Friday, April 07, 2006

Ford: When The Founding Family Still Cares

Two news stories today concerning Ford caught my attention. The first concerned the departure of their President, Jim Padilla. He is credited with an earlier "turnaround" at Ford, but is stepping down now, and will not be replaced. The other story concerned Ford's pulling all of its professional golf-related advertising and promotion spending, to focus on another sport (the identity of which, frankly, has already passed from my mind).

These stories caused a flurry of discussion on CNBC's Squawkbox concerning Ford's current turnaround attempts. Hearing this, I pulled up a couple of stock performance charts for Ford and the S&P500 for the last 5 and 25 years, to ascertain the firm's total return consistency over those periods.

The recent 5 years look pretty ghastly, as I expected. Except for a brief period during 2003, the firm has underperformed the index throughout the period. For the entire timeframe, Ford underperformed the S&P500 by about 85 percentage points. It would appear to be a consistently inferior-performing firm for the last half-decade.

The picture for the past 25 years, however, is noticeably better. For the period from 1985-2000, Ford usually matched the index, and briefly outperformed it during 1986-1989. It also had a brief run of superior performance during the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

Taken together, the Ford situation leads me back to my earlier post about UAL, the preponderance of mediocre employees in many, if not most, large US companies, and long-term performance. How is it that so many firms lose competitive advantage, become complacent, and slip into mediocrity? Or worse, recent inferiority, as is the case with Ford.

It seems to me that a firm with the same name as the CEO's would be the least likely to suffer from a simple case of caretaker-CEO neglect. Ford has had a succession (although not unbroken) of family members running the company since its founding. If these guys are not motivated stay on top, and preserve their pride and fortune, who is?

I think the Ford performance picture shows us what is probably "natural" for an attentively-led firm. Even when the founding family is involved, a firm's fortunes wax and wane over time. Ford has had its periods of triumphs, such as the massive overhaul in the early 1980s. But even they became complacent, and by the early 1990s, had slipped in terms of total return performance.

By comparison, GM, for the same period, did much worse. On a percentage basis since roughly 1978, the S&P rose 1000%, Ford to near 250%, while GM slipped to a loss. Both companies reached a nadir of performance in the early 1980s, but whereas Ford took off to run with the index for most of 15-16 years, GM remained stuck with a nearly 0% total return for the entire period. Could this be the cost of disinterested, nameless CEOs paid handsomely, without risk, to run a large firm full of mediocre, dispassionate employees?

My hypothesis is precisely this. Left with a procession of bean-counters becoming well-paid CEOs, regardless of their successes or failures, GM has seen no performance cycles for over 20 years. Ford has.

Next, I'll offer some insights on why businesses seem to have to go through the same lessons and crises repeatedly, as we've seen in the cases of Ford and UAL.

No comments: