Chair Ball and Corporate Bungling
Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry once related a story: He claims readers perceived journalists as hard working investigators hitting the phones and slaving over their typewriters to make deadlines. In reality, he said, they could most often be found in the board room wheeling around on the chairs and dunking paper wads into the trash bin. He calls this playing chair ball.
In my very first exposure to the corporate boardroom, I saw how executives engage in their own form of chair ball. I was a young engineer working on the seat design for the Chrysler mini-van for a large seat manufacturer. We were the system supplier meaning we would supply a completely assembled set of front and rear seats to the Chrysler assembly plant. Keep in mind that in the early ‘90s the mini-van was the highest volume vehicle in production—over one million a year.
The Chrysler engineers and I found the best seat tracks possible for the seating system. They were slick and lightweight and manufactured by a competitor in Canada. I went to a board meeting to present the design. They crushed the idea of sourcing a competitor and directed me to use tracks of our own design that weighed three times as much and were more expensive. Their reason? They could not let the Canadian competitor get a foothold in the US car seat market.
Guess what happened? Chrysler canceled our system contract and sourced the seat tracks themselves, to the Canadian supplier. We lost control of the seat system design and the final assembly work. Lesson learned? People in seats of power gain an oversized perspective of their control over their world. The right word may be hubris. I call it corporate chair ball.
The image of corporate execs playing chair ball in the boardroom has served me well. It comes to mind when I hear about otherwise inexplicable decisions.
Here are a few examples from the cybersecurity world:
-Symantec, which was on its way to becoming the dominant player in a rapidly growing security industry, decides to spend $11.5 billion on a data center and storage company, Veritas. We know how that ended. (See: The Demise of Symantec.)
-McAfee acquires Secure Computing. A few years earlier Network Associates (now called McAfee) had given its Gauntlet firewall business to Secure Computing which made a practice of collecting all the detritus of the firewall space. Evidently the new CEO of McAfee did not understand the near impossibility of succeeding in both endpoint and network security (See: Why Network Security Vendors Should Stay Away from End Point Security, And Vice Versa.)
-Intel acquires McAfee. Most analysts saw the folly of this move. The chair ball pros at Intel bought into a ridiculous theory that security and silicon would be synergistic. (I am not saying that there are not good security things you can do as a chip manufacturer, just that acquiring a long-in-the-tooth AV vendor is not one of them.) (See: Five Reasons Intel Should Spin Off McAfee.)
-Dell buying SecureWorks. There could have been a brilliant play in managed security for a company that sells primarily to small businesses. At checkout they could ask: “Would you like fries, I mean security, with that?” But SecureWorks was not architected to do that and has been spun out as a public company.
-Dell buying EMC. This is classic chair ball. Our business is struggling because PC sales are off, let’s take on a ginormous amount of debt and acquire a failing data center conglomerate because two slowing markets (PCs and data center) are better than one.
I could go on. Think of the family destroying stack ranking that Jack Welch adopted for GE companies. Rank every employee and get rid of the bottom 10% every year. Management has to fall back on a metric to cover their inability to hire, train, and advance people. But those executives want simplicity. They are too busy playing chair ball to do the hard work.
Or Roger Smith at General Motors. A finance guy that decides to revamp every stamping plant in North America with quick-change dies to make them more flexible, just when Japanese innovation and quality were eating into the domestic market.
Most of us have such stories to tell. Feel free to share yours. I just hope that investors take note and don’t buy into the elaborate fantasies these execs spin to justify their mega-mergers (HP and Xerox, really?). Sure the debt funders make a tidy return. The execs get their bonuses, but it is almost always the case that the combined companies lose market share and often fail completely.