C. HUYGENS - Monday, May 05, 2014
Reputation risk is when stakeholders expect behaviors from a company that it can't deliver. It is an enterprise-level event. Target, one of the largest American retailing companies, founded in 1902 and headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, encourages its customers to "expect more." Around twenty weeks ago, Target failed to meet expectations twice: through a breach in IT security and then through poor follow up management of the consequences.
When a company such as Target has a superior reputation and then fails to meet expectations, stakeholders may give the company the benefit of the doubt. However, failing twice without an adverse reaction is asking much from stakeholders today. The board of directors at Target, as we learned today, was not about to take chances. Adverse reactions include what the Financial Times
defined some time ago as "the pile on of litigators, regulators and mommy bloggers." The Germans call it a "shitstorm." And unless immunized prior to the crisis, the primary beneficiaries of the opprobrium from the masses are the company's directors and officers.
Neither the Directors nor Officers of at Target was immunized. This morning, Target announced that Chairman, President and CEO Gregg Steinhafel is out. Steinhafel, a 35-year veteran of the company and CEO since 2008, agreed to step down, effective immediately. He also resigned from the board of directors.
The modern day Jonah was thrown into the sea by his directors to appease the mobs evidencing a reputation crisis. Or perhaps the board over-reacted.
Calling for the heads of directors and officers is not new. D&O liability insurance was introduced years ago in recognition of the fact that a disenchanted stakeholder group needed to vent, and it was unreasonable to ask directors and officers to bear the personal costs. Alas, absent immunization, they are bearing the personal costs to their reputation. "They" include the risk committee board members of JPMorgan Chase, the four senior-most directors at Duke Energy,
and now the Chairman and CEO of Target.
Favoring the argument that the board overreacted, shares in Target fell nearly two percent in pre-market trading Monday. Ninety minutes into the trading day, shares were down nearly 3% while the S&P500 was flat. Equity investors, it seems were disappointed with the removal of Steinhafel who has reinforced Target's reputation for stellar customer-oriented service. Of course, there is the alternative explanation that investors are both delighted Steinhafel is gone and are expecting more bad news which is not yet public but, which known to the board, Other sources of intelligence, specifically, the Steel City Re
reputation metrics, favor the first explanation - the Board of Directors unnecessarily tossed Steinhafel overboard to appease the crisis management gods.
Twenty weeks out from the breach, Target's reputational value is staging a comeback from the initial depression. The substantial drop in the company's Reputation Premium
from the high 80's to below the 50th percentile is stabilizing around the 64th percentile relative to the 15 companies in the Discount Stores peer group. In fact, last May around this time, Target's Reputation Premium was lower. Further, looking at the measures of reputational volatility, the Consensus Trend
, there was never a major shock among key stakeholder groups. Overall, Reputational Health is good.
How good is a good reputational health? In the case of Target, its reputational value peaked near June 2013 as shown in the 3-year chart below. The decline in reputational value since then is nearly linear, with the immediate effects of the data breach being nothing more than a short-term shift in the overall trend. In other words, the data breach was not the long-term cause of Target's loss of Reputation Premium nor the long-term cause of Target's loss in Reputational Value. Rather, the entire industry - discount retailing -- is losing its value proposition. The data breach at Target helped temporarily mask the real cause of decline: the business strategy is failing.
It can be argued that a CEO is obliged to fall on his sword for advocating and implementing a failing strategy. And with this in mind, it might be argued that the equity price fall Monday morning represented equity investor recognition of the real reason for termination. But frankly, absent quantitative metrics to inform the board, management, and the communications arms of Target, it is hard to know what they know or why they think they acted the way they did. Worst, if Steinhafel was aware of the overall industry decline and was working on a plan to save Target, then it is a particularly bad time to be making changes at the top. Remember how well that worked out for JCPenny
Managing an operational failure with one eye towards the media is prudent, but the tail should not wag the dog. If the real problem is a sector decline, it would be best to focus attention on that problem and not the irrelevant noise generated by those who make a living generating noise. Sir John Rose, former CEO of Rolls-Royce (LON:RR), set the standard to putting mind to what mattered when he ignored the media for weeks after a Rolls-Royce engine exploded on a Quantas super jumbo in November 2010. Instead, he identified the source of the problem and fixed it to the satisfaction of regulators, and more importantly, a key customer. Less than 10 weeks after what was viewed as a reputational crisis, British Airways announced
that it was equipping its latest super jumbo acquisitions with...the same Rolls-Royce engine. And as Rolls-Royce spent ample cash indemnifying customers for downtime, and as the sales book was booming and stock price rocketing
, less than 20 weeks after the affair, Sir John stepped down, sat on his motorcycle, and rode into the sunset.
Twenty weeks from the breach and the Chairman/CEO has been sacrificed. Quantitative reputation metrics, including the Loss Gates charts for Target's objectively measured
crisis trigger points, do not show a crisis. It is one more example of a needless loss of executive life.
Management and boards require metrics to do their work properly, and Directors and Officers deserve protections for their personal reputations in shitstorms. Absent measures of reputational value, rash decision informed only by PR and media activity may be made with awful consequences. Absent protections for corporate leadership, good people may be thrown overboard to no avail. There are many lessons to be learned here.