Back in late 2004 when Kmart and Sears merged to create Sears Holdings, I had to wonder what one failing retail chain could do to help another failing chain. However since 2004, the one thing this new company has proven is that these brands die hard. In 2017, however, I think the answer has come back to conclusively nothing has been gained. Let’s explore.
Back in 2004, I didn’t really dig deep into the $11B dollar merger deal to get the nitty gritty details mostly because I had no interest in two failing retail chains (where I personally never shopped). Though, I already knew the handwriting was on the wall for both of these chains. It was just a matter of time before both chains closed their doors. That they’ve managed to hang on another nearly 17 years is a testament to the cash infusions from a billionaire. I digress.
After deciding to finally dig into this merger deal, however, I have come to find that this deal was instrumented by a former Wall Street darling Eddie Lampert. A wiz bang former Goldman Sachs employee who started his own hedge fund and apparently made mad cash. Though, I’d have questioned why a Wall Street darling would have any interest in the failing retail space. It’s clear, though, Lampert still has no knowledge of retail even after 17 years of floundering with Sears Holdings. Lampert pretends he wants to be the next Jeff Bezos with this investment, but is failing at this for two really big reasons: 1) Lack of innovation and 2) Lack of involvement.
According to his executive staff, Eddie spends most of his time at his home on a private island community in Florida. A community of apparently 86 residents and a staff of private police to ‘protect’ the island. Based on his executive meetings, he literally phones in his CEO job day in and out. He rarely, if ever, makes an appearance in the office.
Running a company by remote control
It’s one thing to be an individual contributor who works remote. Typically, these are task oriented jobs which can be easily monitored for task completion. However, as CEO, there is no possible way you can run a company from behind Skype. However, if Lampert had had substantial previous retail management experience, he might be able to get away with this. Because Lampert has no knowledge of retail after merging Kmart and Sears, he’s effectively flying blind. Even nearly 17 years later doesn’t automatically impart knowledge of retail. It’s clear, Lampert has no business operating this company. Unfortunately, whatever is left of the Sears Holding company is entirely dependent on Lampert for his continual cash infusions (up to $1B) which have kept this listing barge from sinking. However, some boats are best left to sink.
It’s crystal clear, when you buy into a business you know nothing about, you have two choices. One, sit on your arse and assume you’ll figure it out eventually (which usually doesn’t work). Two, dive in head first and learn everything you can about running a retail business. I think it’s a relatively safe bet that Lampert is in the former camp rather than the latter. Instead of being available and actively engaging in the day to day affairs of the business, he sits comfortably at his private island home and dictates policy from a Skype conference call. It’s no wonder this business is being slowly driven into the ground.
For any would-be business owner
As an owner / CEO, you need to be actively engaged in and have passion to drive your business forward, whatever that business is. You can’t sit behind a computer screen at home literally phoning in your CEO day job. That may work for a short period of time, but it won’t work forever. It’s clear, Kmart and Sears are both on the brink of collapse. Why? Because the merger of two ailing turned failing companies was a foregone conclusion without an engaged leader. A CEO / owner is there to drive and guide the business forward. To make the tough choices and ensure the business remains viable and becomes / remains profitable. Your underlings won’t do this on your behalf. They’ll do whatever it is to take their paycheck home, but they won’t go out of their way to run your business. That’s your job.
The takeaway from this case study is that you cannot sit on your arse and expect others to do your work for you. You need to be available in the office often to drive your business. If you don’t take your business seriously, no one around you will either. You need to understand your sales numbers, what’s selling and what isn’t. You need to make strategic partnerships to bring exclusive merchandise (as in the case of a retailer) onto your shelves at a low price as a way to drive customers into your store. You also need to be shrewd to get costs down and profits up. You need to hire a kick-ass marketing team who can bring the demographics into your store. In short, learn your business, understand it, live it, breath it and make it your passion. Own your business’s problems and own its solutions. Also, you need to think outside the box to continue driving all demographics into your establishment(s).
Yes, it would be nice to sit on the beach sipping margaritas all day or behind a gated community in a big mansion and also be a successful CEO of a profitable corporation. That’s a pipe dream that doesn’t happen. You only get that beach time after you’ve done your in-office time and made your money. Retail doesn’t just automatically make money for you. It requires active involvement. You need to actively drive new business into your business. It’s not like your hedge fund where you crunch numbers at a desk and move out bad performers. You need to be in the office driving your staff. You will need to reinvent your business, brand and ideas every so often to remain ‘the place to go for cool new stuff’. Once your retail business is thought of as a mom and dad store, your store is considered antiquated. The mom and dad demographic does make some money, but it isn’t the only demographic spending money and that single demographic will not convert your company from a million dollar company into a multi-billion dollar company.
