7 Rules for Keeping Activist Investors Away

7 Rules for Keeping Activist Investors Away

The following 7 rules apply to public companies across a variety of industries – particularly to Enterprise Software, FinTech and Information Services companies.

1.) Make Your Numbers

2.) Regular, Transparent Investor Communication

3.) Drive Expanding Operating/EBITDA Margins

4.) Don’t Stockpile Cash

5.) Control Waste

6.) Use Debt as a Tax Shield

7.) Board Composition – More Insiders

1.) Make Your Numbers: Always. At a minimum, it is imperative to meet the revenue and earnings guidance you have provided Wall Street. It is a bit of a game – we know. Making your numbers for 10-20 consecutive quarters doesn’t qualify you as a “great company”, simply as one that is adept at setting appropriately conservative guidance. However, try missing your numbers for 2-3 consecutive quarters. This is a surefire way to lose your CEO chair and to simultaneously put the company in play. Consider this table stakes.

2.) Regular, Transparent Investor Communication: Provide investors with measurable milestones beyond revenue and EPS targets. For example, if Company ABC has consistently invested 8-10% of revenue in Product Development each year for the past several years, investors would likely expect this to be the case for the foreseeable future. Should an opportunity present itself where the Company believes it to be in its best interest to accelerate Product Development to 12-13% for 4 quarters, the Company ought to frame the incremental investment in this manner for investors: “…12-13% Product Development investment to capitalize on XYZ opportunity which we believe will drive 2-3% incremental revenue growth in year 2 and beyond. This investment will be partially offset by holding G&A expense flat on an absolute dollar basis during the investment period. Net net, we anticipate $X dollars of pre-tax dilution which translates to ($0.01) EPS dilution for the duration of the investment period.”

3.) Drive Expanding Operating/EBITDA Margins: It is difficult to pick a fight with a company that consistently drives year-over-year operating margin expansion. But what to do when you hit the operating margin ceiling? Surely operating margins can’t expand in perpetuity. This is where a well-executed M&A strategy can provide a financial benefit – acquisitions provide companies with the opportunity to reset operating margins. IHS – now IHS Markit ticker “INFO” – was famous for this. For example, let us assume your operating margins are at 35% and you prefer not to take them higher as to do so would be to under-invest in the product portfolio. Perhaps there is a target acquisition that carries 15% operating margins. You believe that with scale and supervision the target company could achieve 30-40% operating margins over the next 3 years. Post acquisition close, depending upon the size of the target company, your corporate operating margins will fall below 35%. As you scale the acquired company and improve its efficiency, you will grow your diluted margin from its low point to something closer to 35% or higher. Thus, you can continue to tell your margin expansion story to investors.

4.) Don’t Stockpile Cash: Investors aren’t paying you to be a bank – particularly cash-rich Enterprise Software companies. How then to invest surplus cash? Hopefully as CEO organic revenue growth and product development excites you. Innovation ought to excite you. Technology companies are supposed to innovate after all. Innovation begets revenue growth which is re-invested in product development and the cycle repeats. Perhaps you have just completed an especially heavy innovation cycle and plan to limit product investment for the next 3-4 quarters. In that case acquisitions, dividends and share buybacks are three options for investing surplus cash. We prefer strategic acquisitions and dividends to share buybacks. Buybacks imply the company in question does not have a better investment alternative. This should rarely if ever be the case for a technology company. Think about it – in buying back stock you are giving shareholders who “want out” an out (I borrowed that comment from George Needham some 10-12 years ago).

SS&C Technologies (SSNC) and CoStar Group (CSGP) come to mind in terms of companies that have effectively used M&A to augment organic revenue growth.

