Companies such as Sainsbury, Walmart, Amazon, IHG, Campbell Soup Co., and Marriott, for example, are bulking up, buying brands creating bigger companies.
On the other hand, companies such as Ford, GM, Unilever, and Whitbread, for example, are paring down, eliminating poor performing business units under pressure from activists and analysts.
What is going on? Looking for the fast financial fill-up, activists are hounding companies around the world to break up organizations.
Under pressure from hedge fund, Sachem Head, Whitbread, a UK company that owns a very successful hotel chain (Premier Inn) and a very successful coffee chain (Costa) is de-merging these two units. Activists say having the two brands as independent units will “inject greater agility and innovation” into them. This is a euphemism for” spinning off Costa will quickly line my pockets.”
After 3G Capital along with Warren Buffett were publically shown the door with their suggested hostile takeover of Unilever, Unilever sold off its Flora margarine business. Shareholder “pressure” pushed Unilever to sell the underperforming unit for £6bn.
General Electric, one of America’s esteemed industrial conglomerates, is suffering from all sorts of ailments not the least of which is a portfolio of poor performing units. It divested itself of its appliance business. Its new CEO is focusing on selling assets and considering new organizational structures including breaking apart its major divisions, as reported in The Wall Street Journal.
Ford Motor Company, the only automotive company to not take US tax dollars during the 2008 recession, also has a new CEO. The company just announced that it would stop making sedans. Except for the Mustang and one Focus model, Ford will focus on trucks, SUVs and crossovers.
General Motors has been winnowing down its portfolio by exiting Europe, India and South Africa. GM is allocating resources to its driverless division. Fiat Chrysler started the trend for selling off businesses when it spun off its industrial car unit and its Ferrari brand. FCA has stopped making sedans except for two Dodge muscle cars. The Jeep brand is capturing all the attention.
However, corporate dieting is not the only approach to becoming more competitive and successful. While we watch so many companies shedding assets, there are also many companies strategically bulking up.
Walmart purchase jet.com, Bonobos, and outdoor retailer Moosejaw. And, although it is shuttering many Sam’s Clubs, and making a deal with Sainsbury’s (UK grocer) to change its position in Asda (European grocer), Walmart continues to build its online capabilities by nearing a huge deal with India’s Flipcart, a delivery service.
Amazon purchased Whole Foods; Restaurant Brands International added Popeye’s to it portfolio of Burger King and Tim Horton’s; T-Mobile is eager to buy Sprint; Campbell Soup Co. bought Bolthouse juices and Pacific Soup; IHG bought Kimpton Hotels and Regent Hotels Group; Marriott bought Starwood Hotels and Resorts; Marathon Petroleum is spending $20 billion to buy pipeline and refining company Andeavor; Estée Lauder has built a huge portfolio including Bobbie Brown, MAC, Smashbox, and Jo Malone. And, let’s not forget, Facebook owns Instagram, and Google owns YouTube.
There is an interesting paradox in the business mindset that pushes either a smaller, divested, de-merged business or a big holding company of multiple, artisanal, cult-favorite brands. It is a public paradox. Activists want cash now and urge their targets to “hand it over” by selling off businesses. At the same time, potential activist targets are de-merging to fend off protracted, and potentially nasty, proxy fights. On the flip side, big companies are buying smaller, attractive brands to avoid costly and risky investment in innovation on their own.
Is bigger better? Or, is smaller better? We are living either in an age of M&A or in an era of downsizing. There are plusses and minuses for both strategic options. However, one thing is certain… a strategy based on lining activist pockets rather than on the sustainable health of the business is an epidemic that hurts the prospects for enduring profitable growth.
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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