訂閱

多平臺閱讀

微信訂閱

雜志

申請紙刊贈閱

訂閱每日電郵

移動應用

商業

一家零售業巨頭的70年自毀之路

去年申請破產給西爾斯的現任領導層招來了鋪天蓋地的批評。但作為曾經的《財富》美國500強中堅力量,讓它轟然倒下的問題要追溯到艾森豪威爾時期。這家偶像級企業的緩慢崩塌給企業領導者帶來了哪些啟示呢?

今年4月西爾斯宣布要開三家小型門店,從而收獲了近幾年最友善的媒體關注。《今日美國》在充滿希望的標題中說“西爾斯新時代的開始?這家零售商宣布開店,而不是關閉”,引發了美國媒體的共鳴。

但仔細品味就會發現,媒體報道中更多的是憐惜,而不是振奮。對這家昔日的全球零售巨人來說,現在新聞中的好消息卻只是:三家門店,其中一家設在阿拉斯加,西爾斯的前CEO艾迪·蘭伯特的房子都比這些門店要大,門店內的商品搭配也有些令人困惑,大多是家電和床墊。西爾斯堅持說這番“小動作”是一項新戰略的開端,將帶來“一家更強大、盈利更多的公司”。而零售業的同行們都不覺得西爾斯還有機會。長期從事零售咨詢的波特·弗里金格指出:“蘭伯特推出的模式沒有不失敗的。”西爾斯前高管史蒂夫·丹尼斯的看法是:“這些舉措最終會毫無收獲,帶來或帶走一些微不足道的東西。”

14年來西爾斯關閉了3500多家門店,并在去年秋天申請破產,現在它可以利用一些真正的好消息了。該公司的發言人表示,申請破產以后西爾斯“有許多可以使其致勝的資產和優勢”。但實際上,除了蘭伯特,別人都不相信西爾斯能夠扭轉命運,而且從2005年蘭伯特的對沖基金ESL Investments收購西爾斯并將其與凱馬特合并后,他就已經讓大家明白不要相信他的那些樂觀言論。盡管蘭伯特預言“戰略轉型”會讓西爾斯變成“真正偉大的零售企業”,但2010年以來該公司的年收入一直都沒能增長,也沒有實現任何利潤。最新的劇情反轉是:西爾斯控股,也就是將資產轉讓給蘭伯特的破產實體已經起訴蘭伯特等人,理由是后者在擔任CEO期間侵吞了公司數十億美元資金。蘭伯特和ESL Investments則否認自己有任何行為不當之處。

The kindest media attention Sears has attracted in years arrived in April, when the company announced it was opening three small stores. “The start of a new Sears era? The retailer announces openings, not closings,” read USA Today’s hopeful headline, which echoed others nationwide.

But viewed through a longer lens, the coverage was more pathetic than upbeat. This is what now passes for good news at the onetime colossus of global retailing: three stores, one of them in Alaska, each smaller than owner Eddie Lampert’s house, offering a somewhat puzzling product line consisting mostly of appliances and mattresses. Sears insists this tiny event is the leading edge of a new strategy for becoming “a stronger, more profitable business.” No one else in retailing seems to think it has a chance. “Lampert has never initiated a format that didn’t fail,” notes longtime retail consultant Burt Flickinger. The verdict of consultant Steve Dennis, a former Sears executive: “It will almost certainly amount to zilch, plus or minus bubkes.”

After shedding more than 3,500 stores over the past 14 years and filing for bankruptcy last fall, Sears could use some genuine good news. A Sears spokesman says the post-bankruptcy business “has many assets and advantages that position the company for success.” But virtually no one other than Lampert expects a reversal of fortune, and he has taught the world not to believe the happy talk he has been dispensing since ESL Investments, his hedge fund, bought Sears in 2005 and merged it with Kmart. Despite Lampert’s predictions of a “strategic transformation” that would make Sears “a truly great retail business,” the company hasn’t managed a single year of revenue growth since then, or earned a dime of profit since 2010. The latest twist: Sears Holdings, the bankrupt entity that sold its assets to Lampert, is suing him and others for stripping the company of billions when he was CEO. Lampert and ESL have denied any wrongdoing.

打造繁榮:密西西比州杰克遜市的一家西爾斯門店,1949年。西爾斯在20世紀40年代決定擴張業務網絡,這是它在二戰后的增長期實現壟斷的關鍵。圖片來源:Bettmann Archive—Getty Images

即使是今天,純粹的慣性或許也能夠讓西爾斯品牌維持下去。雖然受了致命傷,但在截至去年10月底的12個月中,西爾斯仍然實現收入132億美元。但對這家公司來說,唯一重要的問題是它能夠撐多久。丹尼斯的結論是:“沒有哪項業務有任何生存能力。”保險公司Allstate的CEO湯姆·威爾森曾經于20世紀80、90年代在西爾斯擔任高管,他說蘭伯特“是清理爐灰的鍋爐工。西爾斯根本不可能起死回生。”

在蘭伯特時代,災難性數字和負面新聞層出不窮,西爾斯也在這個階段浪費掉了內在優勢和革新機遇。但對管理和領導專業的學生來說,今天的垂死掙扎只是西爾斯這部大戲的結局。真正注定西爾斯失敗命運的史詩性沖突發生在很久以前,那時西爾斯還處于主導位置,人們根本不可能想到它會衰敗。這正是今天的領導者應該從中吸取教訓的地方。當然,西爾斯的故事獨一無二,而且那些決策出臺的時代和我們這個時代有很大的不同。但仔細觀察就會發現,西爾斯的致命失誤具有普遍性,而且就和明天要播出的新聞一樣適用于當下。

Still, even today, sheer inertia may enable the Sears brand to linger. Despite its mortal wounds, the company brought in $13.2 billion of revenue in the 12 months through last Oct. 31. But the only significant question about Sears is how long it can hang on. Dennis’s bottom-line take: “There’s nothing in the portfolio with any viability.” Allstate CEO Tom Wilson, a Sears executive in the 1980s and 1990s, says Lampert “is the janitor cleaning up the ashes. There’s no way it’s going to come back.”

The Lampert era has played out in a continual drumbeat of catastrophic numbers and negative headlines, during which Sears squandered intrinsic advantages and opportunities for reinvention. But for students of management and leadership, today’s death throes are merely the denouement of the Sears drama. The truly epic conflicts that doomed the company happened long ago, when Sears was dominant and its demise was unthinkable. That’s where to look for the lessons for today’s leaders. Sears’ story is unique, of course, and the decisive events took place in an era much different from ours. But a close examination shows that its critical mistakes are universal and as contemporary as tomorrow’s news.

****

直到1991年,西爾斯還是世界上收入最高的零售商。所以看到它的市值在1965年5月4日見頂會讓人冷靜下來,這是芝加哥大學布斯商學院安全價格研究中心按照不變美元推算的結果。按現在的價格水平計算,西爾斯在那個春天的市值高點為921億美元,此后再也沒能突破該水平。西爾斯自己的分析后來發現,它在零售領域的統治力于1969年達到頂峰。在那一年,西爾斯的銷售額占美國整體經濟規模的1%;每個季度都有三分之二的美國人在西爾斯購物;一半的美國家庭都有西爾斯信用卡。

從那時到現在的50年里,西爾斯一直在為自救而戰,但屢戰屢敗。像全球最大零售商倒閉這樣的大事件絕不會只有一個原因或者即刻發生。回過頭來看,轉折點在于當時西爾斯并未意識到的兩大失誤。

As late as 1991, Sears was the world’s largest retailer by revenue. So it’s sobering to see that its market value, calculated in constant dollars, peaked on May 4, 1965, according to data from the Center for Research in Security Prices at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Sears has never been more valuable than it was on that spring day—worth $92.1 billion in today’s money. Sears’ own analysts would later determine that its domination of retailing reached its apex in 1969. That year, its sales were 1% of the entire U.S. economy; two-thirds of Americans shopped there in any given quarter; and half the nation’s households had a Sears credit card.

From then till now—for 50 years—Sears has been fighting and losing a war to save itself. Nothing as large as the demise of the world’s biggest retailer happens for a single reason or all at once. But looking back, two major errors stand out as turning points, unrecognized at the time.

西爾斯門店中工具區的購物者,1943年。圖片來源:Bettmann—Getty Images

幾乎所有公司倒閉都可以追溯到失敗的CEO更迭,而這正是西爾斯的第一個重大失誤。實際上,可以認為這家公司做了5、6次糟糕的換屆,原因是董事會讓這個錯誤存在了20年。這個錯誤讓西爾斯的弱點逐步堆積,最終變得幾乎無法應對。

第二個重大失誤是選擇了糟糕的策略,也就是為了多元化向金融服務大舉進軍。當時這項計劃看起來還不壞,而且有幾年它似乎取得了成功。但實際上這是一場災難。在1981年開始實施這項策略時,西爾斯是零售之王。而整整12年后,當它放棄這項策略時,西爾斯已經在滑坡,已經不再是全球或者美國最大零售商,也已經永遠失去了重新奪回這個稱號的機會。

CEO更迭問題始于1954年,當時西爾斯董事會在一個偉大人物的統領之下。我們不能責怪他們。董事長羅伯特·E·伍德將軍推動西爾斯做出了該公司歷史上最成功的三項決策。第一項是在1925年將業務擴展到目錄零售之外并開設商店。其次是1931年創建Alllstate汽車保險公司。第三是在二戰結束時決定大舉增設門店,特別是在城市郊區和美國西部(西爾斯的主要競爭對手Montgomery Ward做出了相反決定,也就是在戰后的衰退中進行收縮,結果再也沒能復蘇)。

