"There's only so much corn to go around." -- John Hofmeister, U.S. chairman of Shell, commenting on a surge in the demand for ethanol, on Bloomberg News Online
Companies are discovering a powerful new breed of temp worker: the interim CEO. Last year nine top-tier companies had temporary chiefs, according to a study by public-relations firm Weber Shandwick, up from just two in 2004. The firm's chief reputation strategist, Leslie Gaines-Ross, attributes the rise to higher-than-usual CEO turnover and increased board willingness to boot lackluster CEOs even before finding a permanent replacement.
Over the past three years the tenure of transient execs averaged only 159 days, but get this: Most performed better than their permanent CEO peers. Shares of companies with interim CEOs in that period outperformed a stock index of peer organizations by a median of 8.1%.
One reason, Gaines-Ross suggests: shareholder relief "that the company's strategic direction is finally in new hands." Or perhaps being just a substitute gives one the courage to make bold changes. The study could give a boost to short-timers such as Claire Babrowski of Radio Shack (RSH), Rick Snyder of Gateway (GTW), and Michael Strianese of L-3 Communications. After all, some temp chiefs, like Carl Camden of Kelly Services (KELYA) (yes, the temp agency), do so well that they ultimately land the job.
Michael Eisner swears there is life after moguldom and projects to pursue beyond his flop CNBC (GE) talk show, Conversations with Michael Eisner. At a recent dinner given for him by The Week magazine at Manhattan's Four Seasons restaurant, Eisner was tan, relaxed, and trying not to sound vindictive about his final embattled days at Walt Disney (DIS) last year. He opened up before 60 or so media cognoscenti, telling Sir Harry Evans, The Week's editor at large, that he's working at home with two MBA students who are deferring their schooling. "I went from a company of 125,000 to 3," he joked.
Team Eisner is investing in an independent animated film, among other things. A dream project, Eisner said, would be to make a movie of The 9/11 Report, A Graphic Adaptation, a sort of narrative comic book (based on The 9/11 Commission Report) to be published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Asked about successor Robert Iger's plan to put Steve Jobs on Disney's board when Disney completes its purchase of Pixar Animation Studios, Eisner, who had a bitter standoff with Jobs about distributing Pixar films, said: "I probably wouldn't have done that." A notorious micromanager, Eisner also said he'd like to write a book about the art of managing that way: "You don't think Bill Gates knows every little thing that is going on at Microsoft (MSFT)?"
It's the Internet vs. ink. General Motors' FYI blog (fyi.gmblogs.com) has been buzzing ever since company spokesman Brian Akre submitted a letter to The New York Times earlier this month in response to columnist Thomas Friedman's May 31 column. Friedman had denounced the company's program of offering subsidized gas cards to Florida and California buyers of certain GM models, including Hummers and SUVs. Among other things, Friedman wrote that GM was "like a crack dealer" for gas addicts and was "dangerous to America's future." GM posted a rebuttal on its blog. It also sent a letter to the Times, pointing to the hybrid buses and fuel-efficient cars in its line and characterizing Friedman's assertions with strong language of its own: "What rubbish."
The two words became a contentious point for Akre and the Times, whose editors explained in e-mails that "it's not the tone we use in Letters" and suggested the phrases "We beg to differ" or "Not so" instead. Akre withdrew the letter, then blogged an item on GM's site titled "The Ban on `Rubbish' in The New York Times," with links to the various versions of his proposed letter and to copies of the e-mails to and from the Times. The postings in response piled up in "overwhelming" numbers, says Akre, many but not all in support of GM.
Perhaps more important, "The Ban on Rubbish" was picked up by other media outlets, including Automotive News, autoblog.com, and the popular gawker.com (which, poking fun at what it called a "battle royale," linked to both GM's blog and Friedman's column).
So when Friedman responded in a June 14 column to GM's first blogged rebuttal, the company went only to the Web to reply. Akre says he now believes the Times did GM a favor by forcing it to react in cyberspace. Citing the adage about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, he says: "Well, you don't need ink."
