Bob Nardelli. A good leader for Chrysler in its present plight?

November 4, 2007

bob-nardelli.jpgIf you believe in situational leadership you may feel that Bob Nardelli’s style is an appropriate one for Chrysler, following the Cerberus takeover

The bloodletting at Chrysler is not going to be pleasant. It calls for a special kind of leadership to avoid worse outcomes than might have been possible. There have been business leaders in the past who relished the prospects of being in charge in such a crisis. They had earned their reputations as uncompromising men willing to made the big decisions in a slash-and-burn situation.

Uncompromising men? It’s just that there are fewer stories about equally ruthless business women, because they haven’t had as many opportunities. A few years ago there was Linda Wachner, America’s first Fortune 500 female boss, whose high-handed management style was blamed for the bankruptcy of clothing company Warnaco. And I have little doubt that if Margaret Thatcher had found herself in change at Chrysler at the moment, she would have entered into the spirit of things with her legendary energy and decisiveness.

Heroes and villains

In times of crisis, it is tempting to portray events as dominated by the actions of great villains or heroes depending on your view of capital market mechanisms. The leader as hero rescues what can be saved, and in the process accepts that casualties as a vital part of winning the battle. That might be called the unconditional free-market view. Opposed to that, is notion of the leader brought in to a company in trouble is a villain, a mercenary, a ruthless bounty-hunter contracted to deliver what is required, ‘dead or alive’ in order to earn his own booty on behalf of a powerful rapacious corporate raider. That’s the unconditional anti-capitalist view.

Young people around the world learn of their national heroes and traitors in terms rather like these. Cultural forces sustain the views, as part of each culture’s ‘national heritage’, regardless of efforts at history teachers to offer a more nuanced explanation of events and of the impact of individuals.

Many years ago, Thomas Carlisle took the view that great leaders could be excused human flaws. Assuming they have something special which achieves great results, we must beware of belittling them for being all too human. That’s one argument. Carlisle warned against what he called valetism. (‘No man is a hero to his own valet’).

One of various objections to Carlisle’s idea is the way in which heroes suddenly become villains (the hero to zero effect), but in either case are granted exceptional abilities. It anticipated the more technical studies of leadership in search of the right stuff, the essence of leadership.

It took us a hundred years of work to suspect that the impact of great leaders was to a considerable degree based on the perceptions of followers. That’s why I am rather keen to promote the suggestion that we get the leaders we deserve, and that they are to some degree the creation of our collective imaginations.

Remember Chain-Saw Al?

Before returning to Chrysler, it may be worth recalling the rise and fall of other leaders once hailed great, and then trashed. ‘Chain saw’ Al Dunlap comes to mind. Older subscribers will remember Al as hero of Wall Street, the wizard of down-sizing. Al was in demand for a company in need of the slash and burn treatment. Al kept producing the goods, metaphorically. He eventually was found not to be producing the goods literally, and had been engaging in all sorts of creative accounting.

Morer recently, we witnessed had the rise and fall of Sam O’ Neal at Merrill Lynch. Sam had been lauded as Sam the Man who had shaken Merrill Lunch out of its strategic slumbers. He had also presided over the company at the time when it hit the buffers as one of the biggest losers in the sub-prime markets this year. Exit Sam with some $16 million compensation for his efforts during the good years.

Once the performance of Merrill Lynch fell, Mr O’Neal’s contribution, and his leadership style were called into attention. He was autocratic. He would not listen to advice. He could be very difficult to work with. And so on.

Which brings us back to Bob Nardelli

When Nardelli left Home Depot, earlier this year, the consensus was that

Home Depot faces a well-known dilemma. It has long passed a growth phase when its stock was rising in sensational fashion. Efforts to maintain the growth led to a decision to bring in new and dynamic management. When the desired growth was not achieved, the leader was deposed. Nardelli’s demise was made easier by his management style and a skill at extracting extremely favourable personal rewards. It should be noted that this might suggest he was a difficult boss, but not a stupid one

When Cerberus acquired Chrysler, they turned to Nardelli.

Why? Private Equity business deals require leaders to be able to follow a plan, stick to the numbers. They may or may not be ‘good with people’. If they are, it’s a bonus.

Matching the situation and the leader

Situational leadership suggests that different situations call for different leadership skills. In one well-known leadership formulation, leaders are invited to assess situations and seek an appropriate style. In Chrysler’s situation, the temptation for the new owners is to regard a directive style as appropriate. That’s how it’s worked in the past. Hello, Bob, I think we’ve got just the job for you …Yes, a bit like Al., but we don’t want any financial tricks. Remember what happened to Al.

So is Nardelli likely to be a good leader for Chrysler?