后來,75歲的伍德決定退休了。這讓董事會有機會任命一位靠得住的繼任者,某位饑渴的年輕經理人,可以帶領西爾斯開啟新的未來。但伍德在任的時間太長了,幾位年紀較大的潛在繼任者都在排隊。董事會不僅沒有忽略他們,反而認為每個人都值得一試。隨后的四位CEO平均任職時間都只有三年多——他們都按照新的退休制度在65歲卸任。

在20世紀50年代剩下的時間里以及20世紀60年代,這些還算稱職的領導者帶領西爾斯穩步前行。公司規模增大,股價上漲。但世界開始發生變化,西爾斯的領導者則沒有看到,也許是不想看到他們基于大范圍挑選、高質量服務和定期大幅打折的業務模式成為老古董。

西北大學的經濟學家羅伯特·J·戈登將1870年至1970年稱為美國經濟增長的“特殊世紀”,他說“這是一個不可復制的高增長階段”。在此期間,西爾斯已經成長為杰出的美國企業。對1886年成立的西爾斯來說,這個特殊世紀就是它所知的全部現實。它讓這種快速增長及其中的基本人員組成,也就是年輕的藍領家庭走向繁榮。但隨著這個特殊世紀在20世紀60年代走向尾聲,新建立的藍領家庭變少了,剩下的那些藍領家庭的可支配收入也下降了。

與此同時,消費者開始滿懷熱情地接納一種新的購物方式,那就是折扣店,后者基于低價格、最少量的服務以及高商品周轉率。1962年是零售業的奇跡之年,沃爾瑪、凱馬特和塔吉特先后開業;2005年蘭伯特上任時,前三家零售商的年收入都已經超過西爾斯。西爾斯的領導者清楚這種情況,但他們沉著地認為自己沒有受到威脅。他們對自己說,畢竟西爾斯是折扣零售行業的王者。他們似乎未能發現這種新業態在本質上有所區別,后者采用較為基本的陳設,商品價格則要低得多。但消費者注意到了二者的差異。

西爾斯的表現是如此之好,以至于領導者們顯然認為沒有必要更新控制和成本會計系統,這讓經理們無從知曉自身業績優劣,這種情況令人震驚。如此之多的成本——商品、物流、資金成本等等都在整個公司平攤,幾乎不可能弄清楚盈利和虧損之處。雖然沃爾瑪老員工都知道對創始人山姆·沃爾頓來說,damncomputer(即damn computer,該死的電腦)是一個詞,但在用IT管理物流和分析經營狀況方面,他讓沃爾瑪遠遠走在了別人前面。本有可能率先這樣做的西爾斯卻未采取這樣的措施,這讓它的成本效率在幾十年時間里一直落后于競爭對手。

20世紀60年代對自身繁榮的滿足感,再加上董事會未能找到下一個羅伯特·E·伍德為西爾斯陷入困境埋下了伏筆。1967年,西爾斯意識到自己需要調整策略。新方案——用定價較高的商品吸引較富裕的購物者一度奏效。1969年,該公司的毛利率達到近40%的最高點。但此項策略削弱了西爾斯長期打造的根基,那就是美國面向大眾的偉大供應商。接下來出現了經濟衰退,幾年后又爆發了更嚴重的衰退,通脹率也達到兩位數。特殊世紀告終,西爾斯的新策略也大錯特錯。消費者想要便宜商品,而所有的折扣店都處于完美的位置,可以為這些消費者提供服務。

到了20世紀70年代中期,西爾斯再也無法忽視這些問題,并且因此進入了否定的下一個階段——堅持說業績滑坡并不是自己的過錯。西爾斯的研究人員認為,這要怪經濟。同時,美國的百貨商場實在太多了。此外,整個行業的利潤率都在下降。還有就是人口老齡化。總之一句話,錯的是世界,不是我們。1983至1987年,作家唐納德·卡茨獲準近乎無限制地參加公司會議。他在《大商店》(The Big Store)一書中這樣總結西爾斯20世紀70年代的內部觀點:“日復一日,無論我們有多優秀,賺錢就是會變得更加困難。”

終極結論就是,試圖讓西爾斯及其零售業務恢復到以前大家所知的樣子是徒勞的。卡茨寫道,1978年開始擔任CEO的愛德華·特林相信“僅靠現有業務,西爾斯帝國無法重新占據無可匹敵的位置,超越幾乎所有其他公司。特林認為西爾斯需要一個全新的企業信條……如果那意味著如此顯著地改變西爾斯,以至于當特林完成任務時這家公司會變得面目全非,那么這就是他們要做的。”

Almost every corporate demise can be traced to a blown CEO succession, and that was Sears’ first decisive error. Indeed, it could be regarded as five or six bad successions because the board perpetuated its error for 20 years. This error permitted a gradual accumulation of weaknesses that became almost insurmountable.

The second decisive error was a bad strategic choice: to diversify heavily into financial services. The plan didn’t look bad at the time, and for a few years, it seemed to succeed. But in fact, it was disastrous. When the strategy was adopted in 1981, Sears was the king of retailing. By the time it was fully abandoned 12 years later, Sears was in decline, no longer the world’s or America’s largest retailer, and it had forever lost any chance of regaining the title.

