Thursday, May 22, 2008

Retrenchment and Rebirth

Many firms ultimately encounter two fundamental liabilities of being large. First, they reach a point where increased size no longer translates into lower costs, i.e. they face diseconomies of scale. Second, they must address a large numbers problem, namely that growing revenues at historical rates becomes mathematically difficult, if not impossible. For instance, suppose a firm has grown revenue at a historical rate of 12% per year. That means that they are doubling sales every six years. That may be fine when a firm has $50 million in revenue, but it becomes a much more formidable challenge when the firm has reached $50 billion in sales.

What can firms do about this problem? Companies may want to consider the benefits of shrinking in the short term, and then recharging growth from that smaller platform. I mean more than simply selling off underperforming businesses from time to time, or disposing of unrelated units. I mean actually purposefully shrinking the scope of the corporation, even if certain businesses are related and performing fairly well - simply for the purpose of bringing the corporation back to a more manageable size, solidifying the firm's financial position, and returning a chunk of cash to shareholders.

Have firms done this in the past? Let's take General Dynamics, for example. Back in the early 1990s, General Dynamics was a Fortune 50 company, almost entirely focused on defense (with the exception of a few small businesses, such as its Cessna aircraft unit). In 1991, the firm had $10 billion in revenue, putting it 48th on the Fortune 500 list. The company, however, was not performing well at all. Moreover, its prospects did not appear bright, given the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, which brought about defense spending cuts.

During Bill Anders' term as CEO, he shrunk the company dramatically. I remember it quite well, because I was working at the company at the time. By 1995, the company had $3.7 billion in revenue, and it was ranked 307th on the Fortune 500 list. Anders didn't simply sell underperforming assets, nor did he sell off only noncore businesses. For instance, Anders sold the company's fighter jet unit, which produced F-16s for the U.S. Air Force. That business was considered by many to be "the crown jewel" of the company at the time - a solid business that was clearly related to the firm's other defense units. By the time Anders was done shrinking the company, General Dynamics was a far smaller firm. The firm focused entirely on two major businesses - shipbuilding and land combat systems.

What happened next? Starting in 1995, Anders' successor begin growing the business once again through a careful acquisition program - focusing first on the two major platforms remaining after the reorganization, and then gradually adding two other lines of business. General Dynamics begin by acquiring Bath Iron Works, a firm that fit nicely with the company's shipbuilding business (it already produced submarines at its Electric Boat subsidiary). Today, General Dynamics is 87th on the Fortune 500 list, with $27 billion in revenue.

During the intervening years, the company has produced an incredible amount of value for shareholders since the early 1990s. During Anders' time, the company sold off businesses and returned much of that cash to shareholders in the form of stock buybacks and special dividends. Later, the company enhanced shareholder wealth by producing a steady stream of earnings growth by driving revenue gains both organically and through acquisition, and by constantly improving productivity.

What's the moral of this story? Sometimes, retrenchment and rebirth can be an effective strategy. Diseconomies of scale are real, and managers must be aware that growing $50 billion behemoths at double digit rates simply may not be feasible - at least not in a profitable manner. Moreover, charging ahead for growth at that rate and scale may lead to some very poor strategic choices. But, how many CEOs do you know that want to see their company fall from 48th on the Fortune 500 list to a 307th? Therein lies the problem in many large companies...

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