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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

Why Eddie Never Hired “The Guy”

We’ve been poking fun at Sears—the Sears of Eddie Lampert, at least—since the inception of this virtual column in 2005.

But now things are getting more serious, what with yesterday’s dreadful holiday sales report and store closing announcement from that once proud, powerful retailer of all things an American household could need.

Today’s Wall Street Journal mulls the situation over on its front page, including Lampert’s preference for investing in the shares of Sears as opposed to the stores themselves, and Eddie’s revolving-door CEO selection process that has left the business in limbo for years while all manner of lower-cost, better run, sharper-focused businesses (think Costco, Amazon, Kohl’s and many others) ran rings around it.

And it was the lack of a great CEO that always stumped the company’s observers.

I once asked a person (a person who I thought would know the answer) why Lampert had never hired “The Guy”—meaning an Alan Questrom (the genius who turned around Federated Department Stores and, later, JC Penney) or Ron Johnson (the ex-Target executive who helped create the Apple Stores and is now “The Guy” at JC Penney) type of heavyweight retail CEO who could turn the company into something great.

“It would cost a lot—$20 million, $30 million for the guy, plus hundreds of millions for the stores,” he said.

I told him that was chump change given Lampert’s big investment in Sears and the potential for a billion dollar payday down the road.

“Doesn’t matter. Eddie won’t spend that on anybody.”

Consider that hearsay, but I believe he was being straight.

And now the chickens have come home to roost at the Sears of Eddie Lampert.

By way of looking at how little it took to see that Lampert wasn’t going to make it work, we’re reprinting “Buffett vs. Lampert: A Tale of Two Letters,” written earlier this year after both investment titans had written their year-end missives to investors.

Buffett’s letter, of course, is, as always, informative, interesting, snappy and yet suffused (as noted below) with a 50’s-era sensibility when it comes to nagging-wife jokes.

Lampert’s letter, on the other hand, is full of unintentional howlers—not the least of which is comparing the Sears mindset with that of Apple’s.

Yes, he compares Sears to Apple—although he is unlikely to do it in his upcoming letter, for an investor with access to a Bloomberg machine can spot one difference between Sears and Apple that would make a Sears shareholder throw up: even at current prices, Apple shares are cheaper than Sears, at 8.3X EBITDA versus 10.2X for Sears.

Oh, and we used EBITDA to compare the valuation, since Sears doesn’t have any earnings to speak of.

Enough said.

—JM 12/28/11

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Two significant shareholder letters were released this week.

The first was from Sears Holdings’ Chairman Eddie Lampert; the second from Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett.

And while it is certainly easier, and a lot more fun, to write about good news—as Buffett has been accustomed to doing over the years at Berkshire, in contrast to the kind of bad news that has issued forth from Lampert’s fading retail giant of late—there is, even so, a remarkable difference in both the substance and style of letters by two men who actually have a great deal in common.

For one thing, both started out as hedge fund managers. For another, both are without peer in their fields, and fabulously wealthy as a result. For a third, they each got into the position of writing annual shareholder letters as a result of taking control of a fading, once-giant, public company. Finally, they each spent years personally wrestling with how to turn the original business around.

In the end, of course, one (Buffett) decided the rational thing was to disinvest in the original business and re-create the company to his liking, while the other (Lampert) is still wrestling with Sears even as he extracts cash from “hidden” assets like real estate and minority-controlled subsidiaries.

Still, differences between the two men are legion (Midwest publicity-magnet versus East Coast recluse, for starters) and do not end with how they played the hand they were dealt: differences in how to hire, invest, manage and incentivize people are revealed in almost every sentence of the respective shareholder letters they have penned.

Indeed, so remarkably different are the letters that we here at NotMakingThisUp couldn’t help but compare the two, by topic.

On Investing Excess Cash:

“As we have done since we took control of Kmart in 2003, we will continue to evaluate alternative uses of the company’s cash flow and capital resources to generate long-term value for all shareholders. Each year brings with it different circumstances, and we expect to have a variety of opportunities to invest our cash in the years to come. Our discipline in evaluating opportunities leaves us prepared to weather difficult times as well as to prosper when economic conditions improve.”

