Friday, November 20, 2009


The time I spent in school will perhaps never be forgotten. I wasn’t referring to myself (who in heavens would claim he can’t remember his own time in school... alright, maybe a former US President), but to the teachers whose subjects I failed, to the administrator whose projector I destroyed, to the provost who rusticated me out of the hostel five times by the time I kicked myself out, and to the Principal who once chased me around the sports ground brandishing a pair of industrial scissors threatening to cut my slovenly two penny hair. All this was pretty fine with me... all, except one boy, whom I envied to perdition. While we both were equally good sports enthusiasts and used to get into all the school sports teams – basketball, cricket, swimming, football, tennis – he would always be made the captain, however hard I tried to prove my sporting skills to the nepotistic coaches.

The frustrating irritation in me knew no bounds – well, the captain used to be treated like an emperor; and obviously, he would get all the, umm, fan mail, if you know what I mean! Driven to the point of galling exasperation, one fine afternoon, I cornered him at the school grounds after sports practice and loudly threw the accusation that it was only because of his connections that he, and not me, became the captain. Not taking a moment, and like a true sophisticated cultured gentleman that all boys in my school were trained to be, he lunged at me screaming bilingual four, five and six-letter words and shouted, “That’s not true. You couldn’t become the captain because you didn’t clear the vision test. You couldn’t even read the first line on the alphabet board!” His answer hit my jaw like a ten tonne truck before his fist did. The pest was right about the test. I had short-sight, but refused to wear spectacles (like all the ‘boys in the hood’) and to accept that I even had myopia. Consequently, I always failed the vision test, while he’d always pass it. But then, given the emotion of the moment, I did start wondering: did such a fabled connection really exist? Did a leader necessarily need to have an excellent vision to succeed?

Well, I won’t even childishly attempt to draw the metaphor up in the real corporate world – as the answer is a resounding yes! Vision is the obsessive compulsion to continuously achieve beyond benchmarks, and is the essence, the soul, the character of great leadership. Without a sustained and sincere visionary approach, not only does the CEO doom himself, he also magnanimously devastates his company’s future irreparably, targeting objectives which will never allow the organisation to become a global leader. But the toughest part in the whole imbroglio is – does the CEO even have a ghost of an idea of how wonderfully visionary could a vision be? Do you?

This boy of 14 dropped out of school and joined his uncle’s store as a watch salesman (as his penury ridden father had passed away due to tuberculosis). He worked 16 hour days, and even learnt English from a tutor during the night, after work! Seven years later, when he was just 21, he borrowed capital from some friends and family members and opened a plastic flower manufacturing company. Nine years later, his firm became the largest supplier of plastic flowers in Asia. Half-a century later, his empire spans across industries like oil, electronics, telecommunications, retails, ports, power, electricity and even health and beauty. The name of his empire – the publicly traded Hutchison Whampoa group (which he acquired from HSBC in 1971) and Cheung Kong Industries (which he founded in 1950), which operates across 55 countries and employs 2,20,000 people. The name of this determined and born visionary – Li Kashing, the richest man in Hong Kong and the 16th richest on the 2009 Forbes billionaires list, his net worth valued at over $16.2 billion, with his empire worth much more – $120 billion in mcap. Can you match his vision?

Born out of wedlock in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to teenage parents who broke-up soon after, this lady’s mother was a housemaid, and her father, a coal miner. Raped by family members when young, imprisoned in detention centres, pregnant at 14 (with her child dying soon after birth), she’s my icon of how vision can motivate one to become the champion of circumstances and business. At 17, she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and was noticed by the local black radio station, WVOL, which hired her as a part time radio jockey. That proved to be her baby step into the world of media. After that, she worked with Nashville’s WLAC-TV and Baltimore’s WJZ-TV. Today, her company Harpo Corp. produces The Oprah Winfrey Show, aired in 140 countries around the world, with 30 million viewers a week in US alone. Oprah is the only black woman billionaire in world history, her personal worth estimated by Forbes at $2.3 billion. Can you match her vision?

Born nearsighted, a dyslexic, a school dropout, a failure in the first two business ventures he started, this man started a magazine called Student to cater to young demographics. To cover postage charges, his mother donated four pounds. Working from his basement, Student debuted in January 1968 (The first feedback he received for the magazine was from the headmaster of his previous school, who wrote: “Congratulations! I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionair”) Within 25 years of that letter, this visionary put into place a diversify ed group with more than 150 companies, spread across six continents; and much to prove his school headmaster wrong, became a billionaire! With businesses ranging from comics to airlines, from colas to mobile telephony, Richard Branson’s personal wealth now amounts to $2.5 billion, and his fame to something much beyond! Well, can you match his vision?

