highly valued privately-held company. Can he…Continue reading
ALEXANDRE RICARD wants to talk boxing. He runs Pernod Ricard, a firm that sells Chivas whisky and Absolut vodka, among other drinks. Formed by his grandfather in 1975, with roots in a Pernod distiller set up in 1805, it is the world’s second-largest seller of wine and spirits, with a market capitalisation of €32bn ($37bn). He brags that Floyd Mayweather, an American pugilist with 19m Instagram followers, recently endorsed one of the company’s tequila brands. Such a “key influencer” on a digital channel “gives us speed and scale”, says Mr Ricard.
Celebrity endorsements are an old ploy: French singers, actors and racing drivers used to push Pernod Ricard’s liquor. But with 90% of sales in markets outside of France, punchier efforts are needed. Two years ago the firm commissioned a global study of boozing habits, which totted up all “moments of consumption” for drinkers, identifying 20 important ones in…Continue reading
WHEN Cyrus Field, an American businessman, laid the first trans-Atlantic cable in 1858, it was hailed as one of the great technological achievements of its time and celebrated with bonfires, fireworks and 100-gun salutes. Alas, the reason for the festivities soon went away. Within weeks the cable failed.
On September 21st the completion of another trans-Atlantic cable was welcomed with much less ado. But it is remarkable nevertheless: dubbed Marea, Spanish for “tide”, the 6,600km bundle of eight fibre-optic threads, roughly the size of a garden hose, is the highest-capacity connection across the ocean. Stretching from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Bilbao, Spain, it is capable of transferring 160 terabits of data every second, the equivalent of more than 5,000 high-resolution movies. It is jointly owned by Facebook and Microsoft.
Such ultra-fast fibre networks are needed to keep up with the torrent of…Continue reading
LIKE any mechanic with a misfiring car, Ford’s new boss has had his head under the bonnet working out what needs attention. Jim Hackett emerged on October 3rd with a checklist of repairs to present to investors, who have been awaiting his diagnosis since he took over in May. The list is short but the engineering is complicated: restore Ford’s competitiveness while preparing for a future of electric vehicles (EVs), self-driving cars and transport services. But those expecting a radical overhaul were probably disappointed.
Mr Hackett’s predecessor, Mark Fields, was shown the door by Bill Ford, the firm’s chairman, for failing to make a persuasive case that he was reinventing Ford as a mobility firm at the forefront of automotive technology. Despite acknowledging to investors that he and Mr Ford agreed that his new job was “about the future not the past”, Mr Hackett was clearest about how to make Ford fit for the…Continue reading
THE security guards at the foot of Antilia, a 27-floor private residence in Mumbai, while away the days just as all bored Indians have been doing in recent months—watching movies on their phone. Using a mobile network to stream endless Bollywood epics would until recently have been an unthinkable luxury, even in the rich world. In India it now costs less than a cup of street-side chai.
Thank the tycoon lording it in the skyscraper’s upper reaches. As boss of Reliance Industries, Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, has spent more than $25bn on building Jio, a state-of-the-art mobile-telecoms network. The delight of the guards at Antilia, and of the roughly 130m Indians who have signed up to the service since it launched in September 2016, is matched only by the misery of Mr Ambani’s rivals.
Jio’s rise is nothing short of spectacular. It took less than a year for it to be delivering more data than any other mobile…Continue reading
MARGRETHE VESTAGER’S assault on technology firms she deems to have improperly massaged down their tax bills continued this week with a tilt at Amazon. The internet retailer faces a bill of €250m ($293m) for back taxes over what the European Union’s competition commissioner considers to have been an illegal sweetheart deal with Luxembourg.
The order requiring the Grand Duchy to recover the money follows a well-publicised three-year investigation. It is the latest in a series of tax-avoidance cases brought by the European Commission against multinationals, most of them American. Last year, Ireland was ordered to recover €13bn from Apple—smashing all past records for EU corporate-tax cases.
