Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The NBA, Referees, and The Wisdom of Crowds

The NBA has an interesting and quite serious problem these days. The league appears to have a lack of credibility among many fans. Disgraced referee Tim Donaghy claims that some games were intentionally manipulated by the officials, and NBA commissioner David Stern dismisses the claim as the desperate accusations of a criminal. However, many fans question the league's credibility when it comes to the officials. One of the games mentioned by Donaghy (Game 6 of the 2002 Lakers-Kings Western Conference Finals) raises serious questions in the minds of both sportswriters and fans. The commissioner cannot simply dismiss all of this as the fraudulent claims of a criminal. Whether true or not, the real issue is the credibility problem that the NBA has with its own fans.

What should the NBA do about it? Peter Keating has an interesting solution in this month's issue of ESPN: The Magazine. Keating draws on the work of James Surowiecki, the author of the best-selling book, The Wisdom of Crowds. He suggests that perhaps the NBA should allow fans to vote on key calls in an NBA game. After all, Suroweicki and others have shown that the collection of thousands of independent opinions often may yield an answer that is better than the judgment of any particular expert.

Keating's suggestion may sound preposterous, but perhaps there is a different solution that the NBA might experiment with, drawing on the same logic of mass collaboration. Companies in a variety of industries have employed mass collaboration effectively. For the NBA, perhaps fan voting could be used to EVALUATE referees, rather than to actually make calls in a live game. Rather than simply relying on an expert in the league office to judge the competency of officials, perhaps the NBA could take a look at how its millions of fans think referees have performed. Comparing the fans' collective judgment to the ratings by experts could be quite interesting. Not only might it yield informative results, but such a system might go a long way toward restoring the league's credibility in the eyes of its customers.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Airline Pricing

We have all seen the reports of new fees being imposed by the airlines, particularly for checked luggage. It's amazing to me that an industry with such an awful reputation for customer service would now choose to nickel and dime its customers in this fashion, rather than raise fares slightly. It's especially befuddling to charge for checked luggage, because this scheme creates an even bigger incentive for customers to try to carry on everything that they have. More carry-on bags means a slower boarding process and longer turnaround times. That means planes sitting on the ground rather than flying... which decreases profits, as well as angers customers.

Then, we have the befuddling news that United Airlines may require minimum stays on some routes. I'm not sure that I understand this policy. Does it mean that I can't fly from Boston to DC and back on the same day with United? Why would they turn away that business, when their goal should be to fill the planes so as to spread their fixed costs over as many passengers as possible? If this is true, then perhaps there is some economic reason for doing so, but again, it sure does not seem like a move designed to please its customers.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Exxon Mobil Selling Gas Stations

News reports indicate that Exxon Mobil plans to sell its 2,200 company-owned gas stations over the next few years. The articles suggest that, despite high gas prices, the company does not make sufficient margins in gas retailing, because the business is highly competitive. While that may be true, there is a larger strategic issue at play here. The company simply recognizes that the case for forward integration into gas retailing simply is not a strong one. That is why most of the Exxon Mobil gas stations around the United States already were operated by distributors, rather than being company-owned.

Apple owns its retail stores because it wants to control the consumer purchasing experience, gather critical marketplace information, and further enhance its product differentiation. Exxon Mobil has no such powerful rationale for forward integrating into retail gas operations. They can accomplish their goals by licensing their brand to distributors who own and operate the locations. Let those who are more adept at operating these businesses do so... after all, gas retailing is about much more than fuel these days. The business is much more about operating convenience stores profitably than it is about pumping gas.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The 3,000 Mile Oil Change

The state of California recently launched a campaign to persuade consumers that they may not need to change the oil in their cars every 3,000 miles. In fact, for most new cars, the manufacturers recommend that you change your oil less frequently. For my car, Honda suggests changing the oil every 5,000 miles, for instance. (For older cars, the 3,000 mile benchmark may still make sense.) If everyone changes their behavior, Americans could reduce their consumption of oil and reduce the amount of waste generated.

If more attention on this issue spreads across the country, we could see important implications for businesses such as Jiffy Lube and other auto maintenance centers. They have profited from the disciplined approach that many Americans take to changing their oil every 3,000 miles. If people begin to adhere to manufacturers' guidelines for new cars, we may see substantial challenges for these firms. It will be interesting to watch to see if this trend takes hold, and how the auto maintenance centers respond. With oil above $130 per barrel, it's also interesting to see how many different ideas are being pursued to eliminate wasteful consumption.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Guest Post on Decision-Making

Heather Johnson sent me the following guest post, with her take on a subject that I've spent a great deal of time studying over the years.

The Choices we Make

Any student of management should be familiar with the process of decision-making – describe and understand the problem, identify the objective, determine the alternative options available, evaluate each of these options either objectively or subjectively, and choose the one that fits best. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the statement of the process does not carry over to the actual process itself, which is why most people find the procedure of making decisions extremely difficult.