Figuring people in the Netherlands might play hooky to watch the World Cup, Dutch insurance broker SEZ is selling special coverage to employers, one that reimburses a company for an employee's calling in sick on the day of (and after) a World Cup match featuring the national team. Companies pay a premium of 2% to 4% of an employee's salary. In return, the policy covers the cost of an AWOL worker's salary for up to two days -- money that can be used to pay a temp. Since SEZ offered the coverage on its Web site four weeks ago, almost 400 employers have signed up, says Nels Karssens, SEZ president. "World Cup sickness," he notes, is contagious.
Few brands resonate with girls as strongly as Mattel's $400 million-a-year American Girl doll. So when Mattel said that it will close its online American Girl Club in August, high-profile media blogger Jeff Jarvis objected on behalf of 9-year-olds like his daughter. The subscription-based club lets girls send messages to other doll owners, and Jarvis says his daughter is heartbroken about the closure. "I'll bet that Mattel didn't know the obligation it took on when it started this community," Jarvis recently wrote in BuzzMachine.com, his blog. "It's like putting up a Berlin Wall around third grades the world around."
American Girl spokesperson Stephanie Spanos says revenue from subscriptions ($20 a year to join, $10 to renew) wasn't enough to justify operating costs. (The site has a staff that ensures sensitive data such as home addresses aren't shared.) As one of Jarvis' readers wrote: "Perhaps third grade is a good time for a girl to start learning that there are friends, and there is business."
The French nose, trained to sniff out the best in wines, perfumes, and cheese, has a new assignment: identifying odors in garbage and sewage.
Paris-based utility giant Suez (SZE), which has a $14 billion-a-year business in water and waste-treatment services worldwide, has just opened an olfactometry lab. At its suburban Paris research center, technicians inhale air samples taken from dumps and sewage plants, trying to pinpoint what makes them stink. These "noses," as they're called, have been trained to use an "odor wheel," a diagram that groups smells into categories such as "fermented" and "putrid" and lists possible sources -- say, rotten cabbage (fermented) or dead animal (putrid). The system was developed for Suez by Mel Suffet, a UCLA professor of environmental health sciences and an expert on analyzing smells and flavors.
Finding the source of odors makes it easier to neutralize them, according to Suez research chief Diane d'Arras. "It's not enough to know that something smells bad. We have to know what molecules to look for," she says. When sludge from one of Suez's Chilean sewage plants, for instance, was found to contain a substance that stank only when wet, the company installed machinery to dry the sludge.
D'Arras says that even sophisticated lab equipment is less sensitive to odors than the human nose, which can identify airborne particles present in only a few parts per billion.
Who knows better than a marketer that the medium is the message? A midsize Boston PR agency, SHIFT Communications, has developed a press release made especially for the Internet. The impetus for this invention: Web 2.0, that second-generation wave of Net services that let people create content and exchange information online. To encourage PR folks to use these Web tools to get the attention of journalists and bloggers, SHIFT has developed a model for a "social media press release." The Microsoft (MSFT) Word-based format, a free download, mixes elements from traditional releases (pre-approved quotes, for instance) with technology-rich features. Press releases created from the template can incorporate company logos, video, and links to blog posts and traditional media coverage on the product being flogged. With a click, a PR exec can also send the finished press release to the popular consumer-generated news site DIGG. And a reporter or blogger getting the release can click through to a dedicated Web page that collects mentions of the product in question. "This gives journalists everything in one place," says Todd Defren, who developed the format at SHIFT.
About 3,500 copies of the template have been downloaded since May 23, Defren says, and at least one company, media analyst Cymfony, has used the template to plug its e-book about today's media landscape. Journalists, he adds, "will catch on to it, and the more they see it, the more they'll like it." (Advice from a former Financial Times journalist, Tom Foremski, inspired some of the format.) PR heavyweight Edelman plans to unveil its Web 2.0 press release, with similar features, this summer.