Broken Business Models: Sears & Kmart

The NY Post’s article and others seem surprised that Sears Holdings may not be able to continue as a going concern. Clearly sale of its Craftsman brand was a signal that Sears was in serious financial straits.

The acquisition of Sears and Kmart was completed ten years ago. But twenty years ago, before e-commerce became a major competitor, it was painfully obvious that Sears and Kmart were in serious trouble. Vendors selling to both companies at that time were questioning whether they could survive against Wal-Mart.

Could it be accurate that Wal-Mart’s physical distribution and information technology systems are so efficient that Wal-Mart receives cash for its products prior to having to pay its vendors for the purchases? All? Some? If true, tough to compete against.

Sears’ and Kmart’s business models were unmistakably broken starting in the 1990s. It is virtually impossible to repair a business model once it is broken. At minimum it would have required major capital investments in information technology and restructuring of their physical distribution operation with its high overhead and slow inventory replenishment. Would there have been a positive return on investment?

Mr. Edward Lampert was certainly considered a successful investor when he acquired Sears and Kmart. Possibly he was optimistic that he could repair both companies. Perhaps taking over as chief executive officer was a mistake as he apparently had never worked as CEO of a large retail company.

To be qualified to be CEO of a retail, manufacturing or service company – particularly one as large as Sears and Kmart – one needs to have started their career in the bowels of a company – at the bottom. Mr. Jack Welch is an example of a successful CEO who started at the bottom.

Working ones way up from the bowels gives experience with all the functions (departments) of a business. How do these functions work together. Why is cross-functional communication so critically important – while simple in concept it is difficult to practice. How to submerge oneself into the lower organization levels to find out the priority problems and solutions without being a distraction. CEOs who started at the bottom are more calmly self-confident and make better decisions when they get to the top position.

Regardless of any mistakes that have been made Sears and Kmart seem to fit the axiom: “not every business can be turned around” – particularly if their business model is broken.

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Chief Executive Officer

Executive Chairman

Turnarounds & Operational Restructurings

Adviser to creditors, board of directors or owners

Pre-acquisition & troubled company due diligence evaluations

Develop strategic and operating plans - including Court required plans of reorganization

Acquisition advice and negotiations

Serve as Member Board of Directors

Testify in Federal and State Court

Reason I wrote my book “Learn to Whisper”

Click on this link for a more complete description of “Learn to Whisper”

The reason I wrote “Learn to Whisper”:

My conclusion after operating as a Turnaround Chief Executive Officer for more than twenty-five years is that the majority of this country’s top management is far from first-rate. In fact top management, particularly at the chief executive officer level, is at best average with a large number that can be rated mediocre. This lack of management competence has seen this country’s market leaders lose sizeable market share to foreign manufacturers able to export better quality and lower cost products to the USA. It has seen manufacturing and service operations unnecessarily moved to foreign countries. All of which has negatively affected the economy, severely damaged former blue-chip corporations and seen quality jobs lost.

It is quite common to discover that companies struggling with this inability to compete with foreign companies have been simply mismanaged. The once successful business deteriorated because of an incompetent chief executive officer and weak senior management

Why doesn’t this nation have first-rate management? Inadequate training. Chief executive officers and vice presidents learn “on the job”. A number get promoted based on personality, political connections and drive – not merit. They are not carefully screened for the potential to become successful at managing. For some all that is needed is a well-written resume, the right interviewing style and the inability of a new employer to accurately assess skills, performance and potential.

Compare this to the process doctors go through. From medical school to internship to residency to a senior role after years of education, experience and continuous training their progress and capabilities are constantly monitored even after they become senior in the profession. Generals and Admirals go through a similar protocol. They must prove themselves in low-level assignments before they are judged qualified for senior positions. Unqualified applicants in both professions are culled out. What can be done to improve management competence? Education, on-the-job training and job performance monitoring. My book will educate people on the subject of managing. Its 101 management lessons are separated into the 17 subjects managers need to know.