In a world plagued by scandals and bad intentions, it would be nice to think that good intentions always lead to success. Unfortunately, that's just not true. In the corporate jungle, the road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Some memorable and seemingly sound efforts have led to some spectacular failures. (See also: Biggest Merger and Acquisition Disasters.)
Trying to Be All Things to Everyone
The pursuit of growth often encourages companies to move beyond their core competency. However, sometimes, getting away from a core business can be a mistake. Westinghouse Electric Co., founded in 1886, found this out the hard way. The firm, once a global force in its industry, employed such luminaries as Nikola Tesla and was responsible for groundbreaking achievements, including revolutionizing the use of alternating current for electricity generation and the construction of the nation's first nuclear power plant.
Building on its success, the firm branched out into disparate businesses. Its many acquisitions include the Seven-Up Bottling Co., the Longines-Wittnauer Watch Co. (which also sold mail-order records), broadcasting and cable television interests, a financial service business, office furniture makers, and residential real estate. The result was a behemoth, jack-of-all-trades company, but master of none. The firm collapsed under the weight of its multiple industries, leaving its nuclear division the sole survivor to this day.
Intel Corp. (INTC), founded in 1968, became the world's largest manufacturer of semiconductor chips. In 1994, the discovery of an error in its FDIV chips, and the ensuing media onslaught brought an avalanche of negative publicity to the firm. As a result, the company launched a highly successful advertising campaign that made the company's name synonymous with the place its semiconductor chips held "inside" a host of computers. To build on its success, the firm put serious effort in expanding into other businesses, ranging from flat-panel television processors and chips for portable media players, to chips for wireless technology.
Despite the firm's well-known brand, those efforts failed to achieve the desired level of success, and the company's stock price has remained relatively flat for more than a decade. While the firm's core business continues to operate successfully, the diversification efforts just didn't work out as planned.
Krispy Kreme doughnuts got its start in 1937 when a French chef began making the gooey pastries and selling them to grocery stores. The firm grew slowly and became a regional favorite in the Southeast. When Krispy Kreme's founder died in 1973, the firm was sold to Beatrice Foods, and the company's growth stalled. In 1982, a group of franchisees purchased Krispy Kreme and laid the groundwork for the rapid-fire expansion of the 1990s.
Encouraged by pastry-loving diners, the firm grew rapidly, not only nationally, but also globally, opening franchise locations around the world. The company went public in April 2000, and the share price soared to nearly $50 by August 2003. However, in 2005, the firm posted $198 million in losses. The pressure to maintain earnings led to an accounting scandal. Store closings became common, and the stock collapsed, losing nearly 90% of its value. Fortunately for its fans, the firm remains in business as part of the private JAB Holding Co.
Growth by Acquisition
Bank of America (BAC) built an empire one acquisition at a time. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank bought up other banks one after another, growing its size and expanding its presence until it became a dominant force in the industry. Unlike Westinghouse, the buying binge remained focused within the financial services industry. Unfortunately, not all of the acquisitions went well.
The decision to grab high-end investment firm U.S. Trust lead to a poor cultural fit, as the populist retail bank attempted to absorb the white-shoe private bank. However, this move was quickly forgotten in the wake of a shotgun-wedding with industry giant Merrill Lynch. The culture clash following the purchase led to a string of high-profile departures of senior executives, but even that wasn't enough to stop the bank's advance.
Finally, the purchase of scandal-plagued Countrywide Mortgage caused the bank to inherit a mess that decimated the stock price. The disaster began with Countrywide's lending practices. The firm gave high-interest, subprime loans to consumers who were of questionable credit quality. Those loans were then bundled together and sold to investors as high-quality mortgage-backed securities. When housing values fell, and homeowner defaults rose, Bank of America was forced to pay $8.5 billion in a legal settlement, coupled that with a big foreclosure scandal. Years after the acquisition, Bank of America continued to struggle with issues connected to Countrywide.
Sticking to the Tried and True
Perhaps witnessing the struggles firms face when they try to implement dramatic change, Borders Books based its expansion efforts on a brick-and-mortar merchandising strategy. In the 1990s, Borders filled its book stores with calendars, music, DVDs and other goods to supplement its traditional offering of books. Its competitors went the online route, using the internet to offer convenient shopping and huge inventories. The failure to evolve and keep up with online distribution led to the closing of over 300 stores and caused about 11,000 employees to lose their jobs when the 40-year-old business went bust in 2011.
Innovating With New Products
Commodore International was an industry force when it unleashed the now-famous Commodore 64 computer. A tech-hungry marketplace of consumers snapped up the 64, which remained cutting edge from 1983 to 1986. While the initial effort was a huge success, attempts to create a new and improved version failed.
The Coca-Cola Co. (KO) faced similar challenges when it attempted to "improve" the tried and true recipe for Coke®. Faced with shrinking sales, the firm completely abandoned the recipe for its flagship, launching New Coke in April 1985. New Coke was a fiasco, hated by purists and panned in the media. "Classic Coke" returned to the shelves less than three months after it had been retired.
Staying the Course
The name General Motors Co. (GM) was once synonymous with the automobile industry. The big dog of Detroit brought together such iconic brands as Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, and GMC. General Motors was at the top of the heap in 1963, with a 50% share of the market. For the next two decades, the giant rested on its laurels, while foreign competitors built efficient factories that churned out high-quality vehicles at competitive prices.
By the early 1980s, GM's reputation had been tarnished, and its market share slashed in half, as the firm fell victim to higher-quality cars imported from Japan. The company has since caught up with its competitors in terms of quality, but the turnaround was decades in the making.
Avoiding Negative Publicity
In 1886, the Johnson brothers founded a firm that would soon invent the world's first commercial first-aid kit. The firm grew its presence from there, launching such consumer icons as Johnson's® Baby Powder, BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages and the pain reliever Motrin®. In 2008, the firm discovered that Motrin was not properly dissolving when swallowed. Rather than issue a recall and incur the associated negative publicity, the firm sent secret shoppers out to buy the products off store shelves, which resulted in a lawsuit in Oregon in 2011. While its objective was honorable, its method of implementation resulted in months of negative publicity, when the media and public learned of the stealth recall.
The Bottom Line
What lessons can other businesses learn from the troubles of those that have gone before them? The biggest lesson of all may be that there are no guarantees in business. Sticking to your tried and true practices doesn't always work, and innovation doesn't always lead to success. The vagaries of the marketplace and the fickle hand of fate are two of the reasons stock analysis is so difficult. There's no easy way to sort the winners from the losers before you put your money at risk—a painful lesson that many investors have learned the hard way.