Fighting the flab: Corporate headquarters have put on weight, and need to slim down again

Fighting the flab: Corporate headquarters have put on weight, and need to slim down again
Mar 22nd 2014 | From the print edition

“ONE of the most extraordinary corporate centres in America.” This is how Trian Partners, a disgruntled shareholder of PepsiCo, described the headquarters of the snacks-to-soft-drinks company in a recent letter to its board. Set amid lakes and fountains in 100 acres of wealthy Westchester County, New York, PepsiCo’s HQ features seven interconnected three-storey office buildings designed in the 1960s by Edward Durell Stone, a pioneering American modernist architect. Its crown jewel is the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens, named after a former chief executive, which has works by artists such as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin. Mr Kendall reportedly intended the garden to reflect his vision for the company by creating an atmosphere of “stability, creativity and experimentation”.image001-10 Two years ago PepsiCo began a $243m upgrade of the complex to make space for more staff and “create a more collaborative and innovative work environment”. Trian, run by Nelson Peltz, a veteran activist investor, thinks shareholders would be better served by selling it and shedding many of its 1,100 workers, as part of a broader cost-cutting and productivity-boosting strategy that would see PepsiCo split in two.

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The raiders of the 1980s, who made fortunes by seizing and shaping up flabby conglomerates, were supposed to have put an end to corporate extravagance and administrative bloat. But PepsiCo is not alone in now being accused of these. A recent report by Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, reckoned that Coca-Cola, which is spending $100m on upgrading its home in Atlanta, has overheads (general, administrative and sales costs minus advertising spending) that are 30% of sales, almost as high as PepsiCo’s 32%. Activist investors such as Trian, which also has its guns trained on DuPont, a chemicals firm, may find inspiration in other examples highlighted by Bernstein. Procter & Gamble’s overheads ratio is far higher than that of its consumer-goods archrival, Unilever; so is Estée Lauder’s compared with that of L’Oréal, another big cosmetics firm (see chart).
It is hard to think of many big companies that could not benefit from taking a fresh look at their overheads. One, perhaps, is Mars, a family-run confectioner with a tiny, frugal HQ in suburban Virginia. Another is Berkshire Hathaway. In this year’s letter to shareholders, sent last month, the conglomerate’s boss, Warren Buffett, broke a long-standing “no pictures” policy to show off his head-office team, just 24 strong. Mr Buffett’s last big acquisition, of Heinz, was made in partnership with 3G, a Brazilian private-equity firm whose boss, Jorge Paulo Lemann, has a passion for cost-saving. Heinz had already undergone a round of cuts under pressure from Mr Peltz. But 3G found plenty more to trim, as it applied its “zero-based budgeting” approach, in which all spending must be justified from first principles each year. Swathes of managerial jobs were axed, as was the company’s “aviation department”, which ran its corporate planes. Mr Buffett is impressed: hitherto he has mostly bought well-run firms that he could largely leave alone, but now he wants to do more deals like the Heinz one.
Of course there are many reasons, other than differing levels of bloat, why businesses vary greatly in which functions are performed centrally, and in how many people and other resources are needed at head office. But there is evidence that companies have piled on the pounds in recent years. A study by Sven Kunisch, a management professor at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, and others looked at the head offices of 761 big companies in Europe and America between 2007 and 2010. By the end of the period, a quarter of them had more than 600 staff at HQ, whereas another quarter had fewer than 63. Two-thirds of the firms said they had made significant changes during the period, generally strengthening centralised control over their divisions. Some 44% of the firms had increased the headcount at HQ, whereas only 28% trimmed. Of the 21 countries in which the head offices were located, only ones based in Denmark and Greece reduced staff numbers on average. All this at a time, in the wake of the financial crisis, when companies were striving to protect their profit margins by cutting jobs elsewhere in the workforce.
All aboard the mother ship
What might explain the return of head-office bloat? The crusade for leaner, more focused companies, which began in the 1980s, ran out of steam after the turn of the century. And three other issues moved up bosses’ agendas, each seemingly justifying extra staff at HQ: globalisation meant that the mother ship had more far-flung operations to oversee; new digital technology made it easier, in theory, to centralise control and oversight; and, starting with America’s Sarbanes-Oxley act in 2002, deregulation gave way to a growing regulatory burden, bringing with it a bigger head-office compliance operation.
Various events, from the September 11th 2001 terror attacks to the financial crisis, may have made bosses view the world as an increasingly complicated and uncertain place. It would not be surprising if many of them responded in the same way as Jeffrey Immelt, the boss of GE: in his latest annual letter to shareholders, he confessed that “We attempted to manage volatility through layers and reviewers. Like many companies we were guilty of countering complexity with complexity…more inspectors, multiple reviewers.” The result was a “higher cost structure, an artificial sense of risk management, and we were insulating our people from the heat of the market.” Mr Immelt has now decided to reverse course. GE has launched a new simplification strategy, with a goal of cutting overheads to 12% of sales from 16%, including a 45% reduction in the cost of the corporate headquarters, by 2016. Other bosses would be wise to do the same, or expect to have Mr Peltz and his fellow activists on their case.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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