Posts in category Business


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The tumultuous career of Patrick Drahi

WHAT does France’s corporate establishment make of the change in fortunes of Patrick Drahi, a telecoms billionaire who achieved brief greatness before crashing to earth? In August he was reported to be planning a $185bn bid for Charter Communications, America’s second-largest cable operator, which is part-owned by John Malone, a famous cable investor. This month the market value of his indebted firm, Altice, collapsed by half, removing much of his personal wealth.

Mr Drahi’s empire is centred on his control, since 2014, of SFR, France’s second-largest telecoms operator and a big cable firm. It was not his only acquisition; in recent years the Franco-Israeli dealmaker went on a shopping spree, buying dozens of firms and building a transatlantic telecom-and-media empire. He typically sacked 30% of the acquired firms’ employees and squeezed salaries and other costs. Customer service often tended to worsen. In doing so Altice amassed a debt burden of over €50bn ($59bn), far bigger than the value of the firm itself. That made it vulnerable: investors dumped its shares after poor third-quarter figures at SFR.

Mr Drahi is not entirely untypical in France, even if the extent of his activity is. Other swashbuckling dealmakers exist: Vincent Bolloré, a media investor with wide interests, for example, or Xavier Niel, owner of Iliad, another mobile-phone…Continue reading

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Japan is embracing nursing-care robots

AT SHINTOMI nursing home in Tokyo, men and women sit in a circle following exercise instructions before singing along to a famous children’s song, “Yuyake Koyake” (“The Glowing Sunset”). They shout out and clap enthusiastically even though the activities are being led, not by a human fitness guru, but by Pepper, a big-eyed humanoid robot made by SoftBank, a telecoms and internet giant.

Japan leads the world in advanced robotics. Many of its firms see great potential in “carerobos” that look after the elderly. Over a quarter of the population is over 65, the highest proportion of any country in the OECD. Care workers are in desperately short supply, and many Japanese have a cultural affinity with robots.

For now the market is small. Although the government expects it will more than triple between 2015 and 2020, to ¥54.3bn ($480m), that is a long way below the revenues from industrial and service robots. One big reason for that is expense; few individuals can afford their own robots. Private firms partly rely…Continue reading

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How tech giants are ruled by control freaks

THIS month Schumpeter visited the Barnes Foundation, a gallery in Philadelphia full of paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh. Albert Barnes, born in 1872, is notable for two things. He made a fortune from an antiseptic that cured gonorrhoea. And he stipulated exactly how his art collection should be posthumously displayed. The result is hundreds of paintings jammed together nonsensically, often in poky rooms, and the creepy feeling of a tycoon controlling you from the grave.

Barnes’s string-pulling comes to mind when considering today’s prominent tycoons, who often hail from technology, e-commerce and media. At the moment they seem omnipotent. But many founders are gradually cashing in shares in their companies. The consequences will vary by firm, with some tycoons gradually ceding control, and others clinging on to it.

A flurry of selling activity has been in evidence of late. On September 13th Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, co-founders of Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce…Continue reading

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The last media mogul stuns his industry with talk of selling

THE only media mogul still bestriding his industry in old-fashioned style is used to being a predator rather than prey, a builder of empires, not a dismantler of them. So Rupert Murdoch’s reported willingness to sell off much of 21st Century Fox, whether to a rival such as Disney or to a distribution firm like Comcast or Verizon, has come as a shock to many. It should not.

If Fox does follow through with selling the assets—its film and TV studio, its stake in Sky, a European satellite broadcaster, and many of its cable networks—it may well be remembered as one of his cleverest moves. Mr Murdoch would have correctly judged a shifting media and regulatory landscape and sold high (perhaps for $50bn or more; see chart). He would retain lucrative assets in news and sports broadcasting, notably Fox News Channel, which could serve as the base for a new fief of a different sort. Mr Murdoch would also retain plenty of political sway through his newspaper businesses, housed at separately…Continue reading

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The rules on allocating take-off and landing slots favour incumbents

LAST year nearly 3.7bn passengers took to the sky on commercial jets. Few would have given much thought to exactly why their flight was scheduled at the time it was. Even fewer know about the tussles between regulators and airlines over how landing and take-off slots are allocated.