The succession blunder began in 1954 with the Sears board of directors in the thrall of a Great Man. You couldn’t blame them. Gen. Robert E. Wood, the chairman, had been the driving force behind what remain the three most successful decisions in the company’s history. The first was the strategy in 1925 to move beyond being a catalog-only retailer and establish stores. Next was the creation of Allstate auto insurance in 1931. The third was Wood’s idea at the end of World War II to add stores aggressively, especially in the suburbs and in the West. (Archrival Montgomery Ward made the opposite decision, pulling back in the postwar recession, and never recovered.)

Now, at age 75, Wood had decided it was time to step down. This was the board’s chance to name a worthy successor, some hungry young manager who could lead Sears into a new future. But Wood had held on so long that several aging potential successors were lined up at the turnstile. Instead of looking past them, the directors decided each deserved a shot. There followed four CEOs who on average served barely over three years, with each stepping down at the company’s newly mandated retirement age of 65.

These blandly competent managers steered Sears on a steady course through the rest of the 1950s and the 1960s. The company grew, the stock boomed. But the world was changing, and Sears leaders didn’t see, perhaps didn’t want to see, that their business model—based on broad selection, high service, and periodic steep-discount sales—was becoming an antique.

Sears had grown into a towering American institution during the period that Northwestern University economist Robert J. Gordon dubs “the special century” of U.S. economic expansion, 1870 to 1970, which Gordon calls “a singular interval of rapid growth that will not be repeated.” For Sears, founded in 1886, the special century was the only reality the company had ever known. It rode that fast growth and its human essence, young blue-collar families, to greatness. But as the special century faded in the 1960s, fewer new blue-collar families were being formed, and those that remained had less to spend.

At the same time, consumers were enthusiastically embracing a new way of buying: the discount store, built on low prices, minimal service, and high merchandise turnover. In 1962, a miracle year for retailing, Walmart, Kmart, and Target all opened their doors; all three would surpass Sears in annual revenue by the time Lampert took over in 2005. Sears leaders were aware of the phenomenon but felt serenely unthreatened. After all, they told themselves, Sears was the monarch of discounters. They seemed not to grasp that this new breed was fundamentally different, offering much lower prices in relatively bare-bones settings. But customers noticed the difference.

Sears was doing so well that its leaders apparently saw no need to update its control and cost-accounting systems, leaving managers shockingly ignorant of how well or poorly they were performing. So many costs—merchandise, logistics, capital, and more—were averaged across the company that deciphering where money was being made and lost was virtually impossible. Though Walmart veterans recall that “damncomputer” was one word, not two, in founder Sam Walton’s vocabulary, he put the company far ahead of the field in using IT to manage logistics and analyze operations. By failing to adapt when it first could have, Sears trailed ?competitors on cost-efficiency for decades.

Sears’ prosperous complacency of the 1960s, compounded by the board’s failure to find the next Robert E. Wood, set the stage for trouble. By 1967 the company realized it needed to shift strategy. Its new plan—stocking higher-priced goods to attract more affluent shoppers—worked briefly. Gross margins peaked near 40% in 1969. But the strategy undermined Sears’ long-built-up foundation as America’s great supplier to the masses. Then a recession hit, followed a few years later by a deeper recession and double-digit inflation. The special century was over, and Sears’ new strategy was exactly wrong. Consumers wanted cheap, and all those discounters were perfectly positioned to serve them.

By the mid-1970s Sears could no longer ignore these problems, so it moved to the next stage of denial: insisting its declining performance was not the company’s fault. It’s the economy, said Sears’ researchers. Also, there are just too many stores in the U.S. Plus, profit margins are shrinking across the industry. And the population is getting older. Bottom line: It’s everything except us. “As night follows day, no matter how good we are, it’s just going to be more difficult to make money” is how Donald Katz summarized the 1970s internal view in his book The Big Store, for which he was granted nearly unlimited access to company meetings from 1983 to 1987.

The ultimate conclusion: Trying to revive what the world knew as Sears—its retailing business—was futile. Edward Telling, who became CEO in 1978, believed that “the Sears empire could not retain its incomparable position above almost all other companies by relying solely on existing businesses,” Katz reported. “Telling believed Sears needed entirely new reasons for being?…?if that meant changing Sears so profoundly that it looked like something else when he was through, then that was what they would do.”

