The Maven: Cut and Run

Wal-Mart's experience in South Korea shows why business journalists are wrong in assuming the best.
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When a condom company wanted to expand into sex toys, The Business Press Maven does not remember reading much about what would happen if the expansion strategy failed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, diversifying into sex toys worked -- as I found out with a giggle when reading The Daily Telegraph by the light of my fireplace this week. U.K.-based SSL International, the manufacturer of Durex condoms, credits its revival to a new line of dirty toys.

But if the move into dirty toys wasn't working, The Business Press Maven remembers wanting to know, what were the plans?

After a century of covering the lead-up to countless wars, the media have the whole battle plan/exit strategy thing down. You go into action with either a good and defined exit strategy or a lame one. A decent portion of the reporting weighs the legitimacy of the exit strategy.

But when it comes to the business press, we mostly hear about what will happen if everything goes

right

. Business scribes, to their everlasting discredit, tend to focus on a new initiative's potential upside. Revenue will rise to such and such a level. Store count is expected to grow by this many a year. They are going to greet us with flowers and chocolate.

But good plans from good companies also go bad. And the key to running a profitable long-term business is to deal with mistakes quickly. Just look at the news this week, which told the tale of

Wal-Mart's

(WMT) - Get Report

retreat from South Korea.

Asking their feet to carry them as fast as they could, Wal-Mart sold all 16 of its South Korean stores, seeing no future where they once saw a big one. They sold the stores for nearly $1 billion but, more importantly, saved themselves future headaches and losses. And while the media are so concerned with many different Wal-Mart business practices, they miss one of the most important -- if it's broke, Wal-Mart fixes it by a surrender so speedy, it would make a certain Gallic country proud.

Look at how they waved the white flag in Indonesia, which Wal-Mart tried to conquer a decade ago. In South Korea, the product mix apparently needed to be more skewed toward food and drink than Wal-Mart expected or was comfortable with; in Indonesia, local custom is to haggle, and without haggling, Wal-Mart appeared a ripoff to locals.

So Wal-Mart took the loss, gladly.

But even with a history of retreat in Indonesia, little written about Wal-Mart's subsequent move to South Korea mentioned the possible parameters of a cut-and-run there.

So listen up, Business Press Maven reader.

If you take one thing The Business Press Maven says this week as gospel, let it be this: Not every business expansion is as seamless as condoms to sex toys; as a result, if your friendly neighborhood ink-stained wretch doesn't make you aware of a business' exit strategy from a new endeavor, you have to find out on your lonesome.

A business that stays profitable in a competitive environment is one that doesn't get bogged down in a foreign land.

Speaking of being bogged down,

Fed

Chairman Ben Bernanke was flogged by the Senate this week. His offense was his informal, though quite forthright, comments to Maria Bartiromo at the White House Correspondents Dinner recently. As The Business Press Maven noted because it validated everything he has been saying, Bernanke told Bartiromo that the media have been misreading the post-Greenspan Fed, in that there was a lot more room for raising rates than had been assumed. Future numbers would be the guide. I could have said that myself. Of course,

I did.

While Ben was being told he had been bad,

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

was trying its best to be good. The Business Press Maven read on Yahoo! news that Google, a notoriously tight-lipped company, would hold an impromptu question-and-answer session next week. Imagine that: questions and answers from a publicly traded company. Next thing you know, publicly elected officials like President Bush and Senator Clinton will be holding occasional press conferences, too.

In fact, if you can forgive The Business Press Maven for closing on a bit of whimsy: I believe Bernanke's informal comments and Google's impromptu Q&A set a good precedent.

You want honest self-assessment from powerful figures? The Business Press Maven makes a motion for a legally mandated shake-awake interview. The press and investors should have the periodic right to shake awake the head hack of any publicly traded company or federal bank. The first thing they say should then be carried on the wires. Silent Google? Bernanke upbraided for inadvertently telling the truth? Shake-awakes will put an end to such nonsense more easily than sex toys saved a condom company.

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 website 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.