Why phoning in as CEO doesn’t work
If you aren’t showing up to the office day in and out, you are missing critical verbal queues, having meaningful conversation with your staff and learning the problems that face your business. Keep in mind that some problems are outside problems. Like, for example, the threat to Kmart and Sears has been the internet retailers like Amazon. This means you need to spend quality in office time hammering through new plans to counter growing trends, like Amazon’s quick ship, quick deliver model… like Amazon’s Kindle services. If you don’t keep-up-with-the-joneses, your business is lost. Sometimes the problems are internal problems, like horribly outdated decor and fixtures. Sometimes they are supply chain related.
Since the merger in 2004, Kmart and Sears have both failed to change anything substantial with their store merchandising or, indeed, updating their store look and feel to accommodate new growing trends. Instead, they left their stores looking like something out of the 80s. Who wants to shop in a place with horribly dirty floors, drab coffee stain colored walls and fixtures with chipped paint and rust? Not to mention, that horrid glaring 80s fluorescent lighting job. You want to make your stores inviting and modern, not be a turn off. This is where it takes regularly entering and visiting stores to see how they look, how they feel to a shopper and how the merchandise is being faced. Then draw up plans to remodel your stores.
Being a Billionaire
Not everyone has this luxury. As with Lampert, he’s apparently got lots of money to spend. But, that doesn’t make it spending money smart. The saying, “throwing good money after bad” actually applies here. Why would you want to continue to invest more and more money into a chain not producing returns on your investment? That’s not a good investment strategy. For a Wall Street darling, it really makes no sense at all. Use your gift of understanding good investments and then apply that knowledge to Sears and Kmart. You’ll quickly see your error. It just takes an outside party looking in from the outside to see what someone so close to the matter can’t.
Can Kmart and Sears be turned around? While anything is possible, I’d personally say, “not at this point”. If Lampert had started the turn around back in 2004, he might have been able to pull this listing ship up right. However, because he has become a complacent mostly home bound recluse for many of the last 17 years, a turnaround for this venture is likely impossible with this leadership team. It’s too bad, too. Sometimes we just need to say goodbye to some beloved old brands to let newer brands take us to the next level.
Using time (and lighting) wisely
As a business owner, don’t let your business become a victim of complacency. Expect to reinvent your business every few years to not only keep your business fresh, but also to keep people coming in to see what’s new. Customers value companies that invest in making their stores better. Having a refreshed store means you care about your business. It also means you care about how your merchandise looks on the shelves. If your stores look old and trashy, so will your merchandise. If your store looks new, fresh and well lit, so will the merchandise. It’s literally all about creating the proper mood and perspective in your stores. Lighting has a huge amount to do with this. So, expect to replace old outdated fluorescent lighting with updated LED lighting concepts.
It just comes down to investing money in the right things for your business. It’s clear, Eddie has no clue where to have Sears and Kmart use the money he’s investing. Instead of just throwing good money after bad, ensure that that money is being used to remodel stores, being used to draw consumers in and being used to buy merchandise that fits with the store’s branding.
Unfortunately, both Kmart and Sears haven’t been ‘goto’ places in a very long time. That’s primarily because these chains have not focused on any one area to be proficient at any. For example, Target has revamped its 80s retail-only stance into becoming a neighborhood grocery as well. So, not only can you go to Target to get the latest blu-ray movie, you can also pick up some hamburger and fixings to go with it. It’s a well rounded shopping experience. However, heading into Kmart, for example, yields many deficiencies. For example, the electronics area doesn’t even carry video games any longer. How can you possibly operate a general merchandise store and not carry any video games?
Drive your business smart. Invest money into your business wisely. Remain focused on your goals. Most of all, remain engaged and passionate in everything you do. If you don’t do all of the things that continue to make your business a success, you may end up with a failure. Unlike Eddie Lampert with seemingly endless funds, you may find your doors shut. Though, I believe at some point soon, even Eddie’s pet project of Sears Holding will close. However, if you find yourself as wealthy as Eddie, spend your money however you feel. It’s your money. For the rest of us, driving your business smart is the obvious answer to eventual success. Though, I will say that even as passionate as you may be about your business and as much work as you may put in, there’s still the possibility that your business may fail. Predicting success or failure in any new business venture is tricky as there are so many unpredictable market forces outside of your control. For the things that you can control, you most can certainly guide your business success in the right direction and reduce your chances for failure.