There are no easy answers in a case study like this one. Conclusions have to be supported by argument and indications of the assumptions being made. So far, I’ve been putting forward a qualification that it is not possible to put leaders into one of two boxes ‘good or bad’. This is based on the evidence that leaders may have a style that suits them to some circumstances better than others.

The next point to consider is good for what and for whom. In evaluating Nardelli’s impact at Chrysler we may wish to take the broad view that Chrysler appears to be in need of drastic and painful change, and that Nardelli was attracted with a deal in which he is generously rewarded for carrying out the painful operation of change.

I suspect he has some of the characteristics of the tough-minded leader required to meet the short-term financial objectives of Cerberus. I don’t know if he will succeed in the wider challenge of creating something permanent that will be recognised as the New Chrysler. Sadly, among the biggest losers at Chrysler will be tens of thousands of workers who will be without jobs over the coming months. The unconditional free-marketeers will Maybe argue that the alternatives would likely have led to even more job losses at Chrysler further down the line. Maybe a tough approach now will create more jobs elsewhere, than a more ‘humane’ and collaborative approach which fails to bring about changes in market prospects of the ailing corporation.


Home Depot tries to get back to basics

August 31, 2007

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Home Depot continues to attract comment for its strategic decisions. Is it retreating to a low-risk low growth position?

Home Depot has had a tough few years. Its management was criticized for its lack of progress under Bob Nardelli. It was criticised for paying Nardelli too much while he was there, and too much when he left. The sale of its contractor supply business to private equity has been renegotiated downwards during difficult financial market conditions.

Now the strategy itself is criticised, according to a Newsweek report. It seems that

The really important question about the sale of Home Depot’s construction supply business isn’t the price, which Home Depot lowered 18% on Aug. 28, to $8.5 billion, after round-the-clock negotiations. The real issue is whether the unit should be sold at all. Some upset investors argue that by selling HD Supply, which serves contractors rather than do-it-yourselfers, Home Depot’s new management is dumping its best hope for future growth simply to finance a stock buyback and exorcise the ghost of ex-Chief Executive Robert Nardelli, who masterminded the purchase

A Strategic Dilemma

This is the sort of strategic dilemma taught through cases at Business Schools. The cases are intended to demonstrate how students should think about complex business issues, rather than to supply best-practice silver-bullet answers.

Home Depot faces a well-known dilemma. It has long passed a growth phase when its stock was rising in sensational fashion. Efforts to maintain the growth led to a decision to bring in new and dynamic management. When the desired growth was not achieved, the leader was deposed. Nardelli’s demise was made easier by his management style and a skill at extracting extremely favourable personal rewards. It should be noted that this might suggest he was a difficult boss, but not a stupid one. He has since found further and gainful employment elsewhere. His strategy for Home Depot was to find growth for the business.

But continued lack of growth made it harder for the company to finance change. Nardelli’s plan for the future included growth from the side of the business selling to contractors. This remains a high-potential but therefore risky option.

Here’s the dilemma. The market is outside the experience range of the company. There will be need for considerable learning. (Remember those old graphs of new markets/new products?). It may well require new management. Ah, there’s the rub. Home Depot is not exactly over-burdened with leadership talent. But it may well flinch from even more bloodletting.

It seems a signal that the company is settling for stability over a more risky growth strategy. Not exciting, but by no means a stupid strategy.


Cerberus bags Nardelli for Chrysler

August 6, 2007

nardelli.jpgA name leaks out as new CEO for Chrysler. It is Robert Nardelli, recently deposed head of Home Depot. Why Nardelli? Why an anonymous leak? What are the implications for Chrysler’s future?

The fate of Chrysler is now in the hands of Private Equity organization Cerberus. If step one is win the take-over battle, step two is installing the top management team to execute the transformation plan.

It is difficult to conceive of step one being completed without parallel efforts occuring to secure the person or persons believed capable of getting the job done. Sometimes the leader has been in place before the venture capital is sorted out.

The leak

It was Associated Press that broke the news.

Chrysler’s new private owners have picked former Home Depot boss Bob Nardelli to head the No. 3 U.S. automaker in its effort to return to financial health, a person close to the process said Sunday

The leak was rapidly followed by official confirmation. Bob Nardelli has been appointed. The complex twists and turns in Chrysler’s fortunes continue.

Recent events

German auto magnate Dieter Zetsche had headed the Merger between Chrysler and Daimler. But the move failed to deliver its promise of a transition to a globally competetive firm. The escalating debts at Chrysler led Zetsche first to indicate that all options had to be sonsidered. Eventually, the ultimate option was exercized, and Chrysler put up for sale. In May 2007, Cerberus Capital Management won over other bids.

There were further twists to the tale. The planned finance packages could not be sold to the finance houses. With a jittery financial context, it seemed that the deal would fall through. But where there’s a will there’s a way. Daimler even played a part in financing its own sale. The deal squeeked through.

