NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Last week, I received the following message from a Vice President at a major corporation:
I refuse to go on the record, but let's just say your work this past week has confirmed that one of my decisions last year was the right one.
Even though I can still see the turnip truck's brake lights, I can read between the lines quite well. This person interviewed for a job at Sears Holdings (SHLD) and turned it down. Clearly, this person made the right choice.
This person is smart enough to not join a sinking ship. And this person is, undoubtedly, smarter than the top executives at Sears.
I'm smarter than the decision-making executives at Sears. TheStreet's Brian Sozzi is smarter than these executives at Sears. TheStreet's Robert Weinstein is smarter than them as well.
And you -- each and every one of you -- are smarter than the people who have decimated what was once a national treasure. Even if you're one of the people who reacted emotionally to what happened at TheStreet and on Twitter (TWTR) over the first weekend of the month and throughout the subsequent week.
That storm of fire aside, the real outrage here isn't the broad and misguided response from Sears management; it's really about two specific facets of their ineptitude.
On the following pages, I lay it out like it is. Cutting through the noise and clutter in what amounts to part one of a Sears three-parter to be continued Monday morning at TheStreet.
One: The Notion That the Media Puts Jobs At Risk At Sears and/or Hurts Employee Morale
I feel the need to lead off by saying Sears VP of Corporate Communications, Chris Brathwaite, is taking too much flak. It's not that I don't think he's as misguided as the rest of Sears' management; it's just that it's his job to be misguided.
Brathwaite, who has been getting trashed for how he responded, on Twitter, to what went down last weekend doesn't, as far as I know, make the strategic decisions at Sears. He hasn't put into motion a plan that can't possibly work. He doesn't walk into stores and trash the shelves. He doesn't create the toxic business and on-the-ground conditions that exist at Sears.
But, for better or worse, it's his job to spearhead and facilitate Sears' public response day-to-day and, in specific instances, such as last weekend or in the aftermath of Sears' horrible guidance.
I'm not saying the guy handles every situation perfectly. He doesn't. And has admitted as much. But you must understand he's working with what the people above him provide. And that's not much. I despise this phrase, but, if there was ever a situation where it's apropos, it's this one: If you're in corporate communications at Sears, your job is to apply lipstick to a pig.
Granted, if Brathwaite doesn't buy into what he's commissioned to do (and I really have no way of knowing whether or not he believes in Sears' prospects), he can find another job. More on the notion of buying into a Sears turnaround (or not) under the next subheading, but this conversation applies here because, in my phone conversations with Brathwaite (there have been two over the last week), he seems like a well-intentioned and bright guy.
That said, if he's not looking for a gig, he needs to start ... now. Every day he -- and anybody else for that matter -- spends at Sears degrades the value of having good intentions and being bright. It's one thing to hide your light under a bushel; it's entirely another to expose yourself as inept when, in all reality, it's the hacks above you who deserve 99.9% of the blame.
Brathwaite and others did screw up, however, when they infer, to any extent, that the media or an analyst deserves even a shred of responsibility for people losing their jobs or low employee morale at Sears.
Brathwaite did this back in July:
@BrianSozzi do you ever think about the 250,000 employees of SHC when you put baseless things like this out there?Chris Brathwaite (@ChrisBrathw8) July 26, 2013
And he did it again last weekend:
@Nancybratt thanks Nancy. For someone who claims to be "protecting people" he doesn't seem to care about the employees of these storesChris Brathwaite (@ChrisBrathw8) January 5, 2014
He's not alone in thinking that the media has blood on its hands for job loss or weak morale at Sears. I have received quite a few Tweets and emails from people associated with Sears (and some not) who share one or both of those sentiments.
For the record, Brathwaite made it clear to me he doesn't blame the media for Sears' struggles, but does take exception to what he considers unbalanced reporting that employees see and are emotionally impacted by.
Fair enough. But I still call complete and total 100% bull.
The second the media thinks it needs to spare the feelings of retail workers at horribly-managed businesses is the second these very same retail workers should organize mutinies against the executive suite. Because Sears deserves every single bit of criticism it receives. If we didn't hammer Sears, we would, in fact, be doing a disservice to hard-working employees who do not make executive-level salaries and enjoy the attendant perks.
In other words, when the media gets out of the business of exposing abject failure like we have seen at Sears, the media ceases to exist in any meaningful capacity.
Sears' management -- the guys who provide Chris Brathwaite with the complete crap he has to try to turn into respectable public communications -- has lacked vision, foresight and the will to act to such an extent it borders on the figuratively criminal. These guys have taken a national institution and run it into the ground. They have put the livelihoods, jobs and reputations of thousands of Sears' employees on the line; not the media that rightfully highlights their transgressions.
If you work for these people, I'm not sure how you can wake up in the morning and be happy about going to work. You have to do everything in your power to extract yourself from the situation. Because it's not going to end well.