For the past 70 years the business of thrashing out timetables at international airports has been the job of the Slot Conference, a semi-annual meeting of airlines and airport co-ordinators run by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline trade group. The 141st meeting, held last week in Madrid to set next summer’s schedule, attracted over 1,300 representatives from 250 airlines and nearly 300 airports around the world. Sitting around tables (with one for each country’s airports) in a massive hall, airlines negotiate and reschedule their slots to maximise their network’s efficiency. It is like “speed dating for airlines”, says Lara Maughan, the conference…Continue reading

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A new class of startup is upending America’s consumer-goods industry

Tommy John’s got the consumer covered

IN MANY ways, Tommy John, a startup based in Manhattan, resembles a tech company straight out of Silicon Valley. On its website the venture-backed firm touts its innovative materials and patented designs. When recruiting talent, it describes itself as “disruptive” and “revolutionary”. But Tommy John does not deal in computer hardware, software or any other kind of technology. It makes men’s underwear.

Following the example of successful e-commerce brands such as Warby Parker, a glasses firm, and Casper, a mattress-maker, a growing number of startups are reimagining everyday household items—from pants and socks to toothbrushes and cookware. These “direct-to-consumer” (DTC) companies bypass conventional retailers and bring their products straight to customers via their online stores. They began several years ago to catch the attention of venture-capital (VC) firms, which have poured in more than $3bn since…Continue reading

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Flannery unveils his strategy to revive GE

“NUMBER one, cash is king…number two, communicate…number three, buy or bury the competition.” These rules were laid out by Jack Welch, a brash but brilliant former boss of General Electric (GE). The American industrial conglomerate, founded by Thomas Edison, has operations ranging from health care and aviation to lighting and energy. During Mr Welch’s tenure, from 1981 to 2001, his company’s market value rose from about $15bn to over $400bn. Today, it barely tops $150bn. Having fallen by more than two-fifths this year, GE is the worst-performing stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a composite index that has risen by nearly a fifth since January 1st.

Jeffrey Immelt, Mr Welch’s amiable successor, violated all three rules. To be fair, he did steer GE through a sharp downturn in aviation following the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks and unwound its risky financial arm after the global financial crisis. But on his watch GE’s core power business deteriorated to the…Continue reading

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Allergan’s unusual legal tactic attracts political scrutiny

“BRAZEN” and “absurd”: Allergan certainly drew a reaction from American lawmakers when it transferred its patents for Restasis, a dry-eye drug, to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in September. Last week a congressional committee held a hearing on the deal, which, if recognised as valid, risks undermining the American patent-review system.

As entities granted sovereign status, Native American tribes enjoy legal immunity and so, Allergan hopes, can ward off challenges to the patents by rival drugmakers. The tribe, which is based in New York state, wants to reduce its reliance on revenues from its local casino. It received $14m when it acquired the patents, and will relicense them to Allergan for a yearly fee of $15m.

Tribes are targeting other industries, too. The Mohawk tribe holds patents for SRC Labs, a tech firm, and says it expects to earn a “significant amount of money” by suing other firms for infringement. It has already sued Amazon and Microsoft. Another patent-holding company, owned by three Native…Continue reading

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Indian firms make the best of coerced do-goodery

CHARITY begins at home—or, if you are an Indian boss, in the boardroom. Since 2014 firms there by law must spend 2% of profits on corporate social responsibility (CSR), loosely defined as doing good in the community. After some griping, businesses are trying to make the best of their obligation, while keeping politicians happy by funding their pet projects.

The idea of compulsory charity had a mixed reception. Ratan Tata, who heads the charitable trusts that own much of Tata Group, India’s biggest conglomerate, was among those likening it to another tax on business. In fact, the law is more a nudge than an edict. Only large companies—those with domestic profits consistently over 50m rupees (about $780,000), or 5bn rupees in net assets, or turnover over 10bn rupees—are affected, and they can opt to give nothing, as long as they explain why.

In practice, most comply, at least in part. A study of listed firms by CRISIL, a credit-rating agency, found that over 1,100 firms…Continue reading

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Toutiao, a Chinese news app that’s making headlines

WHEN rumours swirled in August that Baidu, a Chinese online-search giant, was buying Toutiao, the scrappy news-aggregation platform reportedly quipped in response that reports had mistaken the buyer for the seller. The firm is proud with good reason. Toutiao’s growth since its launch in 2012 has been stellar: it says it has already drawn 700m users to the personalised newsfeeds on its smartphone app. Its valuation has shot up, to $22bn in its latest funding round (see chart).

