"We are stunned that RealNetworks has adopted the tactics and ethics of a hacker to break into the iPod." -- from an Apple statement decrying Real's attempt to make its sound files compatible with the popular MP3 player
The California Public Employees' Retirement System has come under fire for being too aggressive in its quest for good governance. So on July 26, the No. 1 pension fund called in Richard Koppes, CalPERS' former chief counsel; Ralph Whitworth, a money manager and shareholder-rights activist; and Arthur Levitt Jr., ex-chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission, for their opinions. Their verdict: The fund had overreached.
In a bid to stop companies from awarding consulting work to accountants that also audit the company's books, CalPERS had withheld votes from some 2,400 directors, including investment guru Warren Buffett. CalPERS was also criticized for trying to oust Safeway's (SWY) CEO shortly after a supermarket strike. Many CalPERS directors are union members. "We told them they had too much going on," says Koppes. "We said they need to be more tactical and less political."
Will CalPERS slow down? "We plan on continuing to be aggressive, but look for us to pick our targets more sharply," says spokesperson Pat Macht. Look out.
Tongues wagged on Aug. 4 after Barry Diller, the alpha-dog CEO of Web giant IAC/InterActiveCorp, had a testy exchange during a quarterly earnings call with Piper Jaffray analyst Safa Rashtchy. Diller ranted at Rashtchy, who has argued that profit margins at IAC's Expedia and Hotels.com sites will narrow as the economy improves and hotel chains gain bargaining power. "You've said it for two years; you've asked us 47,000 times," Diller seethed. "We've said 48,000 times we don't agree with you....As Judy Garland once said, 'We'll sing all night."'
In some ways, Diller's right. Margins in IAC's hotel business are indeed up. But revenues came in lower than expected, as growth slowed at Hotels.com and Expedia. Ultimately, Diller's show got panned: American Technology Research analyst Mark Mahaney said Diller's "rambling, imploding performance on the conference call" helped fuel a 20% drop in IAC's stock after IAC trimmed its second-half profit guidance. Rashtchy -- who actually raised his rating on IAC shares recently -- took his browbeating in stride. "He did get pretty upset," Rashtchy says in an e-mail. Is it a coincidence that Judy Garland also had a temper?
Wal-Mart Stores is trying to forestall pretrial evidence-gathering in the largest sex-discrimination case in U.S. history, which covers more than 1.6 million current and former female workers. In July 26 court filings, the retailer says a "conservative" estimate would put discovery at 680,000 hours -- or 326 person-work-years -- to interview witnesses and collect papers at more than 3,400 stores.
So the retailer is trying to freeze discovery, as it waits to see if the Ninth Circuit will consider an appeal of the class-action certification. Wal-Mart contends the effort means 30,000 interviews and a review of 60 million pages of documents: a waste if the court reverses or alters the certification. If an appeal is heard, a decision might not come until next summer.
Plaintiffs' lawyers say Wal-Mart is exaggerating. The first phase would probably involve updating computer info on pay and promotions that plaintiffs already have, while giving details about a recent pay revamp. And even if an appeal succeeds, the info won't go to waste. Should the court deem the current class inappropriate, lawyers may file regional class actions instead.
Skeptics doubted the racy Sex and the City would be a draw once sanitized. But six months after Time Warner's (TWX) HBO retired its most-watched series, the edited reruns on TBS have fetched 2 million viewers an episode -- more than some of the top-rated shows in syndication. TBS, also owned by Time Warner, pays HBO an estimated $1 million per episode. And DVD sales have rated in the top 15 for TV shows, says Nielsen Media Research. With an expected $300 million from DVD sales and reruns, Sex's post-HBO success is mounting. Don't be surprised if a PG version of The Sopranos turns up on TBS soon.
The New York Stock Exchange is focusing more on exchange-traded funds. ETFs, which track companies the way mutual funds do but trade like stocks, have mostly tended to list on the American Stock Exchange.
This year, the NYSE has tripled its ETF listings, adding nine iShares -- ETFs based on Morningstar indexes -- and two in-house products. All of them are sponsored by Barclay's Global Investors. The NYSE has a long way to go: The Amex has 85% of the market, with 138 of the 160 U.S.-listed ETFs.
When William Nuti gave up his senior vice-president job at Cisco Systems (CSCO) two years ago to be president of Symbol Technologies (SBL), he thought the bar-code company had fixed its accounting problems. But he soon found that more wrongdoing was to be un-covered. A probe led in June to Justice Dept. indictments of eight former execs and a $37 million settlement with the SEC. "There was a toxic subculture that had to be dealt with," says Nuti, who became CEO last year.
Now, Nuti, 40, is tending to the Holtzville (N.Y.) company's future. On July 27 he paid $230 million for Matrics, making a play in the inventory-tracking radio-frequency-identification market. But investors balked, and the stock dropped 10%, to $12.50, though it has regained most of the lost ground. Nuti thinks bar codes will coexist with RFID for years, so it makes sense for Symbol to sell both. He faces fierce competition in the RFID arena. But at least his accounting problems seem to be behind him.
Some macho industries are getting in touch with their feminine sides. Home Depot (HD) will spend $1 billion this year to add softer lighting and brighter signs to 300 stores in a bid to match archrival Lowe's (LOW) long-standing appeal to women. And Best Buy (BBY), sparked by the realization that women buy 55% of electronics items, will add personal-shopping assistants in some stores to explain geek-speak such as "megabyte" that some female customers may not grok.
Women may be paid less than men and make it to the CEO suite less often, but the U.S. economy is more and more female-driven. U.S. women control about $3.3 trillion in annual consumer spending and $1.5 trillion more in business outlays, according to management guru Tom Peters' latest book, Re-imagine!
What's more, women are expanding their influence: New studies show that women decide 92% of vacation plans, 62% of car purchases, and 52% of home-improvement projects, says Martha Barletta, CEO of consultant TrendSight Group. And women control 51% of America's personal wealth, says the Federal Reserve. Even the oil change is getting a makeover: Jiffy Lube International will spend some $8 million to overhaul shops, put Vogue magazine in its waiting rooms, and train its repair staff to explain "transmission fluid" on invoices. Now that's a female economy.
Microsoft (MSFT) has its twin Windows and Office monopolies, but don't tell the brass that the giant doesn't have competition. At its July 29 financial analyst meeting, CEO Steven Ballmer identified the software king's toughest rivals. The annual list is eagerly awaited because invariably one or two of the companies fall away in subsequent years, vanquished by Microsoft or done in by poor decisions. Previous names included Netscape, Novell (NOVL), and America Online (TWX).
So who's on this year's list? Among consumer companies, Ballmer singled out Sony (SNE) and Nokia (NOK), along with list newbie Google and Apple Computer, back after an eight-year hiatus. In corporate software, Microsoft names IBM (IBM), Oracle (ORCL), Sun Microsystems (SUNW), and first-timer SAP (SAP), which Microsoft considered buying earlier this year. Linux is a return listee, and Ballmer has added OpenOffice, an open-source word-processing application. Any guesses which on the list will be the next to go?