****

西爾斯的第二個重大失誤由此開始,把零售降為二等業務(當然它從來沒有這樣說過),同時通過遙遠、非常遙遠的合并來追求金光閃閃的新前景。最初的合并伙伴“愿望名單”包括美國電話電報公司、雪佛龍、約翰迪爾、IBM和迪士尼。所有這些候選人都在內部或西爾斯與之接觸時被否定了。最終,這些戰略規劃者認定,新業務必須能顯著受益于西爾斯的既有強項。而稍早一些時候,民意調查機構Roper經調查指出,西爾斯是美國最受信賴的公司。在哪個行業信任最有價值呢?這些規劃者覺得答案是金融服務業。

鎖定了“黃金目標”后,西爾斯開始收購其業務。1981年,它收購了住宅房地產公司Coldwell Banker和證券經紀商Dean Witter Reynolds。將這些公司與Allstate合并后,西爾斯突然成為美國收入規模最大的金融服務公司。一項宏大戰略的元素已經到位。

回頭看去,當時奔潰的跡象已經很明顯。和許多全局戰略分析師一樣,西爾斯的主要規劃者沒有把顧客視為要服務的人,而是將其當作要開發的自然資源。宣布上述收購事項后,副董事長唐納德·克雷布解釋了緣由:“我們打算讓Dean Witter和Coldwell Banker獲得這個龐大的客戶群體。”這是出于公司需要,而非客戶需要制定策略的典型例子。

另一個不詳征兆是西爾斯向投資者給出的收購上述公司的理由非常側重于協同效應和交叉銷售。幾乎所有收購者都會提到這兩大益處,而且差不多都會夸大。西爾斯自然也不例外。西爾斯門店中的Dean Witter柜臺的業務量低于獨立的Dean Witter營業網點。新策略實施四年后,在312家西爾斯店鋪中以多種組合方式集Allstate、Coldwell Banker和Dean Witter于一身的Sears Financial Center整體上仍未盈利。實際情況證明,為交叉銷售整合客戶數據極為困難。一些措施取得了成功。Dean Witter推出了Discover信用卡——它很受歡迎,1992年Dean Witter從西爾斯剝離出來后甚至更是如此,而且其他零售商可以在不為其競爭提供支持的情況下接受該信用卡。但時任西爾斯顧問的約翰·派汀格說,整體而言,“它跟其他公司幾乎沒有產生協同”。

多元化以后,西爾斯在兩方面都遇到了最糟糕的局面。金融服務沒能像它此前預期的那樣帶來協同效應。零售也不再是西爾斯關注的核心,這在該公司歷史上還是頭一遭。Allstate的CEO威爾森說:“我覺得他們剛開始并沒有打算不以零售為重點,但后來出現的情況就是這樣。”對一家不再關注主業的零售商來說,那是一個可怕的時間點——家得寶、史泰博、百思買和Bed Bath & Beyond等倉儲式“殺手”公司正在改變這個行業,沃爾瑪則開始成為行業巨人。派汀格說:“董事會把門店視為現金牛,以前是這樣。他們打算繼續從零售業務身上‘擠奶’,直到擠不出來為止。”

業績受到的影響很明顯。當1981年宣布進行多元化時,西爾斯零售業務的銷售回報率已經比零售行業中值低36%,這已經很嚇人了。在西爾斯擁有那些金融公司期間,其零售業務平均銷售回報率和行業中值的差距達到了49%。表現欠佳的金融業務和走下坡路的零售業務共同產生了一個無法想象的結果:按不變美元計算,西爾斯1988年的市值已經比1965年的高點大幅下滑66%,華爾街也將西爾斯列為收購目標。

1992年,西爾斯最終叫停了自己的金融服務策略,而它宣布的出售或剝離對象不光是Coldwell Banker和Dean Witter,還包括已經在它旗下61年的Allstate。對這三家公司來說,這是它們的最美好經歷。擺脫了西爾斯后,三家公司均得以蓬勃發展。

但對在大多數人眼中代表著西爾斯這塊招牌的零售業務來說,重拾輝煌已經為時已晚。1991年初,在經歷了15年來最糟糕的假期旺季后,新數據表明沃爾瑪已經超越西爾斯,成為美國最大的零售商——《時代》周刊在一篇宣布新王登基的文章中將沃爾瑪稱為“曾經的邊遠地區廉價物品商店”。西爾斯一如既往地將二者的比較斥為毫無意義。該公司發言人不以為然地說:“我們銷售的商品中只有30%和沃爾瑪存在競爭關系。”回過頭來看,這似乎是在無意之中承認西爾斯的商品中只有30%是顧客最想要的。

沃爾瑪的收入直線上升,西爾斯卻基本上在原地踏步,這種情況下西爾斯根本找不到“重奪王位”的途徑。派汀格說:“到90年代初,游戲就結束了。策略的最重要之處在于跟歷史站在一邊,他們卻站在了另一邊。”

Thus began Sears’ second decisive error, relegating the retail business to second-class status (without ever saying so, of course) while seeking gilded new prospects for a merger far afield—very far afield. An initial wish list of merger partners included AT&T, Chevron, John Deere, IBM, and Walt Disney. All those candidates got shot down internally or when Sears approached the target. Eventually the strategic planners concluded that the new business must be one that would benefit heavily from Sears’ existing strengths. A Roper poll had recently declared Sears to be America’s most trusted corporation. In what industry was trust most valuable? The answer, the planners determined, was financial services.

Having located El Dorado, Sears began acquiring portions of it. The company bought the Coldwell Banker residential real estate firm and the Dean Witter ?Reynolds brokerage firm in 1981. Combining these with Allstate made Sears suddenly the largest financial services company in America by revenue. The elements of a grand strategy were in place.