As with Apple, the commission concluded that Amazon received illegal state aid—in the retailer’s case between 2006 and 2014—through a tax-cutting arrangement that was unavailable to its rivals. This came in the form of a ruling from Luxembourg’s tax authority,…Continue reading
ONE group of Facebook friends that Mark Zuckerberg recently decided were not worth hanging out with were its public shareholders, who expected to cross-examine him (via a lawyer) on September 26th in a Delaware court. At issue would have been Mr Zuckerberg’s plans to refashion the social-media firm’s share-ownership structure more in his favour.
There is not a scintilla of doubt over who controls Facebook. Not only does Mr Zuckerberg, its founder, serve as its CEO and chairman; owning 16% of its shares, he controls 60% of the voting authority through a special class of stock with ten times normal voting rights. A year ago, Mr Zuckerberg decided he would like to sell a large slug of his holdings (worth $74bn) without diluting control. The firm made a plan to distribute non-voting shares enabling him to reduce his economic interest to 3% without affecting control.
That prompted litigation. Shareholder votes can be directly meaningful on many issues, including management pay…Continue reading
THERE are 36 gradations in India’s archaic caste system, from the priestly to the supposedly untouchable. And then, somewhere below that, are the long-haul truck-drivers. Plying the subcontinent’s potholed highways for weeks at a time, few can settle into anything like a home life. Their marriage prospects are grim; venereal diseases and sore backs from sleeping in cramped cabs are but two occupational hazards. Despite an oversupplied national job market, the industry has struggled to attract the roughly 1m new drivers it needs each year to keep everything from Amazon packages to car parts moving. Can technology help?
To fend off shortages, most truck owners have done precisely what economists suggest, which is to increase pay. Drivers can now command nearly 40,000 rupees ($610) a month, a decent white-collar wage—and not far from double the level of trucker pay just three years ago. Rivigo, a startup based in Gurgaon, an…Continue reading
DEATH does not end all uncertainties. News that Liliane Bettencourt, a glamorous 94-year-old Parisian heiress, died on September 20th has provoked a flurry of investor speculation over L’Oréal, the world’s biggest cosmetics company. She had held a controlling stake in the firm her father, an inventor of hair dyes, founded in 1909. Its market value has since grown to be a whisker short of €100bn ($117bn).
Her death brings few immediate consequences. An Alzheimer’s sufferer, she had been declared legally unfit to manage her concerns. That followed a scandal, made public in 2010 after her butler secretly recorded politicians, lawyers and friends as they bilked her for millions of euros. The case still haunts Nicolas Sarkozy, an ex-president. He seethed in October that opponents had stymied his return to politics by repeating allegations he profited from the “sordid Bettencourt affair” (he was cleared of charges over it in…Continue reading
IN MOST ways the McDonald’s outlet in Jangpura, a gentrifying neighbourhood in south Delhi, looks like one anywhere else, with bright displays, plastic seating and a familiar menu. But this week a disconcerting sign warns that “unpredictable” conditions have affected tomato supplies; none are available. Not bad though for a store that McDonald’s has been trying to close since September 6th. Over a third of its 400 or so outlets in India were supposed to shut their doors then—yet nearly all are still slinging McSpicy Paneers to customers.
War rages between McDonald’s India and Vikram Bakshi of Connaught Place Restaurants Limited (CPRL), who first brought the American chain to India in 1996 as a local partner in a 50-50 joint venture, starting in Delhi (along with another franchisee, Hardcastle Restaurants, which went into the southern and western states). Over the next two decades, Mr Bakshi expanded in the north…Continue reading
AT FIRST glance, it seems that America’s economy is losing its mojo. Many economists, most notably Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, have lamented that productivity growth seems to be anaemic when compared with earlier golden eras (see Free exchange). A gloomy chorus of business leaders has echoed what media outlets have by now turned into a mantra, that American entrepreneurship is in steady decline. Surely America’s overall competitiveness, then, is plummeting?
The answer from one influential think-tank, the World Economic Forum (WEF), is no. In its latest update to its long-running annual ranking of global economic competitiveness, published on September 27th, America rose from third place to second, ranking below only Switzerland.