—Edward S. Lampert

“Our elephant gun has been reloaded, and my trigger finger is itchy.”

—Warren E. Buffett

On Management:

“We continue to make changes in our broader leadership team, as we allocate more responsibility to leaders who have delivered results and seek to attract leaders who are capable of improving performance in areas that have lagged. In particular, we want leaders who are capable of transforming key aspects of our business, as retail is increasingly impacted by new technologies and social interaction.”


“Our trust is in people rather than process. A ‘hire well, manage little’ code suits both them and me.”


On Investing for the Long-Term

“We will continue to make long-term investments in key areas that may adversely impact short-term results when we believe they will generate attractive long-term returns. In particular, we have significantly grown our Shop Your Way Rewards program, improved our online and mobile platforms, and re-examined our overall technology infrastructure. We believe these investments are an important part of transforming Sears Holdings into a truly integrated retail company, focusing on customers first.”


By being so cautious in respect to leverage, we penalize our returns by a minor amount. Having loads of liquidity, though, lets us sleep well…. That’s what allowed us to invest $15.6 billion in 25 days of panic following the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008.


On Making a Key Hire

“Lou knows what it is like to be the 800-pound gorilla from his days at IBM, and he knows what it is like to compete against 800-pound gorillas from his days at Avaya. He also understands how technology can shape and change companies and industries. The profound changes that many industries, including retail, are currently experiencing require new thinking, new leadership and new business models. Information and technology have always been an important part of the supply chain in retail, but more and more it is becoming critical that we use information and technology in a much more profound way to deliver great customer experiences. Lou is a proven winner, and I am excited to have him as the leader of our company.”


“It’s easy to identify many investment managers with great recent records. But past results, though important, do not suffice when prospective performance is being judged. How the record has been achieved is crucial, as is the manager’s understanding of—and sensitivity to—risk…. In respect to the risk criterion, we were looking for someone with a hard-to-evaluate skill: the ability to anticipate the effects of economic scenarios not previously observed. Finally, we wanted someone who would regard working for Berkshire as far more than a job.

“When Charlie and I met Todd Combs, we knew he fit our requirements.”


On How to Deal with a Cyclical Business:

“Given the large proportion of the Sears Domestic business which is in ‘big ticket’ categories and linked to housing and consumer credit, Sears is much more susceptible to the macro-economic environment than Kmart. But I don’t accept this as an excuse: our results at Sears in 2010 were completely unacceptable. The profit erosion at Sears Domestic occurred primarily in appliance-related businesses and in the Full-line Store apparel and consumer electronics businesses….

“When industry margins are shrinking, an organization must respond by adding new innovative products and bundling them with services and solutions that meet customers’ evolving needs….

“The new management in our appliance business has already taken actions to rebuild leadership in this area and to further reinvigorate the Kenmore brand….

“In parallel to the efforts that we are making to increase the productivity of our Sears stores, we are also looking at adding world class third-party retailers to our space. Earlier this year we announced that Forever 21 will be taking over 43,000 square feet of Sears space at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, CA…”


[Editor’s Note: We are not making this last part up; the author also discusses leasing out space to Whole Foods].

“Our businesses related to home construction, however, continue to struggle…. A housing recovery will probably begin within a year or so. In any event, it is certain occur at some point. Consequently: (1) At MiTeck, we have made, or committed to, five bolt-on acquisitions during the past eleven months; (2) At Acme, we just recently acquired the leading manufacturer of brick in Alabama for $50 million; (3) Johns Manville is building a $55 million roofing membrane plant in Ohio…; and (4) Shaw will spend $200 million in 2011 on plant and equipment, all of it situated in America. These businesses entered the recession strong and will exit it stronger. At Berkshire, our time horizon is forever.”


On Wonderful Businesses vs. the Wonder of Financial Legerdemain

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see our share of Coke’s annual earnings to exceed 100% of what we paid for the investment. Time is the friend of the wonderful business.”


