Bart Becht quits while he’s ahead

April 15, 2011

The Financial Times headline almost said it all: “Becht goes out with a bang as £2bn is wiped off Reckitt shares.” Bart Becht, chief executive of Reckitt Benckiser, has abruptly announced his departure from the household goods company he had steered to unprecedented success over the past 16 years. An instant £2bn personal valuation was his reward. A better launch-pad for a portfolio career would be hard to imagine, if that is what he has in mind.

But with the bouquet came a few brickbats as well. Could it be that arguably the most successful corporate businessman of his generation was also one of its most selfish? I’m not talking about the £90m “fat cat” cheque he received in 2009 for services rendered, but the manner in which he announced his departure.

Far from organising an orderly succession, Becht brutally declared he was going in September, leaving – by some accounts – the company rudderless. Or rather, in the hands of the no doubt competent, but almost unknown, Rakesh Kapoor. In so doing, he had arrogantly put his own interests ahead of those of shareholders, who had invested in the Becht marketing magic, mistakenly believing he would be there forever.

I’m afraid I don’t buy that argument in its entirety. All right, the announcement was a shock – Becht is only 54 and had given no previous indication of his desire to quit, from what we are told. But when you invest in personality, you also invest in that personality’s potency. The minute a successor is announced, the potency is diminished and the magic fades. Ask yourself why Elizabeth 1, a potent leader if ever there was one, never announced a successor until she was on her death-bed. Ask yourself why there is no successor in sight at WPP.

An interregnum, however defined, carries risks all of its own. Stakeholders (whether subjects or shareholders) worry about the competence of the successor, who can never be tried and tested enough. The barons/boardroom rivals become refractory and disloyal – why wasn’t one of them chosen? The former leader can’t quite bear the idea of stepping back and letting go: Sir Stuart Rose’s latterday conduct at Marks & Spencer springs to mind.

No, quit while you’re ahead. There’s a lot to be said for a clean, swift break. Shareholders will get over the shock in a surprisingly short time.

Is own-label really Miles better? Or Becht simply best?

October 27, 2009

Who’s right, Miles Roberts, ceo of McBride – own-label purveyor to the likes of Tesco and Carrefour – or Bart Becht, ceo of Reckitt Benckiser and arch-high-priest of the cult of the brand? Both claim to be winning the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers. Both can produce ample evidence to support their conviction.

Miles RobertsRoberts is sitting atop a sparkling set of first quarter financial results. He’s had an altogether good year, with McBride earnings well above trend as consumers look more critically at their shopping list in the midst of recession. This particular Q1 set were so good that there will be no need of Tesco own-label teeth-whitener to bring a gleam to Roberts’ smile. McBride’s share price shot up 10% as City analysts jostled to upgrade their underpowered year-end forecasts.

But Becht has been no slouch either. Profits for the maker of Cillit Bang, Vanish, Dettol and Finish were up 40% last year, and the City was just as eagerly awaiting his news and views as Q3 announcement time hoved into view.

And he has not  disappointed. RB has just released its own set of stunning quarterly results: profits were up 25%. A tribute, says Becht, to “our 17 Powerbrands, …. significant investment in media and marketing, and successful new product initiatives.”

“We see no let-up in the demand from retailers for great value and great performing products,” says Roberts. “The only way we you can do that is with own-brand.”

Bart BechtNot so contends Becht: “We are typically market leaders in higher growth categories. We clean dishes not shoes. I don’t have to tell you why. Penetration of dishwashers is going up but shoe polish is not growing because there are fewer people using these products.”

The impression we are left with is that own-label is growing, but RB is taking a larger slice of the high-margin branded sector that remains. It can do this because RB’s powers of innovation in engineering higher-margin products is second to none. Only, it’s not that simple. Part of McBride’s success has stemmed from greater product specialisation and innovation. It would appear that Roberts is no more interested in “shoe polish” than Becht. Instead McBride has been doing exactly the same as RB: engineering higher-margin products such as a five-in-one dishwasher tablet.

So in answer to the question: who’s right?  – it’s neither and both. A case of Frank Sinatra marketing: “I did it my way.”

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