This is partly…Continue reading
ARKADY VOLOZH, the bearded co-founder of Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, bristles at his company being branded the “Google of Russia”. Far from emulating the American firm, Yandex launched in 1997, a full year before Google, he points out. More crucially, the moniker poorly describes what Yandex offers today, which is a group of products and services that includes taxis, shopping, payments, music and education. “Really we’re the Silicon Valley of Russia,” says Mikhail Parakhin, Yandex’s chief technology officer.
That may only be a slight overstatement. Yandex’s Russian presence is immense; it accounts for just over half of the search market and 61% of online advertising, and its sites attract over 60m visitors each month. Like American tech giants, it is also expanding its offline logistical capabilities, signing recent deals with Uber, a ride-hailing firm, and with Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, to build out its transportation and e-commerce…Continue reading
LAST week Schumpeter met two tech tycoons who control businesses in total worth $600bn. In both cases the mayhem around them was what you would expect if Beyoncé hit town, minus the musical talent and looks. Hotel floors were locked down by the official secret service; the corridors were crammed with lines of petitioners and in one case a Wall Street boss gatecrashed the room in order to hug his idol.
The message from both titans—you ain’t seen nothing yet—was imperious. Over the next decade, they say, conventional industries will face an onslaught from tech competitors wielding vast financial resources, new technologies and massive reserves of data. It is a view that has swept through traditional firms’ boardrooms, too, where enthusing about virtual reality and singing the praises of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, is almost obligatory. The notion of disruption, with its promise to destroy the status quo and then renew it, is the most fashionable idea in global business since the…Continue reading
In this age of tech industry consolidation, one has to wonder what will happen with the pace of innovation as a few large companies begin to dominate. In personal computers, the WinTel marriage continues to control the technology, while Dell, HP and Lenovo control the devices. Similarly, in smartphones, Apple and Samsung, which both design their own chips and devices, dominate the market, especially in North America.
“IT WAS 2012…I was number 37,” says Ashwini, referring to the badge that was pinned on her shirt pocket. Her task was to go onto the stage and introduce herself to around 70 eligible bachelors and their parents. Families then conferred and, provided caste and religious background proved no obstacle, would approach the event’s moderator asking to meet number 37. At midday girls would wait for prospects to swing by, again with parents on either side. A brief exchange might establish the potential bride’s cooking skills or her intention to work after marriage. If the two sides hit it off, they would exchange copies of their horoscopes. Nearly 50 men lined up to meet Ashwini that day, speed-dating style. No one made the cut. She later married a colleague.
Such gatherings form an important part of the wedding industry, worth around $50bn a year, in a country where arranged marriages continue to be the norm. India has 440m…Continue reading
“MI GENTE” lures listeners with a mesmerising hook, a thumping beat and lyrics about breaking down barriers. A collaboration between J Balvin, a Colombian reggaeton star (pictured), and Willy William, a French producer, the latest product of this summer’s Latin craze is crooned almost entirely in Spanish. (The title means “My People”; reggaeton borrows from hip hop, reggae and rap.) The song topped the charts on Spotify, a streaming service, for weeks. “To be a crossover artist, you used to have to sing in English,” said John Reilly, Mr Balvin’s publicist. Now six of YouTube’s top ten music videos are predominantly in Spanish. In August the Billboard Hot 100, which tracks streams, sales and radio plays, sported seven Latin hits. Just five graced the chart in all of 2016.
Latin music is helping the music industry to arrest years of decline. Its growth is far outpacing that of other genres. Last year Latin America yielded just $598m out of total global recorded-music…Continue reading
IF SAUDI ARAMCO is a state within a state in Saudi Arabia, then the blandly named Oil Supply Planning and Scheduling (OSPAS) is its deep state. To enter it, you pass tight security at Aramco’s suburban-style headquarters in Dhahran, in the east of the kingdom. The transition is eye-opening. Suddenly, English is the common tongue even among Saudi “Aramcons”, as its workers are known. Female employees, their faces uncovered, lead meetings of male colleagues. The crisp banter is common to engineers everywhere. A toilet break is called a “pressure-relief” exercise.