In retrospect, signs of a debacle were apparent. The company’s planning masterminds, like many big-picture strategists, regarded the company’s customers not as humans to be served but as a natural resource to be mined. After the acquisitions were announced, vice chairman Donald Craib explained the rationale: “We’re going to allow Dean Witter and Coldwell Banker exposure to this tremendous customer base.” It was a classic example of a strategy derived from the company’s needs, not customers’ needs.

Another ominous sign was Sears’ justification to investors for buying these companies, which leaned heavily on synergies and cross-selling. Almost all acquirers invoke those two blessings, and nearly all overestimate them. Sears certainly did so. Dean Witter offices in Sears stores did less business than freestanding offices. Four years into the new strategy, the Sears Financial Centers, which combined Allstate, Coldwell Banker, and Dean Witter in various permutations at 312 Sears stores, were still unprofitable overall. Merging customer data for effective cross-selling proved extremely difficult. Some initiatives succeeded. Dean Witter launched a credit card, the Discover card, which became highly successful—even more so after Dean Witter was spun off from Sears in 1992 and other retailers could accept the card without supporting the competition. But overall, says John Pittinger, a consultant to Sears at the time, “there was almost no synergy with the other companies.”

By diversifying, Sears got the worst of both worlds. It didn’t achieve the synergies it had counted on from financial services. And for the first time in Sears history, retailing was not the company’s central focus. “I don’t think they set out not to be focused on the merchandise group,” says Allstate’s Wilson, “but that’s what happened.” It was a terrible time for a retailer to take its eye off the ball, with big-box category killers—Home Depot, Staples, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond—transforming the industry, and Walmart becoming a giant. “The board viewed the stores as a cash cow, which they were,” says Pittinger. “The directors were planning to milk the retail operation until it stopped.”

The effect on performance was stark. In 1981, when the diversification was announced, the Sears retail group’s return on sales was already an appalling 36% worse than the retail industry median; during the period when Sears also owned the financial firms, it averaged 49% worse. Combining an underperforming finance business with a cratering retail business produced an unthinkable result: By 1988, Sears’ market value had plunged 66% in constant dollars from its 1965 peak, and Wall Street had Sears pegged as a takeover target.

Sears finally pulled the plug on its financial services strategy in 1992, announcing it would sell or spin off not just Coldwell Banker and Dean Witter but also Allstate, which had been part of the company for 61 years. It was the best thing that ever happened to those three businesses. Liberated from Sears, all of them blossomed and thrived.

But it was too late for the retail operation—what most people meant by the word Sears—to return to glory. In early 1991, after its worst holiday season in 15 years, new figures showed that Sears had been surpassed as North America’s largest retailer by Walmart, “a onetime backwoods bargain barn,” as Time called it in a story announcing the new king. Sears, characteristically, dismissed the comparison as meaningless: “We compete with Walmart on only 30% of the goods we sell,” sniffed a spokesman. It seems, in hindsight, an unwitting admission that Sears was selling only 30% of the goods consumers wanted most.

With Walmart’s revenue rocketing while Sears’ was essentially stagnant, Sears couldn’t plot any path to regaining the throne. “By the early ’90s, the game was over,” says Pittinger. “The most important part of strategy is being on the right side of history, and they were on the wrong side of history.”

****

近30年后,西爾斯勉強活了下來。20世紀90年代,它一度重獲動力。當時,孤注一擲的高管和董事會打破了100年來的傳統,聘請了一位外部人士來經營公司。他就是薩克斯第五大道精品百貨店的高管亞瑟·馬丁內斯。他發現西爾斯仍然無法正常運轉。馬丁內斯回憶道:“那時只有投向內部和上方的目光。所有東西都要弄到最高層去。根本就沒有責任制可言。”他帶來了自己的外部人員團隊,并且迅速提高了銷售額、營業利潤、股價和士氣。但在2000年馬丁內斯卸任時,西爾斯的股價又回到了他剛上臺時的水平。

馬丁內斯的繼任者,前首席財務官艾倫·萊西非常努力地想把西爾斯從購物中心里搬出來。萊西說,他這樣做的原因是這些“門店的模式以服務為基礎,而我們的顧客不愿意在這樣的模式上花錢”。他試圖建立類似于沃爾瑪的非購物中心風格店鋪,稱為Sears Grand,但并未成功。西爾斯的股價大幅波動。當艾迪·蘭伯特于2004年上任時,董事會認為他的收購建議是他們面對的最佳選擇。

我們應該從這個令人嘆息的長故事里汲取哪些教訓呢?撰寫或參與撰寫了超暢銷商業書《基業長青》(Built to Last)、《從優秀到卓越》(Good to Great)和《選擇成就卓越》(Great by Choice)的吉姆·柯林斯還寫過一本較薄而且不那么出名的書,叫做《巨人如何倒下》(How the Mighty Fall)。他說分析和敘述衰退要比描寫成功難得多。柯林斯說:“成為偉大公司的路很窄。有些事必須得做。但為走下坡路的公司確立一個框架非常困難。這就像打臺球——用三角框擺球的方法只有幾種,卻有無數的辦法把球打散。”

