Every year this time I take nominations for the year's worst corporate CEO. I like to seek names from readers because, quite frankly, it helps spot names a screening process might miss. Not to mention that readers usually remember more than I do!
Usually, there is no lack of choices and my email and social media feeds light up with names.
But this year -- the various calls have been met mostly with, well, little in the way of new names.
Is that because there are fewer bad CEOs? Nah. It's simpler than that: We're in a momentum-driven bull market, silly, and rising stock prices hide all sins.
On one hand that makes it easier to spot the real losers, where even in a market like this investors are unforgiving. One of the most obvious, along those lines, appears to be longtime CEO Michael Jeffries at Abercrombie & Fitch, whose employment contract (albeit with tougher benchmarks) has been extended for another year. (Has he really become that bad, or is he just a victim of what happens to all fashion retailers at one point or another?)
What about McDonald's (MCD) CEO Donald Thompson? (Did he just land the job at a classic juncture of McDonald's maturity? Could anybody else have done better?)
On the other hand, the bull-market sentiment hides those more or equally deserving, whose missteps are being temporarily papered over by higher stock prices.
But that gets into something trickier. Consider this: If Amazon (AMZN - Get Report) were being judged exclusively by its financial performance, not stock price, Jeff Bezos might get more than a few nominations.
Yet would he really deserve to be on a worst CEO list? Not only did he make the difficult transition from entrepreneur to chief of a multi-billion dollar enterprise, but along the way he executed nearly flawlessly in creating something that has not just survived but thrived -- and much of that is because he reinvests in the business at the expense of profits.
I like to think of Amazon this way: If it were a private company we would merely marvel, as customers, at how well it operates and how miraculously Bezos has executed.
You could say the same thing about Reed Hastings of Netflix (NFLX - Get Report), yet he made my list a few years ago. Never mind the off-balance sheet content costs that help make its financials look better than they really are. Given what he built, it was painful to put Hastings on the list.
Yet he was a shoo-in as a nominee (not winner!) after Netflix's stock-rattling Qwiskster calamity. He had betrayed his customers -- and he knew it, conceding that he fell into the trap of a certain kind of arrogance that can accompany success.
Hastings went on to steer Netflix out of the muck, making him a candidate for best CEO lists, which is a long-winded way of getting to the point I'm trying to make: Even really good CEOs can be among any year's worst.
The worst CEO list is like a balance sheet -- it's based on a point in time. Many who've made the list, including Andrew Mason of Groupon (GRPN), Steve Ballmer of Microsoft (MSFT) and Jim Balsillie and Michael Lazaridis of Blackberry (BBRY), were gone within a year.
Others, like Hastings, not only survived but thrived.
In the end it's a subjective list, based on a combo of stock and financial performance. (I like to look at quarterly on a last-12-month basis. It tends to give a slightly more realistic picture.) I tend to avoid micro and small cap companies. But there are exceptions, and the only rule is that the CEO is currently on the job.
Nominees? Email me at email@example.com.
-- Written by Herb Greenberg
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