The Maven: Tale of Three CEOs - TheStreet

The Maven: Tale of Three CEOs

And they have three different kinds of genius.
Author:
Publish date:

The past few days have been a tale of three CEOs:

  • The market finally woke up to the fact that Reuben Mark, who has run Colgate-Palmolive (CL) - Get Report masterfully for two decades, has a successor in place and will really be leaving his CEO post.
  • Michael Dell, who conceived a new way to sell a then-hot product, is returning to Dell (DELL) - Get Report, his namesake company, hopefully to manage a turnaround.
  • And Jeff Bezos of Amazon (AMZN) - Get Report once again garnered some nice (though ultimately meaningless) headlines about revenue growth when margins are (what else is new?) still an open sore of a question.

Of these three, one (Mark) is legitimately a managerial genius, one (Dell) legitimately an entrepreneurial genius and one (Bezos) legitimately a fast-talking genius of self-promotion. But in appraising the fates of the CEOs' companies, the business media, which tend to puff CEOs up as geniuses way too frequently to begin with, fail investors further by not specifying what narrow sort of genius each executive possesses -- and how that limited genius will, or won't, alter his company's future.

So The Business Press Maven is going to do something instructive that the business media aren't whimsical enough to do: I'll put each man in charge of a different company to see what happens.

First, an irony: Michael Dell, who has proved more in the business world than Jeff Bezos has claimed -- which is a lot -- endured more unflinchingly apprehensive coverage this week than his counterpart at Amazon, who gives some of the best conference calls in history. This isn't to cite anything wrong with the Dell coverage, which largely noted that Dell would have his hands full in resuscitating his moribund company.

Here is

a lead from

SmartMoney.com

that was representative of the general vibe out there: "Following a nearly three-year hiatus, Michael Dell has reclaimed his throne at Dell. But whether or not his kingdom will thrive again remains in question."

The one misleadingly positive mistake made by much of the business media on Dell's return was, by way of historical context, to segue right into mentions of Steve Jobs' historic return to

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

. From the wire services on, this was done in automatic-pilot mode.

For example,

said the

Associated Press

: "In 1997, co-founder Steve Jobs came back as CEO to the then-struggling maker of Macintosh computers and quickly transformed it into a leading consumer electronics maker with the iMac computers and the iPod music players."

It is not an apt comparison.

Jobs is one of the only chief executives who probably hits the triple crown of genius: entrepreneurial, managerial and self-promotional. He came back and innovated, promoted and (to a lesser extent) managed Apple's way back to prominence. Moreover, he was one of the few entrepreneurial geniuses who proved that genius could strike more than once.

Dell realized that direct sales were the way to go with computers. However, that was really the only evidence of the sort of entrepreneurial genius that his company needs from here. At this point, with computers such a commodity, his great entrepreneurial call from long ago won't be enough to save the day. His managerial brilliance will work to shore up the company's faded service reputation a bit, but it's too little too late.

Dell's managerial capabilities, however, could allow him to be one of the few CEOs to pick up where Mark will leave off. Though Colgate has never been a huge innovator, Mark led the company to incredible profits and shareholder returns for 23 years. This week, Colgate again announced solid profits and forecast a further wave of grooviness for 2007.

Coverage on Colgate veered two ways, one wrong and the other mine. The first camp, which includes

The Motley Fool

, got excited about the numbers and ran with that. But

this article, titled "Colgate's Winning Smile" -- which notes in the lead how the earnings report "was good enough to bring a smile to any investor's face" -- failed to remark at all on Mark's imminent departure.

The Economist

, conversely, ran a

pitch-perfect story titled "Still Fresh?" The question was answered in the subhead: "Colgate's days of rapid growth may now be behind it." The reason was what

Motley Fool

didn't bother to mention: Mark.

To paper over Mark's absence for a few quarters, a good move might be to put Bezos in charge. He would be able to elicit endless headlines about revenue growth or growth in certain sectors, while remaining able to walk a big circle around the fact that margins are trending downward.

Look at the

Financial Times

, which

reports breathlessly on Amazon's questionable quarter with the headline "Groceries, Fashion Rack Up Sales for Amazon."

On the issue of margins, watch how the article lets Bezos wiggle his way out with some obfuscating jargon: "Jeff Bezos, chief executive, said the quarter had seen 'accelerating revenue growth and significant sequential improvement in operating leverage.'"

I'm still trying to figure out what "significant sequential improvement in operating leverage" means. If you figure it out, drop me a note. But it seems like Amazon is backing away from some of the fancy-schmancy digital platforms, designed to ward off competition from the likes of

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

and

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

and attach customers to them so they can be valued like something other than just another struggling ill-focused retailer.

Amazon might benefit if Mark were in charge, because he's more substance than style. But the only thing that can really help it is Jobs, which is a shame -- because, like The Business Press Maven, there is only one of him.

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;

click here

to send him an email.