柯林斯并沒有為了寫書而研究西爾斯,但他發現的并且在最近幾次采訪中闡述的框架幾乎可以精準地套用在西爾斯的潰敗上。這個框架始于自大——西爾斯就非常的傲慢。在20世紀70年代陷入困境前,西爾斯的零售業務從未聘請過顧問,也從不相信外人能夠給他們提出任何有價值的建議。“西爾斯人”從不參加零售行業會議,他們自覺高人一等。這種傲慢的最響亮表述來自于110層的芝加哥西爾斯大廈,它在20世紀60年代投入使用。時任CEO的戈登·梅特卡夫對《時代》周刊解釋說:“作為世界上最大的零售企業,我們覺得自己應該有世界上最大的總部。”該公司當時還預測,到2000年,西爾斯員工將占據全部110個樓層。而實際上,西爾斯并沒有出現增長,反而萎縮了,并在1995年搬出了這幢大樓。現在這座建筑被稱為威利斯大廈。

傲慢會削弱自律,而自律是柯林斯企業衰退分析的核心。成本自律往往第一個消失;西爾斯當然也是這樣。在很長一段時間里,外界一直認為規模效益或許能夠讓西爾斯在為商品定價時永遠具有無可匹敵的成本優勢,其實并非如此。西爾斯的商品采購價或許確實比其他公司都低,但它浪費的經常性開支是非常之多(想想那座大樓),以至于它的總成本遠遠超過行業平均水平。

成功帶來增長,增長孕育出官僚作風,官僚作風則破壞自律。柯林斯說:“是什么取代了為什么。你要確保的可不僅僅是10名、100名或者1000名員工能夠完成工作,所以你給每個人都發了錦囊妙計。諷刺的是這些人都不知道自己為什么要遵循這樣的方法。它變成了教條,而不是得到理解。”在西爾斯,問題和這家公司一樣大;據說它的員工手冊有29000頁。

柯林斯指出,在衰退的下一個階段,領導者會把問題歸咎于外部因素;20世紀70年代的西爾斯就是這么做的。一個相關的毛病是忽視“基本飛輪”,也就是構建企業的基本商業理念。柯林斯說:“人們往往低估了一個偉大飛輪的作用。”西爾斯領導層押注在金融服務上,因為他們覺得自己的“飛輪”,也就是零售業務,40年前就已經停止增長。家得寶、勞氏和沃爾瑪等公司已經證明他們錯的有多離譜。

在四處想辦法解決問題時,領導者往往會重組公司,而且有時會重組上癮;這也是西爾斯的特征之一。20世紀70和80年代,西爾斯曾經多次采用控股公司結構,并將龐大的金融服務業務的邊邊角角在相互敵對的高管統領的不斷變形的私人領地之間顛來倒去。這些措施一點兒用也沒有。在衰退晚期,公司有可能把希望寄托在外人身上,希望他成為救世主一樣的領導者。這樣的負責人剛上臺時,公司一般都會變得有起色,但接下來卻仍然會令人失望。亞瑟·馬丁內斯掌權時的局勢符合這樣的模式。

最后一個階段是真正的公司衰亡期——資不抵債并且銷聲匿跡,或者干脆變得無足輕重,西爾斯就是這樣。一個名叫西爾斯的實體也許可以再撐幾年。但說到作為當今美國文化的元素之一,作為長期增長前景令人稱道的零售商,西爾斯已經不在其列。

這個過程耗時之長令人咂舌。憑借鼎盛時期的成功,西爾斯的衰退期比大多數公司都長的多。但即使是不那么大的公司,敗亡也幾乎總是一個迷惑人的緩慢過程。柯林斯說:“構筑偉大的過程非常緩慢,想想沃爾瑪或西南航空就會明白。滑坡則和崛起完全一樣,都是一個積累的過程。一家偉大公司的衰退只是看起來像是發生在一瞬間,這是因為問題已經很嚴重時人們才會注意到。而這也正是它如此危險的原因。”

在為西爾斯哀嘆之際,我們或許不該為它的崩塌而哭泣過長時間。沒有哪家公司能永遠存在下去,但它的生命必須持續較長時間,值得稱贊而且成績卓著。同時,西爾斯的故事應該讓我們感到害怕。它向所有公司領導者表明,無論他們有多出名,抑或在自己的公司多么有統治力,毀滅之力都有可能正在暗中作祟,它可能源于成功而又為成功所掩蓋,并且正在破壞這些領導者所做的一切工作。在它們帶來難看的結局前,能夠發現這些毀滅之力的高管確實少之又少。(財富中文網)

本文另一版本登載于《財富》雜志2019年6月刊,標題為《70年的自我毀滅》。

譯者:Charlie

審校:夏林

Nearly 30 years later, Sears survives, barely. It regained momentum briefly in the 1990s when top executives and the board became so desperate that they broke with a century of tradition and hired an outsider to run the place—Saks Fifth Avenue executive Arthur Martinez. He found an organization still in its dysfunctional mode. “It was inward-looking and upward-looking,” he recalls. “Everything rose to the top. There was no accountability.” He brought in his own team of ?outsiders, quickly elevating sales, operating profit, the stock price, and morale. But when he left in 2000, the stock was right back where it had been when he took over.