5.) Control Waste: It is natural for the administrative state to want to grow. We see this with governments and with companies – especially at corporate headquarters. Former GE CEO Jeff Immelt used to travel with two corporate airplanes in tow – one for the business trip, one to shuttle him to his destination of choice post-business trip – this qualifies as waste. Current GE CEO John Flannery recently announced the company’s turnaround plan. It shrinks HQ and puts far more autonomy in the hands of the operating units. We are fans of decentralized operations when a company consists of multiple standalone business units. Give the business unit head the authority to run it as he/she sees fit. Let the business unit stand on its own two legs and be accountable. Accountability is a natural waste removal agent.

6.) Use Debt as a Tax Shield: This especially applies to cash-rich software companies. Why not shield a portion of your profits from the taxman? Take on a comfortable level of debt that you could repay if we were to have another 2008-like credit crunch. Interest expense is tax deductible. Plus, the additional cash could grow your M&A war chest.

7.) Board Composition – More Insiders: The trend that’s existed for the past decade or so is for the CEO to be the only Board insider and for the remainder of the Board to consist of outside Board members. As a result, Boards lack what I would consider a requisite level of industry knowledge and operational-understanding. Netflix (NFLX) has attempted to address this issue by having Board members sit in on operating reviews. My preference is to re-stock Boards with insiders. Not exclusively so, but approximately half of the Board ought to consist of insiders. Moral hazard you say? They’ll just fall in-line with the CEO? Well, if the company has compensated these insiders correctly, they’ll have substantial equity at stake. This ought to inspire them to call out the emperor when he/she’s devoid of clothing.

Our recent podcast on the subject:

CEORater Technology Founder CEO Index Remains Undefeated

CEORater Technology Founder CEO Index Remains Undefeated

We created the CEORater Technology Founder CEO Index in 2017 to illustrate our strong belief that founder CEOs are better qualified to lead Technology companies than are “hired” CEOs/ professional managers. The CEORater Index remains undefeated through July 13th 2018.

The CEORater Technology Founder CEO Index returned 24.7% and 22.8% on a Weighted and Unweighted Return basis respectively (click here for detail) during the January 2nd 2018 – July 13th 2018 period.

The S&P 500 Information Technology (TKR: S5INFT) returned 13.7% on a Weighted basis over the same period.

The Powershares S&P 500® Equal Weight Technology ETF (TKR: RYT) returned 14.5% on an Unweighted basis over the same period.

Technology News from the Week: June 25th 2018

Technology News from the Week: June 25th 2018

Technology news items that caught our attention this week:

Waymo to launch robo-taxis in Europe: Link

Phoenix AZ as petri dish for autonomous driving: Link

Kroger is launching a fully driverless delivery service: Link

In the “Service, Maintenance, Repair” category: the US Army is using machine learning to predict when combat vehicles need repair: Link

Amazon to acquire online pharmacy PillPack: Link

Amazon plans start-up delivery service for its own packages: Link

Disney gains DOJ approval to acquire Fox assets: Link

CEORater Podcast: why we believe Disney will defeat Comcast in the quest for Fox: Link

Facebook launches Instagram Lite: Link

States agree not to fine Equifax over cyberbreach: Link

Steve Jobs vs. Tim Cook – Innovator vs. Operator – It’s In Their DNA

Steve Jobs vs. Tim Cook – Innovator vs. Operator – It’s In Their DNA

Personality Analytics Holds the Key as to Why Apple Was More Innovative Under Steve Jobs than Tim Cook

Apple has lost its creative mojo under Tim Cook. Incremental product enhancements have become the norm, replacing a time when revolutionary new products, space age design and landmark advertising was the standard. What changed? Look no further than the CEO chair. Apple founder, CEO and creative genius Steve Jobs prematurely passed away in October 2011. Jobs’ hand-picked successor, Tim Cook, is by experience an operator with a background steeped in supply chain experience. Cook could not be more different from Jobs from a personality standpoint (see our table below).

