Wall Street loves a comeback story. It also loves a scapegoat.
recent struggles under CEO Kevin Rollins, the notion of a founding savior is gaining currency.
Sell-side analyst notes with wistful titles like "Where Have You Gone, Michael Dell?" are adding to the speculation that the company's charismatic founder may jump back in the saddle and bring back the glory days. After all, Dell's rain of troubles and falling profit followed shortly after Michael Dell transferred the CEO title to Rollins in 2004.
But the calls for Rollins's head ignore some inconvenient facts that, while not necessarily absolving him from the company's problems, suggest that righting the ship won't be as simple as throwing him overboard.
"When earnings didn't meet expectations,
analysts began to say 'We want blood.' But it's not a particularly rational call," says Roger Kay, president of market research firm Endpoint Technologies.
There's a tendency to think of Michael Dell as magical, "the boy in the dorm room who somehow built this multimillion dollar company," Kay says.
In fact, official titles notwithstanding, Dell and Rollins have long led the company as co-CEOs and together built the firm into the world's largest PC maker.
While Dell revolutionized the PC business with his direct-sales model, he recognized early on that his forte was not running a giant corporation, and he brought in seasoned, outside managers. Throughout most of the 1990s, Dell was managed through an unusual "Office of the CEO" structure, comprising Michael Dell and either one or two so-called vice chairmen. Rollins joined the Office of the CEO as vice chairman in 1997 and has been at the helm ever since.
"We don't really have hard lines," Dell told the
Wall Street Journal
in 2001 concerning the then three-headed team. "We bounce ideas off each other, and at the end of the day if we say who did this, the only right answer is we all did. Three heads are better than one."
Rollins, who made his entrée into the company as a consultant with
Bain & Co
, is credited with successfully moving Dell's direct-business model to a global scale and pulling the company through the dot-com downturn. His responsibilities have generally focused on the PC maker's operations and business plans, whereas Michael Dell concentrates on technology-related trends and strategy, according to industry observers.
When Rollins was named CEO in 2004, it was in many ways more of a codification of the role he'd been playing all along, rather than a big step up in responsibility. Likewise, Michael Dell's transition to chairman doesn't appear to have lessened his involvement, as the recent acquisition of high-end gaming PC firm
Rahul Sood, the president of another gaming-PC vendor, wrote on his blog that Michael Dell personally called and met with him in the months leading up to the Alienware deal, "on a fishing expedition, trying to understand the gaming market, the size and the importance to the industry."
A Dell spokesperson said he could not confirm Sood's story, but said Michael Dell talks to a lot of people in the industry and is interested in the gaming segment, given its increasing importance in the PC industry.
There's no question that the company has fallen on hard times since Rollins has been CEO.
Its financial performance has fallen short of expectations in three of the last four quarters. The company's revenue growth, which regularly exceeded 15% a year ago, was an anemic 5% in the most recently ended quarter, while profit in the second quarter was almost half of what it was a year ago.
The company's stock hasn't fared any better, with shares down 25% since the start of the year. Since Michael Dell gave up the CEO spot, the stock has tumbled 37%.
It wouldn't be the first time that a company has seen its fortunes dip as the ties with its founder stretch out or get ruptured entirely. Just look at
When founder Steve Jobs returned in 1997, he brought back the secret ingredient that Apple struggled to produce during his 12-year exile: an innovative spirit and marketing savvy.
There is some evidence that Dell's secret sauce -- the logistics and manufacturing discipline that for years allowed it to bury the competition -- is not what it used to be. In August, the company acknowledged that it had
misgauged the extent to which component prices would come down during the second quarter, dinging the PC maker's profit margins. And in November, the company took a
$300 million charge because of faulty components on the motherboard of certain desktops.
But it would be puzzling if this weakness were attributable to Michael Dell handing the reins to Rollins, given that Rollins largely oversaw that aspect of the business prior to becoming CEO.
Nor can it be said that CEO Rollins has steered the company down a wrong path. The company's recent struggles suggest it's not a radical strategic about-face that's to blame, but rather the lack of any fresh strategic thinking.
Dell insists its direct-sales model is sacrosanct, even in the face of mounting evidence that U.S. laptop buyers are partial to the hands-on retail experience and that shoppers in developing nations are more comfortable buying the old-fashioned way.
The company also continues to wield price cuts as its primary differentiator,
to less and less effect.
The only major strategic change involves Dell's recent move to begin using
Advanced Micro Devices
microprocessors in its computers, ending a longstanding practice of using exclusively
chips. But that decision came only after months of pressure from investors and analysts and is still viewed by many as too little, too late.
In effect, the company has clung to the philosophical business principles honed by Dell and Rollins, while the world outside has changed. Putting Michael Dell back in the chief executive slot seems unlikely to change the dogma.
According to the PC maker, of course, there's not much chance of that happening. Dell spokesperson Jess Blackburn says chatter of an executive change is "wild speculation."
He points out that Rollins won 98% of the shareholder vote in July. (That vote, however, was for Rollins' seat on the board of directors, not for his role of CEO.)
As the stock continues to languish, investor frustration may yet force some sort of executive shuffle, but the resulting direction may be more sideways than a complete reversal.