Toutiao’s parent company, Bytedance, is definitely a buyer now. This month it snapped up Musical.ly, a lip-syncing video platform that has captivated American teens, for a reported $1bn. It looks like a good match. Musical.ly, based in Shanghai, is the first Chinese firm to build an app that has been so admired in the West; Bytedance, which has developed sophisticated artificial-intelligence (AI) technology to customise Toutiao’s newsfeeds, can provide it with winning algorithms.

Those algorithms are…Continue reading

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A German hardware giant tries to become an ultra-secure tech platform

Bosch mobilises

BOSCH is everywhere. It has 440 subsidiaries and employs 400,000 people in 60 countries. Its technology opens London’s Tower Bridge and closes packets of crisps and biscuits in factories from India to Mexico. Analysts call it a car-parts maker: it is the world’s largest, making everything from fuel-injection pumps to windscreen wipers. Consumers know it for white goods and power tools synonymous with “Made in Germany” solidity.

The company itself prefers to be called a “supplier of technology and services”, or “the IoT [internet-of-things] company”. On a hill overlooking Stuttgart, robotic lawnmowers whizz around its headquarters and a window displays dishwashers and blenders. Inside are signs of a company in transition: posters call on staff to rip off ties, celebrate “error-culture” and “just do it” opposite a quote from Robert Bosch, the founder: “Whatever is made in my name must be both first-class and faultless.”

The 130-year-old giant’s…Continue reading

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Japan’s top two lavatory-makers are at last making inroads overseas

WHEN staff at the Louvre in Paris head to the bathroom, the toilet lid opens as they approach, a warm seat heats their derrières, and, once done, their nether regions are washed and dried precisely. Selling the equipment is a coup for Toto, Japan’s biggest producer of “shower toilets”.

Toto and its rival Lixil carve up the Japanese market for fancy, multi-function loos between them. At home they have market shares of 60% and 30% respectively, according to Nomura Securities, a brokerage. Yet they have struggled to win foreign bottoms over to luxuries enjoyed in Japan for many decades.

Today 26% of Toto’s and 30% of Lixil’s revenues come from abroad (much of it from products other than shower toilets). The Japanese market is profitable, but their loos are already ubiquitous there (including in public facilities, from Tokyo’s metro system to remote hiking trails); the majority of domestic sales come from the renovation of private homes and hotels. And whereas Japan’s population is…Continue reading

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Trouble for the AT&T-Time Warner deal

In the eye of a storm

THE titans of media in America have decided this is an opportune moment to join together in mega-mergers, the better to take on the giants of Silicon Valley. The problem for them is that the Department of Justice (DoJ), and President Donald Trump himself, are less keen.

On November 8th reports surfaced that the DoJ is preparing to block a proposed $109bn acquisition by AT&T of Time Warner, owner of CNN, HBO and the Warner Brothers film studio—a deal that was announced a year ago and which had been expected to win approval by the end of 2017. The DoJ have reportedly told AT&T executives that to get the merger through they would have to sell off assets: either Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting division, including CNN, which Mr Trump has repeatedly attacked as “fake news”, or DirecTV, the wireless giant’s satellite-TV business. Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive, said on November 8th he would not sell CNN to…Continue reading

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Publishers are wary of Facebook and Google but must work with them

IN RECENT months Google and Facebook have made changes that may escape the notice of most of their billions of users, but not of news organisations. Facebook began displaying the logos of publishers in some of its posts, so readers can identify the news source. And Google for the first time gave publishers the ability to control how many times the search engine’s users can visit news sites free of charge. Both will directly help papers to sell subscriptions.

To critics of the social-media giants, that might look like wolves offering to help the sheep while still feasting on the herd. The business of both Facebook and Alphabet, parent of Google and YouTube, is to occupy people’s time and attention with their free services and content, and to sell ads against those eyeballs. For them, quality journalism is just another hook.

Facebook calls its “News Feed” offering its most important product, but in recent years it has tweaked the feed in ways that de-emphasise actual…Continue reading

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3G Capital, magicians of the consumer industry, need to learn a new act

OCCASIONALLY a business idea emerges that is so simple you cannot believe it works. Consider the five founders of 3G Capital, an investment firm. Warren Buffett co-invests with them and calls them “among the best businessmen in the world”. They use debt to buy consumer-product firms, then they revamp their brands and slash costs. In total, since 1997, they have launched $470bn of deals, through 3G Capital or earlier entities (for simplicity this article lumps these all together and calls them “3G”). That makes 3G the second most acquisitive organisation in modern history. It sells every Budweiser slurped, Whopper burger munched and bottle of Heinz ketchup squirted on the planet.