His successor, former CFO Alan Lacy, tried hard to move Sears out of its mall locations because those stores “had a service-based model that our customers weren’t willing to pay for,” he says. He tried a Walmart-like, off-mall style of store called Sears Grand, but it didn’t take. The stock swung wildly. When Eddie Lampert came along in 2004, the board decided his buyout offer was the best option they faced.

What lessons should we distill from this long, sorry tale? Jim Collins, author or coauthor of business mega-sellers Built to Last, Good to Great, and Great by Choice, also wrote a slimmer, less famous book called How the Mighty Fall. Collins describes analyzing and writing about decline as a far tougher task than writing about success. “To become a great company is a narrow path,” he says. “There are things you have to do. But it’s so hard to get a framework of decline. It’s like a pool table—there are only a few ways to rack the balls but an infinite number of ways to disorder them.”

Collins didn’t study Sears for his book, but the framework he identified, and on which he elaborated in recent interviews, fits Sears’ demise almost precisely. It begins with arrogance, which Sears developed at mammoth scale. Until the troubles of the 1970s, Sears’ retail operations had never hired a consultant, believing no outsider could possibly tell them anything of value. “Searsmen” didn’t attend retail industry conferences, considering themselves members of a higher caste. The loudest expression of arrogance was the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago, commissioned in the 1960s. “Being the largest retailer in the world, we thought we should have the largest headquarters in the world,” then-CEO Gordon Metcalf explained to Time. By 2000, the company forecast, Sears employees would occupy all 110 floors. In reality, Sears shrank rather than grew and had vacated the building by 1995. It’s now known as the Willis Tower.

Arrogance erodes discipline, and discipline is central to Collins’s analysis of decline. Cost discipline is often the first to go; it certainly went at Sears. Outsiders long assumed that economies of scale would forever give Sears an unassailable cost advantage in pricing merchandise, but it wasn’t true. The company could indeed buy goods for less than anyone else—but its profligate corporate overhead was so massive (think of that building) that its total costs were bloated far beyond the industry average.

Success creates growth, which spawns bureaucracy, which subverts discipline. “The what replaces the why,” Collins says. “You have to make sure not just 10 or a hundred or a thousand people can do something, so you give everyone the recipe book. The irony is that all those people don’t know why they do it this way. It becomes dogma rather than understanding.” At Sears, the problem was as big as the company; the employee manual reportedly ran to 29,000 pages.

In the next stage of decline, leaders externalize the blame for what’s going wrong, Collins says; Sears certainly did that in the 1970s. A related pathology is neglect of “the fundamental flywheel,” the basic business idea on which the company is built. “People often underestimate how far a great flywheel can go,” Collins says. Sears’ leaders bet on financial services because they thought that retail, their own flywheel, had run out of growth 40 years ago. Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, and others showed how wrong they were.

As leaders cast about for solutions, they typically reorganize the company, sometimes obsessively, and Sears checks that box. At various times in the 1970s and 1980s, it adopted a holding company structure and shuffled bits and pieces of its financial services empire among shape-shifting fiefdoms overseen by warring executives. None of it helped. In the late stages of decline, companies may invest their hopes in an outsider as savior-leader, under whom an initial upswing is common, followed by disappointment. The Arthur Martinez era fits that bill.

The final stage can be literal corporate death—insolvency and disappearance—or it can just be irrelevance, which the company has already reached. An entity bearing the Sears name could persist for years. But as an element of today’s American culture, and as a retailer with plausible prospects for long-term growth, Sears is done.

It’s astonishing how long it has taken. By virtue of its tremendous success at its height, Sears extended its decline much longer than most. But even for lesser companies, failure is almost always a deceptively slow process. “Greatness gets built very slowly—think of Walmart or Southwest Airlines,” says Collins. “Decline is just like ascent, a cumulative process. The decline of a great company only looks instantaneous because you notice it when it’s acute. That’s what’s so dangerous about it.”

As we mourn Sears, maybe we shouldn’t weep too long over its demise. No company lives forever, and it has had a long, laudable, productive life. But the Sears story should scare us. It shows every business leader that no matter how celebrated or dominant his or her business may be, the forces of destruction could be at work right now, unnoticed, caused by success but also hidden by success, undermining all the work the leader has done. Rare indeed is the executive who can spot those forces before they lead to an ugly end.

A version of this article appears in the June 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Seven Decades of Self-Destruction.”

我來點評

  最新文章

最新文章:

500強情報中心

財富專欄

北京pk10定位胆玩法说明