How chasing profit can backfire

From Obliquity by FT economist John Kay.

For most of the 20th century, ICI was Britain’s largest and most successful manufacturing company. In 1987, ICI described its business purpose thus: “ICI aims to be the world’s leading chemical company, serving customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science.

“Through achievement of our aim, we will enhance the wealth and well-being of our shareholders, our employees, our customers and the communities which we serve and in which we operate.”

ICI’s corporate portfolio had evolved over the decades – the company’s traditional strengths had been dyes and explosives, but its chemical expertise had taken it into other industrial feedstocks and agricultural fertilisers. After the second world war, the management of ICI concluded that in future “the responsible application of chemistry” was most likely to be found in pharmaceuticals. ICI recruited a team of able, young, academic scientists but the team was slow to bring returns.

The pharmaceutical division was a drain of ICI resources until, in the 1960s, the discovery of beta-blockers gave the company the first effective drug for controlling hypertension. More discoveries followed and, by the 1980s, pharmaceuticals had become the growth engine of the company.

In 1991, Hanson, the predatory UK conglomerate that had successfully acquired and reorganised sluggish British manufacturing businesses such as Ever Ready and Imperial Tobacco, bought a modest stake in ICI. While the threat to the company’s independence did not last long, the effects were galvanising. ICI restructured its operations and floated the pharmaceutical division as a separate business, Zeneca. The rump business of ICI declared a new mission statement: “Our objective is to maximise value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership, a technological edge and a world competitive cost base.”

While the National Parks Service had moved from a narrow, focused objective to a broader holistic view of forest management. ICI made the opposite shift – from a grand vision of the responsible application of chemistry to a narrow concentration on established, successful activities. The aim of bringing benefit to a wide range of stakeholders was replaced by the specific objective of creating shareholder value from narrowly focused operations. The company translated this into an operational strategy by disposing of the company’s interests in bulk chemicals to acquire a niche group of speciality businesses: ICI, once the main supplier of chemical products to one third of the world, was reinvented as a smells company.

The outcome was not successful in any terms, including those of creating shareholder value. The share price peaked in 1998, soon after the new strategy was announced. The decline since then has been relentless. After two successive dividend cuts the company was ejected in early 2003 from the FTSE 100 index, the transition from industrial giant to mid-cap corporation had taken only 12 years.

ICI is not the only company for whom greater emphasis on corporate financial goals led to less success in achieving them. I once said that Boeing’s grip on the world civil aviation market made it the most powerful market leader in world business. Bill Allen was chief executive from 1945 to 1968, as the company created its dominant position. He said that his spirit and that of his colleagues was to eat, breathe, and sleep the world of aeronautics. “The greatest pleasure life has to offer is the satisfaction that flows from participating in a difficult and constructive undertaking,” he explained.

Boeing’s 737, with almost 4,000 planes in the air, is the most successful commercial airliner in history. But the company’s largest and riskiest project was the development of the 747 jumbo jet. When a non-executive director asked about the expected return on investment, he was brushed off: there had been some studies, he was told, but the manager concerned couldn’t remember the results.

It took only 10 years for Boeing to prove me wrong in asserting that its market position in civil aviation was impregnable. The decisive shift in corporate culture followed the acquisition of its principal US rival, McDonnell Douglas, in 1997. The transformation was exemplified by the CEO, Phil Condit. The company’s previous preoccupation with meeting “technological challenges of supreme magnitude” would, he told Business Week, now have to change. “We are going into a value-based environment where unit cost, return on investment and shareholder return are the measures by which you’ll be judged. That’s a big shift.”

The company’s senior executives agreed to move from Seattle, where the main production facilities were located, to Chicago. More importantly, the more focused business reviewed risky investments in new civil projects with much greater scepticism. The strategic decision was to redirect resources towards projects for the US military that involved low financial risk. Chicago had the advantage of being nearer to Washington, where government funds were dispensed.

So Boeing’s civil orderbook today lags that of Airbus, the European consortium whose aims were not initially commercial but which has, almost by chance, become a profitable business. And the strategy of getting close to the Pentagon proved counter- productive: the company got too close to the Pentagon, and faced allegations of corruption. And what was the market’s verdict on the company’s performance in terms of unit cost, return on investment and shareholder return? Boeing stock, $48 when Condit took over, rose to $70 as he affirmed the commitment to shareholder value; by the time of his enforced resignation in December 2003 it had fallen to $38.

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