Monday, March 10, 2008

Here comes the activist

Last night on 60 Minutes, there was a story on Carl Icahn, activist shareholder/corporate raider. I caught myself wondering if he would be interested in a small, unconventional mattress company based in Minneapolis. Of course, the entire company is far too small for him to bother with, but as luck would have it, the George Hall (another activist shareholder) has targeted Select Comfort.

The letter to Select Comfort lists a number of proposals, which are not terribly radical, but do highlight several management failures. Most troubling to me are comments about CEO William R. McLaughlin's recent announcement about his salary:

Further, the Chief Executive Officer's agreement to forgo his base salary until same store sales increase by at least 1% for four consecutive weeks, while good for public relations, is inconsistent with shareholder interests, since improvement of the Company's financial performance requires a greater length of same store sales improvement than four weeks. Further, this limited, short test allows for alteration of marketing spending in order for the Chief Executive Officer to achieve his limited performance goals, which may have nothing to do with appropriate marketing spending for the Company and inconsistent with the Company improving its annual financial performance.
Looking at the text of Mr. McLaughlin's letter, I'm forced to agree with his critics—he seems to be an untrustworthy manager. At this point, he has set the bar so low that practically anyone with some business experience can clear it. I'm afraid I now agree with those who have called for him to resign.

Reading between lines, implementing SAP seems to have become a death march. More money will not solve the problem, so shareholders ought to consider the cost so far to be sunk. Also, as the letter spells out, the SAP installation is probably overly ambitious for a company like Select Comfort, which may never recoup the savings needed to pay for the system.

I don't know if I agree with the idea that the company should close low performing stores. The letter suggests returning to the company's direct marketing roots and eliminating the wholesale business. I think the key to the problem is understanding why some stores are failing. For instance, it does not seem like stores are getting the advertising coverage they need. If that's the case, closing the stores might not be the most productive idea.

Overall, I welcome Mr. Hall's investment and I hope management will open up their operation to his input. An outside pair of eyes can only help.

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