The importance of assessing a CEO’s personality when conducting a CEO selection process (corporate boards, executive recruiters), or investment due diligence process can not be overstated. This is especially true of industry verticals marked by rapid change where the cost of having an ineffective CEO can be extremely high. It is not so rare to find a situation where a CEO, Board and institutional investor base were slow to realize that a given company’s customers were migrating elsewhere due to product obsolescence or other factors that ought to have been recognized. Few participants want to acknowledge this type of deterioration early or mid-cycle and only do so when it’s too late.

CEOs that create “adaptable” corporate cultures are less likely to lead companies that suffer irreparable declines due to product under-investment or other negligent factors. Adaptable cultures are less likely to be caught off guard and instead lead market change.

Corporate cultures are often an extension of the CEO’s personality. Yes, CEOs influence culture and corporate strategy even in mega-cap companies. Look no further than Microsoft (MSFT) during Steve Ballmer’s tenure as compared to Satya Nadella‘s time as CEO. MSFT’s product & services strategy is dramatically different as is the firm’s approach to competing and partnering with other technology companies.

We highly value the personality trait “openness” in large part because of its relationship to adaptable cultures.  Steve Jobs and Tim Cook score similarly on the openness scale – 92nd percentile and 94th percentile respectively. However, looking at the personality sub-traits under openness, Jobs scores far higher than Cook in the two most creative personality sub-traits: “artistic interests” and “imagination”.

Given that Cook lags in these areas, one would need to get comfortable with the idea that a non-creative personality like his (32nd percentile and 14th percentile as detailed below) is capable of generating massive creative output from Apple’s 120,000-plus employees. This is asking too much of Tim Cook in our view.  What doesn’t come naturally doesn’t come easily and may not come at all.

Our May 2018 CEO personality analytics research piece may be found here: Personality Analytics: Technology CEOs Analyzed

source: CEORater; IBM






Our recent podcast on the subject:

Technology News from the Week: June 18th 2018

Technology News from the Week: June 18th 2018

Technology news items that caught our attention this week:

Google’s AI can now lip read better than humans after watching thousands of hours of TV: Link

Instagram takes a shot at YouTube, further distances itself from other social media platforms by rolling out long-form video: Link

One million people use Bank of America’s AI-powered virtual assistant “Erica”: Link

GM is considering an IPO for autonomous driving unit Cruise Automation: Link

Amazon faces push back related to its facial recognition platform “Rekognition”: Link

AT&T launches new streaming service – “WatchTV” – $15 per month for 30 channels: Link

Disney is willing to divest more Fox assets for deal clearance: Link

U.S. venture capitalists didn’t fund this Duke professor’s powerful facial recognition platform, so the Chinese government did: Link

Gamers rule the world. Now they have their own stadiums: Link

Twitter finds new life with young people. On Instagram: Link

Using CEO Personality Types to Identify Risk

Using CEO Personality Types to Identify Risk

We extracted data from our recent CEORater CEO Personality Analytics research findings. We have focused on the personality trait “Openness” for the purpose of this note.

Recall that CEO’s who score high along the “Openness” spectrum tend to be more adaptable and are better at navigating through changing customer markets, particularly those that may be experiencing disruption from new market entrants, changes in technology, etc.

CEO’s who score low on Openness are less adaptable and less effective in navigating choppy waters, less effective in driving growth during periods of change. Note that ACIW CEO Phil Heasley scores low on Openness (75th percentile) and how this score compares to ACIW’s financial and operational performance.

For the record we are not long or short any of the stocks mentioned in our research. 

Click To Enlarge Graphic

Humans Will Lead The Machine Age

Humans Will Lead The Machine Age

Machines don’t complain. Machines don’t get sick. Machines don’t ask for a raise. Machines don’t get tired. Machines don’t take lunch. Machines can perform complex tasks – including surgical operations and making investment decisions.

Perhaps most importantly – with the advent of machine learning – machines perpetually remain on the learning curve. The old axiom “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” does not apply to machines.

