Friday, May 25, 2007

Competitive Strain Inquiry

The decision that the Commerce Commission are currently mulling over, to give the go-ahead for the Warehouse to be sold to either Foodstuffs or Woolworths Australia, is a very clear one.

The competitive advantage that either one of these two companies would have if they were given approval and won a bidding war would allow a larger company to dominate not only the grocery sector but the variety goods sector as well.

The removal of a third and in time, eventually larger competitor in the Warehouse, will remove the ability of the public to have a viable chance for cheaper grocery prices and leave New Zealand with the current duopoly, with high prices and poor service.

To go back to two players in the New Zealand grocery business will be a missed opportunity that will probably never come again for generations and put the sector back where the variety goods sector was before the Warehouse came along 25 years ago.

Will the two players in this drama cite the sort of nonsense that Auckland Airport and Regency Duty trot out when they tell us less competition will mean more choice and cheaper prices for consumers? Well the answer is they already have. Those are two of their arguments for both of them buying the Red Sheds. How dumb does business and the Commerce Commission think the New Zealand consumer is. Clearly terminally so.

For too long New Zealand consumers have come off second best when it comes to the competitive advantage of having manifold players operating in an industry. When we get a chance to have more competition in an area so important and so uncompetitive as the grocery sector is, then we need to grab it with both hands and our watchdogs need to do their jobs and come out on our side for once.

Airlines, retail petrol, communication and a myriad of other industry have been given the once over lightly from the Commerce Commission when it comes to mergers, anti-competitive behaviour and the like.

If Woolworths and Foodstuffs want to expand in this country then they have only got to plunk down the some of billions that they have in revenues and go head to head with the Warehouse in a truly competitive environment and let the best man win. Carnage or not that is true competition.

We have only got to look at Woolworths anti-competitive modus operandi on the North Shore of Auckland where a new Foodstuffs Supermarket has sat empty for 2 years because WW has objected to it opening on the bizarre grounds that it will create too much traffic, strange when a Mitre 10 Mega has opened just around the corner. Do we expect Woolworths to operate fairly if they are allowed to expand by buying the Warehouse?

The alternative to a buy by the aforementioned parties would be for a party with a small presence already doing business here or a completely new player from offshore, thereby making a the purchase a competitive one that keeps three players in the grocery business.

New Zealand is a small market and often, in business sectors of monopolies, duopoly's and the like market dominance is all too frequent. While I'm not against business getting bigger, areas like the grocery sector that are extremely unrepresented by multiple players must be open to such when the opportunity arises. The Commerce Commission must therefore make the decision, and soon, to keep the grocery sector open to real competition.


C Share Investor 2007

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Business Mis-Management

The recent and distant past of company management and its track record in New Zealand leave allot to be desired.

While the calibre of management in selected companies listed on the NZX is clearly very good: Mainfreight, Pumpkin Patch, Micheal Hill, Fletcher Building, Rakon among a short list, the great bulk of management is littered with far too many candidates for the top prize of mis-manager of the year.

On the negative side the list includes Feltex at the top followed by Restaurant Brands ,with Telecom, The Warehouse(previous Management)Tourism Holdings and Sky City all worth a mention.

The bottom rung seem to share some common traits. Basic bad decision making, at times it is part of the culture- Telecom, in Feltex Carpets case bad decision making was endemic and used to cover up problems, Restaurant Brands suffers from a culture of denial when it comes to decision making-witness the complete ignorance of store level service, Tourism Holdings simply couldn't make a decision as to what their problems were caused by and Sky City has made a hastie decision to buy a cinema unit that drags down profit and is capital hungry for no return but they refuse to make the decision to let go and cut lose a bad business.

The Warehouse's woes were widely canvassed but they suffered from a man,Tindall, that rushed into a new business with too much confidence, ignoring basic differences in the shopping culture of 2 different countries.

Managers are paid to manage and that means, as much as possible, decisions being made at the right time and in the right direction as consistently as possible. When managers begin to garner a track record of bad decision making, it is time to look at the problem, fix it if possible or move that manager on if an easy fix isn't possible.

Shareholders need to have a means of making their opinions known to those who manage their investment in the company they have bought and apart from the likes of Bruce Sheppard from the Shareholders Association, the rest of us appear to be sheep when it comes to standing up for our vote on the board.

The buck stops with the person at the top rung of management but a clear stumbling block with our listed and private companies is the bottleneck of middle managers ,who often serve the purpose of mere relay people, of information from productive workers on the shop floor to those executives at the top. We could do with less of these people in our companies, in my humble opinion they can confuse the clear messages that must get through from upper management to shop floor and back in order for a company to function efficiently and competently.

Restaurant Brands suffers from this syndrome in spades. Store workers don't get to communicate clearly as to what is going on at store level directly to upper management, problems are filtered through a multifaceted layer of store, area and regional management before getting operating concerns to the top.

Of course RBD store managers often don't have the motivation to let upper management know if there are problems at store level anyway, lest they be in the gun themselves. This happens to a lesser extent in other New Zealand companies but is still clearly a problem. Telecom suffers badly from the same syndrome.

The solutions to our problems may lay in what Toyota calls the "Toyota Way" that is, where there is a free flow of reciprocal critical information between upper management and productive workers. In essence this means that a shop floor worker has access directly to upper management and vice versa.

Like a pyramid of cheerleaders whispering advice from the bottom of the pile to the top, by the time it gets there the message is often completely different from its original form. Remove the middle of the pyramid and it will collapse but remove middle management from the management pyramid and it will serve to make the company stronger.


C Share Investor 2007