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?


BA Turbulence: Sick workers … sick leadership?

January 22, 2007

British Airways is facing a potentially damaging Union dispute, with strike action threatened over the coming weeks. The dispute contrasts the newer participative leadership and classical industrial relations battles. Increasingly, sick workers are being associated with sick leadership stories, as Walmart is also discovering.

The context is a familiar one. BA operates in one of the most competitive global market sectors. The business pressures for the traditional carriers have been accentuated by the success of cut-price rivals, increased political interest in the ‘carbon footprint’ of air travel, operating costs, and costs of financing pension arrangements.

Over some unpleasantly bumpy progress in recent years, the company has been addressing these problems. There have been shifts in leadership, but the one-time tag The world’s most popular airline now seems to have distinctly ironic echoes.

Indicators of the company’s concerns have been recent negotiations to come to terms with its pension commitments, and efforts to address productivity losses resulting from what the company attributes to excessive levels of absenteeism.

The sickness sickness

In recent years, absenteeism has been studied both from economic and behavioural standpoints. The former approach draws on traditional industrial relations measures of ‘sickies’, and is inclined to focus on days off per year per employee. The vocabulary is that of malingerers, and of a sickness culture. The behavioural standpoint draws on the more modern human resource approach.

For many workers (and not a few academic researchers), this is regarded as a relabelling rather than a revolution in the culture of the workplace. What should be noted in this case is that BA has been a leading advocate of workplace participation, and motivational methods for many years. It has invested heavily in its management and leadership training .

Yet, the current debate still has echoes of an older confrontational ‘us versus them’ culture.

Sick workers, sick buildings … sick leadership?

There has been various non-economic explanations of what was simply lumped under managerial terms of malingering and absenteeism. Ideas of psychologically damaging environments (sick buildings syndrome) have been studied. ‘Sick buildings’ may have clear and identifiable dimensions. but may also be more as symptom of wider issues. Sick buildings may be an indicator of sick jobs.

This at some level will connect with organizational leadership. In time, the matter will become a threat to effective operation.

The PR difficulties of Walmark at present might be cited in this respect. Its leadership decisions are monitored closely and discussed through various pressure groups via the internet.

This week, for example, the company introduced some leadership changes. One headline was ‘Walmart promotes executive who warned of sick workers’.

BA and Walmart alike increasingly have to consider the dynamics not just of sick workers, but what in their actions can be accused of being sick leadership.