William C. Ford Jr. is tightening his grip on the auto maker founded by his great-grandfather. Sources say Ford's chairman began consulting outside directors this spring about the company's deepening problems--worsening quality, productivity, profits, and market share--and the dearth of information flowing to him and the rest of the Ford board.
The board concluded that Ford (F) CEO Jacques Nasser was spreading himself too thin. It voted on July 12 to beef up the responsibilities of his top managers. Then, on July 25, it created an office of the chairman and CEO. Nasser is now required to meet twice a month with Bill Ford, who is not involved in day-to-day operations.
Ford's expanded role makes him both a sounding board for Nasser and a conduit of information to the rest of the board. He's expected to join the CEO in deciding how to fix the company's biggest problems and deepen its management bench, as well as vetting the turnaround plans of new North American auto boss Nick Scheele. With the Bush administration under fire for its environmental policies, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered General Electric (GE) to clean up PCB pollution from the Hudson River. The move, which will lead to the biggest environmental dredging project in U.S. history, reaffirms a plan put forth in the waning days of the Clinton Administration. The project is expected to cost GE more than half a billion dollars. GE noted in a statement that over the past 20 years, it has spent $200 million on research and restoration of the Hudson River. The company said that it is "disappointed in the EPA's decision," which "will cause more harm than good." Environmentalists praised the move, with Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope calling the decision a "monumental step toward protecting New Yorkers from cancer-causing PCBs." Priceline.com (PCLN) stunned the market on July 31 by posting its first-ever profit. The name-your-own-price Web site easily beat analysts' expectations with a net of $2.8 million, or 1 cents a share, compared with a loss of $11.7 million, or 7 cents a share, a year earlier. CEO Richard Braddock says he has a leaner, humbler company than the one that expanded into everything from groceries to gas. Now, Priceline is more focused on travel--with airline seats, hotel rooms, and rental cars fueling the bulk of $365 million in sales this quarter. California Governor Gray Davis is coming under increasing fire for conflicts of interest among his energy staffers. Seven state workers have been fired, reassigned, or have resigned after filing disclosure forms showing that they owned shares of energy companies from which the state was buying power. California Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican and potential challenger to Davis in 2002, alerted state officials to the need for the filings. Dow Jones News Service reported that the Securities & Exchange Commission is investigating possible instances of insider trading among state employees. An SEC spokeswoman declined comment. As far back as 1995, Julian Robertson was pushing for the sale of Xtra, a transportation-equipment lessor in which Robertson's Tiger hedge funds then owned a 24% stake. He finally got his way. On July 31, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) agreed to pay $55 a share, or $590 million, in cash for the Westport (Conn.) company. The price, a 5% premium above Xtra's previous-day close, works out to about $160 million for the Tiger funds, which now own 27% of the company. A new Securities & Exchange Commission study of Wall Street analysts set blood boiling on Capitol Hill. In examining nine big investment banks that dominate initial public offerings, the SEC found that 16 of 57 analysts were treated to cheap, pre-IPO stock in companies that they later covered--and recommended as buys. Worse, the SEC found that three analysts had sold or shorted shares that they were recommending as buys to the public. Releasing the study to the House Financial Services Committee on July 31, acting SEC Chairman Laura Unger said the agency was studying whether those analysts committed fraud under securities laws. Lawmakers said the study boosted the chances that Congress would step in to regulate conflicts of interest between Wall Street's research and investment banking. -- Danaher bid $7 billion in stock, cash, and assumed debt for Cooper Industries.
-- General Motors' DirecTV is targeting pirates who siphon off its satellite-TV signal.
-- The Federal Trade Commission approved PepsiCo.'s merger with Quaker Oats. Investors slammed World Wrestling Federation Entertainment (WWF) shares on July 31, after the company released its earnings outlook. The stock fell 19%, to $10.50, before more optimistic buyers lifted it 6% the next day. Although WWF expects 8%-to-10% growth next year, it cited softer ad revenues and uncertainty over future contracts.