Many tasks lend themselves well to “machine-led” environments (by “machine-led” we refer to discrete tasks and complex workflows that have or could have machine learning and/or artificial intelligence as a core underpinning). For these tasks, humans will add value by providing machines with access to data sets that machines could not acquire on their own. The saying “feed the beast” will have never been truer.

However, there are instances where machine-led processes are not optimal. For example: great works of art, music and other forms of inspired creativity and original thinking where the outcome isn’t clear.

Top left: da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; Stanley Kubrick; Tesla roadster; composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

We are inspired to create when we are inspired to create. Would a sentient machine be inspired to create the Mona Lisa? Would a sentient machine be inspired to put people on Mars as Elon Musk wishes to do? (more likely that a machine would only pursue colonization of Mars when it would be practical to pursue that outcome as a result of an event or series of events here on earth). Would a sentient machine have been motivated to create electric vehicles?

Count me an optimist in that I believe that the most strategic, creative endeavors will always benefit greatly from human participation and leadership.

Ferruccio Lamborghini – A Leadership Model Built On Trust & Creativity

Ferruccio Lamborghini – A Leadership Model Built On Trust & Creativity

Ferruccio Lamborghini

For the Lamborghini Countach – the successor to the revolutionary Miura (our header image) – Ferruccio Lamborghini chose three of Lamborghini’s best and brightest. Then he did something revolutionary – he left them alone.

early model Lamborghini Countach

Openness and Adaptability

Elements of Lamborghini’s leadership style – openness and creativity – are congruent with our recent CEO personality research, particularly as it relates to dynamic, fluid segments of the technology industry (think Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Driving) where creative approaches to problem-solving and adaptability are key success factors.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article detailing the process by which Lamborghini brought the Countach to life. To access the article as it appeared in the WSJ  CLICK HERE

Our recent CEORater Podcast on the subject is below.


Even more on the Miura (we all have favorites) courtesy of Petrolicious – “The Lamborghini Miura Is Still Untamed”


Ferruccio Lamborghini
Ferruccio Lamborghini
Ferruccio Lamborghini with his tractor, Countach (L) and Miura (R).
Ferruccio Lamborghini and his Miura
3 Rules for Tech CEOs

3 Rules for Tech CEOs

1.) Be Bold:

  • Similar to VCs, public investors want to invest in a bold vision. (See Tesla). Why does TSLA enjoy a premium valuation to other Auto OEMs? Answer: Musk’s vision and spin.

2.) Don’t Be Bullied by Investors  Dictate Your Story:

  • Tell the Street you plan to take margins down temporarily to pursue “X” initiative. Investors will cut you slack so long as you explain the rationale, the execution and the intended outcome.

3.) Balance Execution Today with Investment for Tomorrow:

  • Don’t fall into the short-term EPS growth trap at the expense of new product development, keeping your products fresh and building a culture of innovation.
  • If you pursue the short-term – investors will love you in the short-term (fleeting). The key is to build long-term value over years and decades (see AMZN, CSGP and SSNC as examples of the latter).
Personality Analytics: Technology CEOs Analyzed: Part Deux

Personality Analytics: Technology CEOs Analyzed: Part Deux

Some have asked the question regarding our most recent article: Personality Analytics: Technology CEOs Analyzed – “what does it mean?”

Let’s contemplate one example as depicted in the enclosed picture which plots the 56 Mid-Cap Software CEOs we reviewed against the personality trait “Openness“. The output is that the two CEOs who scored in the 99th percentile (Ryu of Guidewire Software, “GWRE” and Marr of Tyler Technologies, “TYL”) are:

1.) less likely to suffer stalled revenue growth on their watch;

2.) less likely to allow their products and services to become stale;

3.) less likely to be disrupted by a competitor or new market entrant;

4.) less likely to see their respective customers move elsewhere and/or become disintermediated from customers;

5.) more likely to adopt new technology to deliver their respective products and services;

6.) more likely to identify adjacent market opportunities..

..as compared to the Mid-Cap Software CEO universe we analyzed (56 CEOs in total), all else held equal.