Yet despite its superb long-term record, 3G is losing steam. In the past two years its total portfolio has lagged slightly behind the S&P 500 index, Schumpeter estimates. Its two biggest firms, AB InBev, a beer giant, and Kraft Heinz, a food company, have returned 6% and 16% respectively, well behind…Continue reading

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A merger between CVS Health and Aetna could be what the doctor ordered

STANLEY and Sidney Goldstein would scarcely recognise their creation. In 1963 the brothers opened a humble storefront in Lowell, Massachusetts, selling health and beauty products. Determined to put customers first, they named their enterprise Consumer Value Stores. Today the Goldsteins’ startup, soon afterwards sold to a bigger firm, is nothing short of a health-care Goliath.

Revenues at CVS Health reached $177bn last year, riches which come from 9,700 retail pharmacies and from its operations in mail-order drugs and sales of more expensive speciality medicines. The firm commands nearly a quarter of the American market for prescription drug sales (see chart). It is also the biggest pharmacy-benefit manager (PBM) in America, a type of middleman that negotiates bulk discounts on drugs with large pharmaceutical firms on behalf of employers and insurers.

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IKEA undertakes some home improvements

You snooze, you lose

ON A Sunday afternoon, just beyond London’s M25 ring road, shoppers participate in the ritual that is a trip to IKEA. Fuelled by a lunch of Swedish meatballs, they negotiate their way around the 400,000-square-foot maze of a store, past children playing hide and seek and couples arguing over the merits of a PAX over a HEMNES wardrobe. Hours later, they emerge, wearily pushing trolleys loaded with flat-pack furniture and far more tea lights than they had intended to buy. The joy of assembly still awaits them.

This experience has changed remarkably little since the late 1950s, when IKEA, which is still privately owned, set up its first store in southern Sweden and found that people would travel long distances for low-cost, self-assembled goods. IKEA has become the world’s largest seller of furniture, with over 400 shops around the world and €38bn ($42bn) of revenue.

But now it is acknowledging that customers might want to…Continue reading

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The airline industry’s most outspoken boss goes global

AIRLINE bosses are often household names due to their attention-seeking behaviour—from the foul-mouthed rants of Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, to the model-flanked antics of Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic. But even in an industry filled with characters, Akbar al-Baker, Qatar Airways’ chief executive, stands out. He is known in the industry for behaving unpredictably at press conferences and for his colourful attacks on rival airlines. The word “crap” often comes up, as a description for new jets from Airbus and Boeing, and also (in a quote from July): “there is no need to travel on these crap American carriers” on which “you will be served by grandmothers”.

Mr Baker could do with some allies just now. Since June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Qatar, banning its flag carrier’s jets from their skies. That has resulted in the cancellation of over 50 daily flights to these countries,…Continue reading

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Japan Inc gingerly embraces more foreigners

MICHAEL WOODFORD, the first non-Japanese president of Olympus, likened the camera-maker’s board members who sacked him in 2011 to “children in a classroom”. Mr Woodford had confronted Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, the company’s imperious chairman, over a $1.7bn hole in its finances. Mr Kikukawa responded by orchestrating a show of hands in a boardroom coup that sent the Englishman packing. It all fitted a cliché of Japan’s boardrooms as an all-Japanese, all-male club where wizened bosses ruthlessly enforce wa, or harmony.

Gradually, the serenity is being disrupted. Nearly 15% of companies in the Nikkei 225 stock index now have at least one non-Japanese on their boards. That is still less than half the share in Britain’s FTSE 100, but it is up from 12% in 2013 and the trajectory seems set. Japan’s biggest bank, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, and Takeda, its largest pharmaceuticals company (which in 2015 appointed its first foreign chief executive, a Frenchman) announced the appointment of foreign directors…Continue reading

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Many Japanese-made cars enjoy an afterlife in Myanmar, but not for much longer

Gridlock in Yangon

THE Japanese make cars that last but replace them relatively quickly. The average car in Japan is three years younger than in America. This combination of durable manufacturing and dutiful consumption of a prized national product works out well for the rest of the world; many countries import older Japanese cars in bulk. Secondhand vehicles fill vast parking lots in Japan’s port cities, awaiting shipment to New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.