A few years back, the Stanford University paper (Vision, Key to Creating Shareholder Value) quoted Lord John Browne, then CEO of the oil behemoth BP, “You have to remember what your vision is, and you have to be disciplined about sticking to it in order to create shareholder value!” When Browne became BP’s CEO in 1995, the company’s annual revenues were $26.95 billion. In 2007 when he resigned, they were a spectacular $274.32 billlion – a stupendous rise of 917.88%! Browne’s successor, Anthony Hawyard, has kept the visionary approach as rampant – the revenues for 2008 were a mind blowing $367 billion! That is vision!

The brilliant management guru Jim Collins, using a 70 year long study as a basis, showed in his best selling book Built To Last how ‘visionary companies’ gave stock returns that were almost 700% more than ‘comparison (not so visionary) companies’. The findings of a huge research by the well known Ken Blanchard Group (covering 2000 odd worldwide respondents between 2003-2006) show how “failing to communicate the vision in a way that is meaningful,” is the biggest mistake that leaders make when working with others. Noted author Jim Heskett, in a Harvard Business School paper (‘How much of leadership...’), writes, “Companies growing value the most are the ones with leaders that have a clear vision, continually communicate that vision, and then get out of the way!” Are you such a leader?

Clearly, it’s not just about what vision you have, but about the vision you make your followers believe in, and work towards! In summary, fanatic vision is about targeting objectives fantastically beyond what your normal potential would ever allow – devastate and destroy all current pretensions, processes, procedures, and assumptions that stymie the power of imagination and passionately work towards the fantastical objective like a delusional zealot, believing completely in the fact that you will achieve the quixotic target, at the same time ensuring that all your followers believe as fanatically in this prophetic atom-smashing finality!!! That, my CEOs, is being a visionary!

Coming back to where I started, back in school, post the jaw breaking fight, I ended up over a few months actually becoming friends with the truant captain, given our common roguish antecedents. One day, we both decided to skip school and watch a movie in the nearby theatre. The moment the movie started, I was stunned to see him take out a pair of spectacles from inside his bag and wear them. I was totally dumbfounded! With my mouth agape, I garbled to him, “But you said you had perfect vision?!?” The devil of the town coolly looked at me, and spoke, “I never said that. I just said that you never were able to read out the alphabets on the eye test board... while I used to mug them all up!” Geez, where was it that I started this editorial?...


Thursday, November 5, 2009


In the past few months, while I have been trying to make sense of the strategies of the world’s largest companies in my editorials, my analysis has many times flamboyantly and quite shamelessly used the Fortune 500 lists, without doubt the most well known international listing of the world’s best managed corporations. Over the course of various editorials, my research team has time and again brought out data and analysis, which has almost never ceased to surprise me, and many times even changed my preconceived notions of what constitutes the best course of strategic action for a company. In short, the findings of my team have represented some of the most contemporary understanding in the world of modern management and in the world of Fortune 500, the highest revenue earning firms internationally. And in this issue’s editorial, after analysing many of my past editorials, I bring to you the compendium of 6 unique strategic factors that drive a majority of these Fortune 500 corporations in their search of excellence:

Only 6% of Fortune 500 companies in 2009 made it to the list of Fortune Best Companies to Work For 2009 list. In other words, the entire list of Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For had no mention of 94% of the top Fortune 500 names! The highest placed amongst those in the Fortune 500 list was the 10th ranked Valero Energy, which was placed eighth-last on the Best Companies to Work For list. The #1 company on the Best Companies to Work For list (NetApp) was ranked #647 on the Fortune 1000 list! The #2 and #3 on the Best Companies to Work For List (Edward Jones & BCG respectively) did not even feature amongst the Fortune 1000 names!

Learning: The best performing corporations of the world (in terms of revenues, increasing shareholder value and earnings) make sure they’re not fun places to work; rather, excellently performing companies like Exxon and Berkshire ensure that employees are made to work killingly hard.