On one end of the spectrum you have people who agonize over every small thing, from what to eat to what to wear; and on the other, you have those who save their energy to rationalize choices that are life-changing, if not for them, then for the people whose livelihoods depend on them. I’m not trivializing the first category, only trying to highlight the fact that every one of us considers the decisions we have to make as the most important choice we make at the moment.

The art of making decisions is a theory that has been thrashed about, debated on, and put to effective use in almost every boardroom across the globe. But it’s not something that’s applied when it comes to the individual - personal decision-making is a process that’s often intuitive, based on circumstances that prevail at that point, and influenced by people who control aspects of our lives. From where I sit, this is what I’ve learnt about people and the decisions they make:

· The majority is happy to go with the flow; they do not take decisions that change their lives overnight or even set in motion the harbinger of positive change. Any change that happens is forced, and these people then rearrange their lives to fit around the change.
· Some people straddle the fence; they know they have to take a decision one way or the other (mostly a yes-no decision where there is no in-between ground) and they’re hesitant or afraid to choose. The more daring in this category call the shots and finally choose while the meek (who I don’t think will inherit the earth) fall on one side after being either pulled or pushed. If the decision is a success, the one who chose is elated that he made the right decision; if it’s a failure, the one who fell blames the one who pushed him over, a case of passing the buck once again.
· Some let other people decide; they are the laidback kind who are ok with following the leader rather than taking the lead themselves.
· A rare few are go-getters; they plan their lives and map out where they should be at what point of time. These people live their dreams, and if one or two of the dreams die a premature death, they’re back to the drawing board mapping out new strategies and alternatives. This kind thrives in challenges – they do not fear to take the road less trodden and delight in finding offbeat paths that lead them to the pinnacle they hope to achieve.

The choices we make have repercussions, both on ourselves and the people whose lives are intertwined with ours. Unfortunately, there’s no writing on the wall to guide us as we take decisions that sometimes, may be the difference between success and failure, wealth and mediocrity, and even life and death. But the fear of failure should not be a deterrent to attempting – just as you’d get back on a horse asap after a fall, do not hesitate to make a new choice even if the one you made earlier turned out to be a mistake.

The best way to make decisions is to let your head rule your heart and not vice versa. Rational scores way over emotional when it comes to decision-making. The time taken to make a decision should not outweigh the value of the decision itself – it’s not worth it to spend a whole day deciding the color of pants you want to buy. Think your choices over, and when you’re done, your instinct will tell you what’s right.

This guest post is written by Heather Johnson, who frequently writes on the subject of grants for nursing college degree. She welcomes your comments and freelance writing inquiries at:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Inbev Makes Bid For Anheuser Busch

Inbev officially announced its takeover bid for Anheuser Busch. They offered $46.4 billion for the American brewer, valuing the target firm at a 35% premium to the 30-day average stock price prior to recent speculation about the acquisition.

As I mentioned in a recent Reuters article, I think the Anheuser Busch board of directors will have a hard time turning back this bid without making other strategic moves. (Consider what has happened at Yahoo after that firm rejected the Microsoft bid). Shareholders are not likely to be pleased if the board simply rejects a bid that offers a substantial premium. The family only owns about 4% of the shares, so it cannot block the deal on its own.

If the Busch family does not want to sell to Inbev, what can they do? I think that one possibility would be to find a private equity buyer who would be willing to retain and work with the current management team in place, particularly CEO August Busch IV. Mature companies with strong, stable operating cash flows and valuable brands make attractive targets for private equity investors. The only question would be whether a private equity firm (or group of firms) could raise the required capital at the right price given this year's turmoil in the capital markets.

Regardless of what happens, I think you will see prospective buyers (Inbev, private equity firms, or some other white knight) taking a close look at some of Anheuser-Busch's ancillary operations. While the theme park business (Busch Gardens, Seaworld, etc.) is quite profitable, it's hard to make a case that strong economies of scope exist between the beer business and the theme park operations. One way to generate cash to help finance a deal would be to sell the theme parks. Other business units, such as the firm's packaging operations, might also receive scrutiny.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Shrinking Retail Floorplans

Gap announced this week that it plans to reduce the size of many of its stores, and suspend the opening of new U.S. locations. In particular, many of its 12,000 square foot stores will shrink to somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 square feet. Now, Gap has struggled mightily this decade; thus, it's not surprising that they are undergoing such changes. However, one could argue that we could be seeing the start of a trend in retail.

Over the past two decades, retail formats have gotten larger and larger, with superstores cropping up everywhere. It's not just the mass merchandisers such as Target and Wal-Mart, but a whole array of other specialty retailers as well. These giant stores perhaps made sense in an era of $25 oil, but executives will have to rethink the notion of optimal store size given oil prices in excess of $130 per barrel.

