In downtown West Palm Beach, across the median from The Convention Center, and across the street from the mixed use City Place retail/housing mecca, is the almost completed, Restoration Hardware store.
Taking up the entire median of the main East-West roadway, Okechobee Boulevard, this new store is a paean to the wistfulness of retro furnishings and the epitome of the paradox, old is new.
The cost of the new 4-story store with café, underground parking and fountain, dubbed “mansion-like” by the local press, is estimated at $26 million. To fit in with the city’s legislation that all new projects promote art, a well-known artist covered the building in stark, modernistic hieroglyphics.
This grand emporium will reign over the main entranceway to and exit from Palm Beach, minutes from Mar-a-Lago. Although behind schedule (it was expected to open in May 2017), Restoration Hardware has spent big to create an illustrative, iconic luxury establishment. However, as a The Wall Street Journal article points out, Restoration Hardware has been a sad story for investors.
Earlier this year, as the article recounts, Restoration Hardware bought back almost half of its shares at the cost of about $1 billion. To do this, the enterprise borrowed money at 9.48% from Apollo Global Management: in other words, Restoration Hardware went into big time debt. In June, the firm lowered its guidance. The hope, opportunity, and challenge are that Restoration Hardware can recoup its once stellar growth in order to pay back the debt. There is a lot riding on this $26 million South Florida store.
Restoration Hardware’s plight is just another example of what happens when financial engineering becomes the primary business strategy. The online business site Seeking Alpha said this about McDonald’s, a brand that has also gone into debt to return money to shareholders.
“Since 2014, McDonald's has added $11 billion in debt, and reduced its tangible book value from $10 billion to a negative $5 billion reading currently. The company has improved operating numbers over the short-run at a cost of much higher business risk overall long-term.”
Financial engineering shenanigans, taking on excessive debt, buying back stock, increasing dividends at the expense of brand building, pleases shareholders, but damages the enduring profitable growth of brands.
In January, Reuters reported that Payless Inc., the discount shoe brand was exploring ways to address its nearly $665 million of debt as the stores’ traffic declines were affecting the brand’s ability to pay off its loans. As Reuters continued, other brands such as J. Crew and tween-teen mall favorite Claire’s were also looking at various financial engineering approaches to manage the combination of declining store volume and increasing debt issues.
When management must concentrate on paying off debt rather than producing a great brand experience, the brand suffers. Renovation and innovation are no longer affordable; customer and trend research that generate insights fall by the wayside; and the needed talent look elsewhere for job opportunities.
CEO Sergio Marchionne is focused on paying down the FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) $5.29 billion debt over the course of the next two years. He believes that the debt reduction will allow the company to be a stronger player in the automotive market, especially in the US. It is difficult to be a player when the money you earn selling cars goes to pay off lenders rather than build brands.
Buying back shares is not the same as building brand success: the fiasco of financial engineering continues to batter brands and plague the corporate world.
Larry Light, a global brand revitalization expert, is co-author with Joan Kiddon of Six Rules for Brand Revitalization. He also is the Chief Executive Officer of Arcature, a marketing consulting company that has advised a variety of marketers in packaged goods, technology, retail, hospitality, automotive, corporate and business-to-business, as well as not-for-profit organizations.
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