“In April, we had the opportunity to purchase an additional 17% of Sears Canada for $560 million, increasing our ownership from 73% to 90%. In 2010, Sears Canada has paid two dividends, which returned $639 million of cash to Sears Holdings. Of course, of the cash we received in dividends, we would have received $518 million without the additional shares purchased (because we already owned 73% of Sears Canada), so in effect we received $121 million in dividends on behalf of the additional shares purchased in 2010.”


On Reinvesting in the Business, or Not

“Furthermore, not a dime of cash has left Berkshire for dividends or share repurchases during the past 40 years. Instead, we have retained all of our earnings to strengthen our business, a reinforcement now running about $1 billion per month.”


“We invested more than $400 million in capital expenditures in 2010, including significant investments in stores in important markets, and contributed over $300 million to our pension and post-retirement plans. We invested just under $400 million in Sears Holdings share repurchases in 2010, a slight reduction from 2009….

“Share repurchases are not a panacea, nor are they a singular strategy. Yet they are more than just the return of capital to shareholders… As a form of discipline on alternative capital allocation strategies, share repurchases can magnify returns.”


Did He Really Say That?

“At Sears Holdings, we seek to create long-term value for our shareholders. Like Apple, we seek to do so by improving our operating performance, innovating, and delighting customers…”


[Editor’s Note: The first and last time you will see ‘Apple’ and ‘Sears’ in the same sentence, at least for some time to come.]

“As one investor said in 2009: ‘This is worse than divorce. I’ve lost half my net worth—and I still have my wife.’”


[Editor’s Note: Buffett’s letters have always been suffused with a 1950’s-era Hugh Hefner-style male/female sensibility, but it never ceases to amaze us that he continues with the nagging-wife jokes]

On ‘Painting the Bull’s-Eye’ of Performance

“Charlie and I believe that those entrusted with handling the funds of others should establish performance goals at the onset of their stewardship. Lacking such standards, managements are tempted to shoot the arrow of performance and then paint the bull’s-eye around wherever it lands…. To eliminate subjectivity, we therefore use an understated proxy for intrinsic value—book value—when measuring our performance.”


“Despite our challenging performance over the past several years, the difficult economic environment, and the dramatically changing retail environment, we have generated very attractive returns for shareholders since May 2003, when we assisted Kmart in its emergence from bankruptcy.”


[Editor’s Note: While SHLD stock has more than quadrupled from the aforementioned May 2003 “bull’s-eye,” it is in fact down more than 50% from its 2007 peak.]

What Happens to the Wrong Managers

“This requires us to part ways with some who have given great effort, but who have fallen short of the performance required for us to be competitive.”


“Our compensation programs, our annual meeting and even our annual reports are all designed with an eye to reinforcing the Berkshire culture, and making it one that will repel and expel managers of a different bent.”


What Happens to the Right Managers

“We will continue to provide great opportunities for talented individuals to run businesses, while holding them accountable for performance.”


“Many of our CEOs are independently wealthy and work only because they love what they do. They are volunteers, not mercenaries. Because no one can offer them a job they would enjoy more, they can’t be lured away.”


On Throwing Good Money after Bad

“At Berkshire we face no institutional restraints when we deploy capital… When I took control of Berkshire in 1965…the dumbest thing I could have done was to pursue ‘opportunities’ to improve and expand the existing textile operation—so for years that’s exactly what I did. And then, in a final burst of brilliance, I went out and bought another textile company. Aaaaaaargh! Eventually I came to my senses, heading first into insurance and then into other businesses.”


“We have a need to manage the scale of our operations at the same time as we transform them. The activities required for transformation are vast and time-consuming. As the retail industry is reinvented, we intend and expect Sears Holdings to be a significant player in this reinvention.”


Sentences We Didn’t Want to Read

“By aligning our associates with our customers, not with our stores or products, we believe this reinvention will play out in our favor.”


[Editor’s Note: That was perhaps the most astonishing sentence we have ever seen in a Chairman’s Letter—the runner-up being the one that follows.]

“To update Aesop, a girl in a convertible is worth five in the phone book.”


Jeff Matthews

I Am Not Making This Up

© 2011 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice, and should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever. Also, this blog is not a solicitation of business by Mr. Matthews: all inquiries will be ignored. The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

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