Heating costs represent a largely fixed cost. As they rise, the breakeven point for a retail store suddenly rises as well; in short, you need far more revenues to cover your fixed costs today. Given near term pressures on sales, companies need to rethink their cost structure. Reducing variable costs such as labor may be one option, but retailers do not want to cut too deep in that area, for fear of harming customer service. They may find that shrinking the size of the store helps bring down the breakeven sales figure, while also helping to improve inventory turns. Slower moving items can simply be sold on-line today, something that wasn't possible two decades ago. Overall, retailers may lose some revenue from shrinking their floorplans, but they could more than make up for it in higher asset efficiency (more sales per square foot, greater inventory turns, etc.).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Product Launch Failures

G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón have a thought-provoking new blog post at featuring the top 10 reasons why new product launches fail. It's definitely worth reading.

My personal favorite on their list is what they call the "lemming effect" - i.e. companies decide to imitate their competitors' new products, rather than trying to truly deliver a distinctive product to the market. Me-too strategies are everywhere in the business world. Companies seem to so easily forget that enduring competitive advantage comes from distinctiveness, not imitation.

Walmart & Food Price Inflation

Fortune has an article about how Walmart is working to maintain low retail prices despite the surge in commodity costs. Here is a brief excerpt from the article:

Ever wonder why that cereal box is only two-thirds full? Foodmakers love big boxes because they serve as billboards on store shelves. Wal-Mart has been working to change that by promising suppliers that their shelf space won't shrink even if their boxes do. As a result, some of its vendors have reengineered their packaging. General Mills' Hamburger Helper is now made with denser pasta shapes, allowing the same amount of food to fit into a 20% smaller box at the same price. The change has saved 890,000 pounds of paper fiber and eliminated 500 trucks from the road, giving General Mills a cushion to absorb some of the rising costs.

The interesting thing about these types of moves is that they reduce costs, AND they are environmentally friendly. More and more companies are searching aggressively for ways to eliminate waste, and particularly, to reduce fuel consumption. The high oil prices are, in fact, driving fundamental changes in behavior. We are seeing innovation and increased efficiencies result from the desire to counter the high price of oil/gas. In the long run, such moves may have wonderful positive effects for companies as well as for the economy as a whole.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Retail as Entertainment

As I was shopping with my brother at a Stew Leonard's supermarket in Connecticut a few weeks ago, I began thinking about how successful some retailers have become by making shopping an entertaining experience. For those who are not familiar with it, Stew Leonard's is an independent grocer with several stores in the Northeast. The stores do a phenomenal amount of sales per square foot, despite a far more limited number of SKUs than the typical grocer. Stew Leonard's is known for what it calls its "WOW" factor. The stores aim to entertain customers, particularly children, as they shop the stores. Stew Leonard's has everything from petting zoos to costumed entertainment to fun animatronics throughout the stores. The company focuses on a simple truth: parents often bring their children to the grocery store, and that can be quite a challenge! Why not make it easier on parents as they shop?

Stew Leonard's is not alone in making shopping more entertaining. Consider Jordan's Furniture, a small chain in Massachusetts founded by the Tatelman brothers and now owned by Warren Buffett. My local Jordan's is designed to around a New Orleans theme, with the main portion of the store made to look like Bourbon Street. The store has hourly entertainment, someone handing out beads to at the front door, a virtual reality ride, and an IMAX theater inside as well. We could go on with many other examples, including Build-a-Bear and American Girl stores.

The trend is clear. Each of these retailers is trying to differentiate itself from the competition, and thus increase willingness-to-pay by enhancing the shopping experience. Retailers also compete more effectively against internet competition by making their stores more than simply a place to conduct transactions. Retail is a tough business with low margins in many sectors. Price competition can be ruinous at times. Differentiation can be difficult to achieve. These retailers have found a way to stand out from the pack by focusing on making shopping a truly entertaining experience that's about much more than buying products that can be found elsewhere, including on-line.

"Learning Jobs"

Vicki Swisher has an interesting piece on about the types of jobs that can be the most powerful learning/developmental experiences for managers.

Swisher points to research by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) which shows that formal training accounts for only a small fraction of the learning/knowledge that managers need to to develop critical skills; the rest comes from experience. This finding is certainly no surprise. Formal training can only do so much. The real role for formal training has to be in helping managers accelerate the learning through experience that takes place on the job. It can do so in a number of ways. For instance, formal training can introduce managers to new ideas or perspectives, enable sharing of knowledge across the organization, help managers reflect on their experiences and identify ways to improve, and give executives access to practices and techniques being employed in other organizations so as to prevent a firm from becoming overly insular.

Still, Swisher rightfully points out that not all experiences are equally useful as development learning opportunities. Her list of what research shows to be the most useful developmental jobs is quite intriguing.