Zander's Fans Turn With the Wind

Two years ago, the Motorola CEO could do no wrong, and now the press says he was wrong all along.
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Barron's wrote this weekend that, after considering how poorly Motorola (MOT) has been doing, and how inept its leadership has proved to be in following up the one-hit wonder that was the Razr, its CEO's announcement of abdication was a matter of when, not if.

The response to this, in all that we read, watched and heard: agreement.

Ed Zander? He was a bum. Zander's leaving? Well, it's about time. Who wouldn't have forced him to step down? Don't let the corner office door hit you on the way out...

I agree. The Business Press Maven would have thrown Zander out by the scruff of the neck and seat of the pants. Like Carl Icahn, who is a major stockholder, I was no fan. But there is an important fact the savvy investor must realize.

Those doing the dog pile on Zander the past few days? A lot of them loved the guy two years ago, when they were writing about his motor, mojo and moxie. Those are real words they used. This provides as good a case as any of how the business media are sycophantic in what they say about CEOs, and they are most susceptible when the CEO is the proud beneficiary of a lucky hot product.

Got that? You don't need long-term strategic brilliance or even two lucky products. Just one, and you'll be named CEO of the Year. If you want to save yourself a lot of grief, be on the constant lookout for this.

Before we wind our way back to

Barron's

, let's review some headlines from only two years ago that painted the future bum as an instant paper hero:

"Putting the 'motor' in Motorola," a

CNETnews.com

headline genuflected, topping a highly favorable Q&A with a first question that asked him to give the highlights of his two-and-a-half-year tenure and talk about all that's left to accomplish. Oh, and he was asked to say what he thought the Razr has meant for Motorola. Do tell, do tell.

MarketWatch

from Dow(n) Jones went an even more worshipful route with this headline: "Zander puts mojo back in Motorola: Razr-sharp CEO turning technology giant around." Incredibly, the article even went further than the headline's mojo ... all the way to moxie. Get a load of this: "For putting the moxie back into Motorola,

MarketWatch

has named Ed Zander its CEO of the Year."

That's right. In the sepia-tinged days of May 2006, the prevailing sentiment was "All hail, Ed!"

Why, only two years ago this past July,

Barron's

ran a cover story, no less, on King Eddie. The title? "Razor's Edge Motorola's Bold New Course"

And who was setting this "bold new course" and was, with the Razr, only just beginning? You might have already guessed, but here it is:

On the heels of its ultra-thin, hugely successful RAZR cellphone, Motorola may soon unveil a phone that's thinner by half, along with some other promising gadgets. At the same time, Zander is steadily boosting profit margins, laying the groundwork for earnings growth that could exceed even the expectations of many bulls. QUARTER BY QUARTER, Zander is winning over skeptics...

"We've been pretty consistent," Zander told

Barron's

in an interview. "We just have to show predictability. There's no magic to this."

Of course, within a few quarters, Zander, pictured smiling gleefully in the article, was probably praying for some magic pixie dust. But shhh ... let's not stand in the way of the business media's creation of a paper hero:

Zander, formerly the No. 2 executive at Sun Microsystems, does have a clear game plan: Increase revenues aggressively by offering enticing products and boost companywide operating margins to the range of 13%-15%, from about 10% last year, through more efficient management of production operations and the supply chain.

And in the final estimation? What did

Barron's

, which said matter-of-factly this weekend that Zander's departure was a matter of when more than if, say about his future back in the day? The day, of course, being less than 10 quarters ago?

"Zander has accomplished quite a bit during his first 18 months, but the CEO says he has only just begun."

Of course, one paper's "only just beginning" is, uh -- that same paper's obvious ending: when more than if.

That Tiffany Spin

The Business Press Maven was interested to see a prominent luxury institution like

Tiffany

(TIF) - Get Report

report such good earnings in challenging times, but my knees buckled when I read the trade magazine coverage.

Women's Wear Daily

, for example, neglected to factor in an essential 4-cent charge.

And you think that was a bad day in trade journal land?

National Jeweler Network

only mentioned Tiffany's top line in its headline, something the Business Press Maven never likes, because sales and a quarter won't get you on the crosstown bus. Look:

Tiffany's 3Q sales climb almost 20 percent "

But what's worse here?

Well, you can dust the article for the fingerprints of anything other than a top-line mention, but guess what? You won't find it. And trust The Business Press Maven on this. A mention of the bottom line should be much more of a when than if.

At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;

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