Why Nardelli?
Private Equity deals rely on having a clear plan for recovery of investments. The financials often indicate assets that can be sold off to that effect. Sometimes the deal implies replacement of lethargic leadership with others more willing to ‘do what it takes’ to ‘liberate’ those under-utilized assets. Detractors point to the excessive zeal from such slash and burn leaders, and lack of concern for the historical purpose and values of the target organization.

Nardelli is a controversial figure. But the pattern of his leadership behavior may fit rather well for asset liberation. He is reputed to be high-handed and authoritarian. These may not be
particularly desirable characteristics, particularly for colleagues, including former Chrysler head Tom La Sorda, They may, however, appropriate for circumstances where speed outweighs consensus in decision-making.

Nardelli’s removal from Home Depot was attributed partly to a high-handed style particularly over his remuneration demands. It seems likely that such behaviors would have been overlooked, if the company had been able to achive its aspirations of growth under his leadership (which were probably unrealistic, but that’s another issue).

The new job offers a fascinating case study. (Not so fascinating as tough for employees, almost certainly). Will such a style fulfill the requirements of Cerberus and its future plans for the company? The conventional wisdom is that this sort of deal will provide generous financial rewards for the key players. In which case Nardelli’s leadership abilities will outweigh the bevaors that contributed to his problems at Home Depot. In either event, Cerberus will have obtained the leader they believed they needed and deserved.


Home Depot needs more improvements

July 11, 2007

frankblake.jpgHome Depot is known as the largest home improvement firm in the world. High-flyer Bob Nardelli failed to sustain its early growth, and was fired. Six months on, his successor Frank Blake is also struggling in a tough market place. We look back at the board room battles that have beset the company

Financial warning signs are looming for Home Improvements giant Home Depot. Market conditions are tough even for a one-time glamour stock. Time was, when the company was outperforming Walmart. But then the company growth slowed.

AS USA Today put it in January, Home Depot boots CEO Nardelli.

According to Business Week,

the Board did not want to sack their CEO, neither did he want to go. In the end it came down to the headstrong CEO’s refusal to accept even a symbolic reduction in his stock package. Home Depot Inc.’s board of directors wanted their controversial chief executive, Robert L. Nardelli, to amend his whopping compensation deals for recent years. After he pulled down $38.1 million from his last yearly contract, angry investors were promising an ugly fight at the company’s annual meeting in May.

How Bob was recruited

Nardelli was recruited in 2002 after building a reputation of a high flyer under the legendary Jack Welsh at GE. But Welsh could not promise his ambitious executive the preferment he craved. A director of both GE and Home Depot had secured his services for Home Depot, whose board removed the company’s co-founder. A Fortune article at the time of his appointment offered a picture of a determined and driven character, and a battler. He had wanted to become a pro footballer but was rejected as being too small. He wanted to be chief of GE but was passed over.

Enter Frank Blake

Frank Blake was appointed chairman and CEO of Home Depot in January 2007. Prior to this position, he served as vice chairman of the board of directors and executive vice president of the company. He joined The Home Depot in 2002 as executive vice president, Business Development and Corporate Operations, and was responsible for real estate, store construction, credit services, strategic business development, growth initiatives, call centers and the Home Services business.

Frank did not have a great leadership honeymoon. Progress remained unimpressive. This was not for want of leadership initiative. Recently he was praised for bringing in the expertise of the founders:

Baboons drive the dethroned alpha male out of the pack. Eskimos set their elders adrift on ice floes. And so it goes with departing CEOs, who are often shown the door as part of the new regime’s assertion of power. In 2000, Bob Nardelli was named CEO, replacing Arthur Blank; within the next two years, Blank and co-founder Bernie Marcus gave up their remaining ties to the company.

“No one ever called or asked us our advice,” Marcus recently told Fortune. As a result, Blank and Marcus became outsiders at their own company – until January, when Nardelli stepped down amid charges of bloated compensation. The board tapped executive vice president Frank Blake to take charge, and on his first day in the job, Blake called back the founders.
Experts suggest Blake is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to recognizing the value in retired brass. “They’re an incredible resource,” says Jeff Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management. “They know where the bodies are buried.”
The risk, of course, is that the old team hangs around too much. Blank and Marcus try to keep their distance. Blake says the founders have struck the right balance: “They’re responsive, but not intrusive.”

Happy ever after?

Leadership is not that simple. Blake has a participative style that increasingly wins support from Business gurus. It fits nicely, for example, with the Sloan leadership model. This model reminds us that no leader is perfect, and it is a strength not a weakness to acknowledge that. On the other hand, shareholders invest for returns, not leadership theories. Home Depot may now have enlightened leadership. Will it achieve improved results before another leader departs, this time with a less generous golden goodbye?


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