The third-most-popular destination is Myanmar, which imported over 80,000 used Japanese vehicles in the first nine months of this year, according to Japan’s International Auto Trade Association. Drivers believe that Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans can stand up to the country’s pockmarked roads, a faith not yet shown in South Korean and Chinese cars.

There is only one problem, which is that Japan drives on the left, Myanmar on the right. As a consequence, most of Myanmar’s…Continue reading

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Dark tourism spooks its way into the mainstream

ONE recent morning in Salem in the state of Massachusetts, a witch ran out of wands. Teri Kalgren, the owner of Artemisia Botanicals, an apothecary and magic shop, attributed the shortage to a witch-inspired boom. People have long flocked to Salem to learn about the infamous witch trials of 1692, in which Puritan hysteria led to the executions of 20 people (and two dogs). But since 1982 when the city introduced Haunted Happenings, a daylong Halloween festival for local families, the event has expanded to a commercial celebration lasting a month that attracts 500,000 tourists.

Last year tourism pumped $104m into Salem and funded some 800 jobs. The revenues have been increasing by 5-6% every year, says Kate Fox of Destination Salem, the city’s marketing arm. Tourists can buy a spell kit, visit a witch museum, take a walking tour (ghostly, feminist or literary-themed) and have their fortune told. On the opposite coast, Scott Michaels has watched his…Continue reading

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How leading American newspapers got people to pay for news

Past …

SOMETIMES it feels like the 1970s in the New York Times and Washington Post newsrooms: reporters battling each other to break news about scandals that threaten to envelop the White House and the presidency of Donald Trump. Only now their scoops come not in the morning edition but in a tweet or iPhone alert near the end of the day.

It is like old times in another way: both newspapers are getting readers to pay, offsetting advertising revenue relinquished to the internet. After years of giving away scoops for nothing online, and cutting staff, the Times and Post are focusing on subscriptions—mostly digital ones—which now rake in more money than ads do.

Their experiences offer lessons for the industry in America, although only a handful of newspapers have a chance at matching their success. A subscription-first approach relies on tapping a…Continue reading

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Reports of the MBA’s demise are exaggerated

THE MBA is both revered and reviled. To boosters it has advanced the science of management and helped firms, and countries, to grow. Detractors say it offers little of practical value and instils in students a sense of infallibility that can sink companies, and knock economies sideways. The critics are currently the louder of the two, claiming that particularly the full-time, campus-based MBAs have reached saturation point, with too many mediocre courses chasing too few candidates. The Financial Times recently likened them to “the Grand Tour of business education in an age of Airbnb”.

There is a widespread feeling that full-time MBAs are on their last legs, concedes Sangeet Chowfla, the president of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), a business-school association. Decline is allegedly hastened by competing qualifications, such as the Masters in Management. MiMs have much the same syllabus as MBAs, but unlike them, take students…Continue reading

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Aldi and Lidl grow despite ignoring the internet

THE aisles are wide, the lights bright and shelves low. Most obviously, however, the apples shine and the broccoli beckons. For those used to the cramped, dimly lit Aldi stores of yore, all expense spared, the new supermarket in Herten, Germany, is almost shocking.

Opened in April this is the prototype for a vast new renovation and expansion programme across Europe, Britain and America. It is the discount giant’s big bet on the future of shopping, all the more daring as the money is going almost entirely on bricks and mortar. Defying the conventional wisdom that customers want both in-store and online shopping (“omnichannel” in the jargon) Aldi wants to conquer the retail world by ignoring the internet. As too, to a lesser extent, does its great German rival Lidl. Plenty of other grocers reckon this may be the miscalculation that eventually brings them down.

Founded in 1945 and 1973 respectively, Aldi (split into two legally separate companies, Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd)…Continue reading

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American business schools dominate our MBA ranking

American business schools dominate The Economist’s 2017 Which MBA? ranking, taking 16 of the top 20 places. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management returns to the top spot for the first time since 2004. Kellogg students praise its facilities and collaborative culture. Their career opportunities are among the best, thanks in part to one of the largest alumni networks in the world; 97% of students find a job within three months of graduation, pocketing a 72% pay bump. All of the top ten slots in the ranking are now occupied by large, prestigious American schools, for which students are happy to pay extra. Their average tuition fee is $134,600, and has risen quickly in recent years. Employers, too, are willing to shell out for the best students. Their average basic salary was $127,300, a 70% increase on their pre-MBA pay cheques. But life, like rankings, isn’t just about money. So we weight data according to what students tell us is important. The four categories covered are: opening new career…Continue reading

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