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If you ever read a profile of The Business Press Maven that portrays me as committing an act of kindness for a little person, a member of the great unwashed, don't rush out to buy stock in me just yet. Be mindful that a reporter was tagging along with me when I did the good deed for the little miscreant, and I knew it would make a good anecdote, even a lead. Maybe the reporter wasn't even around. I could have extended the kindness in full public view, knowing that a reporter would use the second- or third-hand tale as an anecdote, even a lead.
puff-file of Frank Blake, the new chief executive of the embattled
. And let The Business Press Maven say, Blake might be a good, modest man. He might even, like Mother Teresa, one day be put on the fast track to canonization.
But all that matters to investors is, in very specific terms, what he plans to do to turn Home Depot around -- and in a troubled housing market, no less. That's why a storyline built around a worshipful single anecdotal lead about how a current leader is a good guy -- and so unlike the last guy -- can mislead investors like little else.
He's No Nardelli
Chief executives often define themselves by who they are not: the people before them, those bums who not too long ago were the subject of their own puff-files but were eventually thrown out by the seat of their pants. Here, Blake has been working overtime -- and the business media have fallen into the familiar role of stenographer -- to tell us that he is good people, unlike the discredited former CEO Robert Nardelli, infamous for being imperial.
Cue the lead anecdote, soon to be followed by more gushing and hardly anything on which investors can safely hang their portfolios:
Frank Blake, the brand-new chief executive of Home Depot Inc., recently approached a nearly full table in the company's cafeteria with his lunch tray in hand and asked if he could join. Sorry, he was told, the one open seat was being saved for someone. For many high-powered bosses, that could have been an outrageous slight. But it rolled right off Blake. In his case, friends say, it's a revealing story of a new type of Home Depot chief who won't take himself too seriously as the nation's second-largest retail chain ends an era of arrogance in the CEO office.
The truths of the middle-school lunch table live on, at least according to
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad Nardelli is gone, too. But just because we travel from the lunchroom table to hear a few lines from Blake's "old pal" about how he is a stand-up guy and are then told how, at his first Wall Street analyst meeting, he "eschewed" a business suit for a pair of khakis doesn't mean we have any better sense of where Home Depot, the troubled retailer, is headed.
Can you even "eschew" a pair of pants? For some reason, it sounds obscene.
But unsuspecting investors tend, in these situations, to be lulled into a false sense of security by these sorts of articles. Well, he provided the reporter with a name and number of an old law school chum who didn't rip him. And he dresses just like me! Best of all, he has lunch-table etiquette.
The media have become more lifestyle-oriented, and the business media have followed suit. Or khaki. This makes it much easier for people to shape coverage of themselves. An emphasis on stylistic flourishes easily distracts the media busily working to save their own jobs through publishing more-easily digestible fluff.
Just like President Bush's attempts to portray himself as the anti-Clinton at the beginning of his term didn't leave American citizens with any sense of where the country was headed, investors are left adrift with this sort of article in business, despite, in this case, its considerable length. This weekend, the Business Press Maven climbed Mount Marcy, New York State's highest peak, in what seemed like less time than it took to read this opus.
And in all that space, in terms of proactive measures, we are actually told that, with a "political operator's stroke," Blake called Home Depot's founders on his first day as CEO. Now, if he started letting Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus run the show again instead of building aquariums, I'd be all ears. But we are soon told about how he is merely dog-earing their folksy book.
So what is there in terms of substantive measures, the only sort that matter to investors? There is one two-sentence paragraph that brings up the fate of the flooring and wholesale supply business. It is wedged between two larger sections on how Blake wore the company's orange apron in his first videotaped address to the company masses and how he put up photos of regular old workers in the company headquarters.
At least symbolically, it is clear that he isn't the failed and off-putting King Robby. But, investors, don't ever think articles like this mean the company will necessarily be any better off. And a word to the wise: If the CEO ever comes to your lunch table, even if the guy is wearing khakis and an orange apron, make room.
Fed Composition 101
Speaking of CEOs of troubled companies, let's talk Michael Dell. Specifically, let's talk
last Thursday's press release from the company about continuing accounting troubles. Or, uh, its accounting troubles that are winding down.
Anyhow, does anyone else think that
is taking writing lessons from the
? The company drops hints that the investigation is ending, but it seems to have no idea about charges. There is a chance of rain, and it might be sunny.
Wall Street seems pretty split on the meaning -- or lack thereof -- of Dell's comments. But I want to throw this one open to readers. Give me your best interpretation of Dell's Fed imitation. I might give out an award to the best, especially if you can mix insight with humor. You won't win any money, but I promise to grace you with my presence at the lunch table. Most important, a wish for health and happiness to those of you sitting down tonight at a Passover table.
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;
to send him an email.