Deep within, OSPAS is even further removed from the kingdom outside. The few executives with clearance to enter call it the “nerve centre” of the world’s largest oil company. Using 100,000 sensors and data points on wells, pipelines, plants and terminals, it directs every drop of oil and cubic foot of gas that comes out of the kingdom (10% of the world’s oil supply), monitors it on giant screens as it heads to…Continue reading
RYANAIR, an Irish airline, is known for three things: low fares, the brash way in which Michael O’Leary, its chief executive, advertises them, and its record for sticking to its flight schedules. The last of these is key to its appeal: many businessmen chose Ryanair more for its punctuality than its cheapness. And so the announcement on September 15th that it is cancelling over 2,000 flights between now and the end of October—around 2% of its capacity over the period—is more serious than it may at first seem. Ryanair’s share price fell by more than 5% in the aftermath.
The problems began in early September when Ryanair’s on-time record plunged, owing to a pilot shortage. To restore punctuality, it cancelled many flights at short notice; passengers were marooned around Europe. Up to 400,000 people booked on the 2,000 scrapped flights risk missing business trips and holidays.
Mr O’Leary says the…Continue reading
THREE-QUARTERS of Americans admit that they search the web, send e-mails and check their social-media accounts in the bathroom. That is not the only connection between tech and plumbing. The water and sewage industry offers clues to the vexed question of how to regulate the Silicon Valley “platform” firms, such as Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook. The implications are mildly terrifying for the companies, so any tech tycoons reading this column might want to secure a spare pair of trousers.
In America and in Europe a consensus is emerging that big tech firms must be tamed. Their dominance of services such as search and social media gives them huge economic and political clout. The $3trn total market value of America’s five biggest tech firms (Apple and Microsoft are the other two) suggests that investors believe they are among the most powerful firms in history, up there with the East India Company and Standard Oil.
Trustbusters in need of instant gratification want to break…Continue reading
“WE WON’T do business with a company that is busy trying to sue us.” So said an uncharacteristically stern Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, alongside his British counterpart, Theresa May, in Ottawa on September 18th. The two had teamed up to take on Boeing. The giant American aeroplane-maker is pressing Donald Trump’s administration to impose duties on commercial jets made by Canada’s Bombardier. Boeing says its smaller rival is using Canadian government subsidies to sell aircraft to Delta, an American carrier, at below cost price.
Few in either country question that Bombardier has had vital financial support from the Canadian and British governments since 2005 for its small jetliner, the C-Series. As the plane’s development costs soared, to $5.4bn, Bombardier struggled to find buyers for it; financial trouble followed. An estimated C$4bn ($3.4bn) in state support, including C$2.8bn in 2015, stopped a nosedive. It was not until 2016 that the aircraft’s future seemed…Continue reading
ANTITRUST, privacy, hate speech—whenever the European Union tries to rein in tech giants, Americans accuse it of protectionism. That argument has always been simplistic, but now it is harder to make; scarcely a week passes in Washington when companies like Apple and Google are not in politicians’ crosshairs.
The latest target is Facebook. Earlier this month the firm revealed that 470 accounts that appeared to be controlled from Russia had bought advertisements worth a total of $100,000 on the social network between June 2015 and May 2017. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, said they aimed at “amplifying divisive social and political messages”.
This was the first time Facebook had acknowledged that Russia may have used the social network, leading the team of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible links between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government, to issue a…Continue reading
ASK young American parents about Toys “R” Us and they are likely to be able to sing a jingle from their childhood: “I don’t wanna grow up, ’cause maybe if I did, I couldn’t be a Toys ‘R’ Us kid”. For children of the 1980s, Toys “R” Us was a mecca at the strip mall, an awe-inspiring array of dolls, trucks, board games, bikes, art supplies and much more. Many of them noticed when on September 18th, the chain filed for bankruptcy.
Dave Brandon, the company’s chief executive, emphasised that shops would carry on operating as usual and claimed that the best era of Toys “R” Us was still to come. “These are the right steps to ensure that the iconic Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us brands live on for many generations,” he declared. A Chapter 11 bankruptcy, many analysts agree, is a sensible way to deal with the chain’s $5bn of long-term debt. So Toys “R” Us is not dead. But its future is hardly certain.
The company’s tale in many…Continue reading