Surprisingly, the top ranked Fortune names weren’t the ones who could be most proud about delivering the best of returns of their shareholders. So guess which company delivered the maximum returns to its shareholders amongst all 2009 Fortune 500 names? An unknown firm called Dollar Tree, now ranked #499 on the Fortune list, gave back to its shareholders 60.8% returns y-o-y. In fact, only six Fortune 500 names delivered annual returns superior to 20%. The other five names are: Family Dollar Stores (ranked 359), Nasch-Finch (ranked 492), World Fuel Services (ranked 147), Amgen (ranked 168) and Omnicare (ranked 392); all of which, except one (Amgen) are into the ‘Services industry’! Even when we look at the revenues earned per dollar of assets or per dollar of equity, the top five industries in both the categories belong to the services sector.

Learning: If you want to be counted amongst the most efficient and productive companies of the world (for your shareholders, investors, customers), the services sector is where you might want to be for the coming few years.

Only 3% of 2009 Fortune 500 companies have women as their CEOs; and the irony is that this puny woman CEO figure is actually a 0.6% jump over the previous year. And if the Fortune 1000 names are considered, the count boils down to a lower 2.8%. The figure is similar to the Standard & Poor’s 500 list, which has just 14 names of companies that are headed by women CEOs (again, 2.8%).

Learning: The world’s biggest companies don’t trust a woman to be their CEO.

While the average tenure with a single Fortune company for a Fortune 500 CEO is a high 26 years, the same for an S&P 100 CEO is also a similar 23 years, disproving the hype and hoopla about job-hopping leaders. While 61% of S&P 100 CEOs have been working for the same company for 15 years or more, 30% have never worked anywhere else (Source: Hewitt Associates CEO Study)! The report by Booz Allen Hamilton titled ‘CEO Succession: Stability in the Storm’, after analyzing the world’s 2,500 most valued publicly listed companies, also proves how loyalty is still alive and kicking, with boards today even encouraging succession planning of ‘internal candidates’. The study notes how “among new CEOs, outsiders – those brought in from outside the company to take the helm – make up only about 24 percent of the incoming class.” The belief in youth is also quite strong. Another study by Hewitt Associates, titled ‘Board Index 2008’, notes that as boards get older, “the average age of the CEO has decreased” as compared to 10 years back. As per the C T Partners report titled ‘Does Age matter when you’re CEO?’, S&P 500 companies, which are run by the youngest CEOs, outperform those run by the oldest. Stocks of S&P 500 companies whose CEOs are 47 and younger have outperformed the S&P 500 Index by 6.2% since 2007, while those led by CEOs who were 72 and older underperformed the S&P 500 Index by 12%. Even when Forbes magazine measured the performance of the 10 youngest (average age 44) CEOs vs. the 10 oldest (average age 74) CEOs of large companies using a formula to measure CEO compensation packages relative to shareholder return, it found that “the younger CEOs as a group outperformed the higher-paid, older CEOs.”

Learning: If you have any ambition of becoming a CEO, be loyal, and never jump jobs (at least, not more than once)!

Despite all the hogwash talk about corporate governance and splitting of the CEO and Chairman roles, the truth remains intact – one bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. While 64% of Fortune 500 CEOs play the dual role of a Chairman and CEO, the figure is just about the same with S&P 500 companies, where 61% of the companies have the same person serving as the CEO & Chairman (Source: Hewitt Associates Board Index Report). A case to point is Rex Tillerson, the man in charge of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s top three corporations. Rex has been serving as both the CEO and Chairman. Under him, Exxon has reported eight of the ten highest quarterly net profits for any company in the history of mankind. The top three highest being $14.83 billion (during Q3, 2008), $11.68 billion (Q2, 2008) & $11.66 billion (during Q4, 2007) – all three records when he was the ‘dual’ man on top!

Learning: More the people taking the decisions, more delayed a company’s response to competition. Clearly, the world’s leading firms combine the Chairman’s and CEO’s post.

Over the past decade, outside board service by CEOs has fallen by 65% as compared to 1998. On an average, CEOs now serve on only 0.7 other boards, down from 1.0 in 2003 and 2.0 in 1998, as the Board Index Report by Spencer Stuart concludes. Not just that, the average size of the Board of Directors is also shrinking, having fallen by 10% over the past decade. The trend towards smaller boards becomes more noticeable now: The number of boards in the S&P 500 with 12 or fewer directors has increased by 18% since 1998 and 8% since 2003. Surprisingly, today 80% of S&P 500 Boards have 12 or less than 12 directors.

Learning: Do not allow the top management to focus on anything other than your corporation!