Some Sears' employees -- most likely the ones not working on the ground in the stores -- can afford to hang around, manage the implosion, take a few months off when the death spiral completes and find other work.
That's not the case for many blue collar workers, who depend on their employers to provide sustainable employment. It's not as easy to hop around. You have less leverage. You have less opportunity. So if you're at Sears -- and you work in one of their stores -- don't hang your hat on hope of a transformation.
There's no reason for loyalty. Sears will dump you when it closes a store, even though you are not to blame for the downsizing.
Do whatever it is you need to do, personally, to position yourself to get the hell out. Once you properly protect and situate yourself and your family, run as fast as you possibly can and don't look back because, make no mistake, this ship is sinking and you probably don't deserve to go down with it.
Two: The Fanciful Notion That Sears Has Actually Embarked On A Meaningful 'Transformation' (It Hasn't Even If It Thinks It Has)
What Sears calls a transformation or a turnaround isn't a transformation or a turnaround at all. And it's just pure comedy to call what Sears is going through a "radical transformation," as SVP Leena Munjal recently riffed on the company's corporate blog.
The Shop Your Way program, which is a cross between an Amazon.com (AMZN) Prime knockoff and a grocery store rewards program, does not indicate "radical transformation." Neither does the delusion the CEO Lampert spewed on his section of the blog:
We are transitioning from a business that has historically focused on running a store network into a business that provides and delivers value by serving its members in the manner most convenient for them: whether in store, at home or through digital devices.
Granted, I have the luxury of being able to step away from the situation and do a more conceptual, higher-level thought-based analysis.
But, that aside, most of the executives in place at Sears and other struggling physical retailers simply cannot wrap their heads around the enormity of what needs to be done. When I talk to these guys about the need for a truly radical transformation, from a theoretical standpoint, I feel like I'm trying to teach advanced calculus to a third grader. The scope of what needs to happen sits far outside their intellectual wheelhouses. And, even if they understood, conceptually, what needs to be done, they don't have the will or, shockingly, the urgency to do it.
These retail lifers still believe something that looks pretty much like what they're used to will be enough to salvage the mess they created for themselves and their soon-to-be laid off and potentially unemployed frontline workers.
It doesn't dawn on them that doing what the rest of the world is doing now isn't the answer. Sears' "radical transformation" consists of getting with the times. Getting with the times is fine and good, but it doesn't prepare the company -- and, more importantly, the broad brick and mortar space - for what's next.
So, what we'll end up seeing is what we watched develop a decade ago.
Amazon.com -- or another company loaded with visionaries and actual difference makers -- will create a new future for commerce. As the new reality emerges, Sears and its equally-as-dead counterparts will finally be doing what Amazon set in motion in 1999. But that approach will then be dated.
Simply put, Sears' "radical transformation" amounts to little more than chasing the hot trend, but several years too late.
What Sears -- or somebody in the space -- should be doing is hunkering down not to get in step with the times, but to vision and create the future. To take charge of their destiny, not allow somebody else (probably Amazon again) to control it. Companies like Sears, unless they embrace the notion of truly radical transformation, will always be chasing trends conceived and perfected by others.
Companies such as Sears would rather burn cash and lose hundreds of millions of dollars a quarter while executing a plan that doesn't look all that different from what has failed them the last 10 years.
If your life's at stake, give it a real go. Not some half-rear end, lame attempt.
That would consist of the Sears' Board of Directors immediately firing every member of management who has anything do with the company's toxic past and replacing them with young visionaries from the broad technology space.
Go to venture capitalists. Tap into startup culture. Find out who the hot young minds are and hire them. But make sure they have zero traditional retail experience. Form a management team and a thought team of consultants and task them with inciting gutsy and bold change. Give them complete control to do whatever they see fit. Encourage them to come back with ideas that will shock the world and redefine commerce the way Amazon.com has.
Most Sears stores need to go dark for several months while the visionaries get to work disrupting and reinventing physical retail (the way Pandora (P) redefined radio). This will hurt, no doubt. But it needs to be done. And it won't hurt any more than what Sears is bracing for in the coming months.
If you're going to lose more than $250 million in the quarter anyhow and you're supposedly taking the emphasis off of being a physical retailer, why not drag the puck with online sales only and a handful of your best performing brick and mortar locations while the visionaries do their thing?
I'm not sure why this concept is so difficult to understand. Moreover, I will never be able to comprehend why folks born and bred in traditional retail culture want to preserve it. The tricks in this tool kit have failed these guys miserably; you'd think they would be longing for something new, something exciting, something that's going to get people talking and wondering what these rejuvenated potential game changers have up their sleeves.
Sleeves that aren't button up to wrist, but new, exciting rolled-up sleeves with a pack of cigarettes stacked above the bulging bicep.
On Monday morning at TheStreet, be on the lookout for two more important Sears articles from me -- one that details, more specifically, what Sears needs to do to survive and another that explains why Sears stock gets shorted and the media, admittedly, treats Sears, to some extent, unfairly.
--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.