As $100 Billion Goal Crumbles, Caterpillar Shakes Up C-Suite

  • A 41-year veteran retires after betting $20 billion on growth
  • Emerging market rout and powerful rival will challenge success

As chief executive officer of Caterpillar Inc., Douglas Oberhelman once pushed the company, like one of its trademark yellow-and-black bulldozers, to plow forward into world markets -- no matter the obstacles.

Oberhelman saw the growing middle class in China, India and Brazil demanded a better quality of life that included new roads, hospitals and airports. Caterpillar poured almost $20 billion into research and development, capital spending and deals over a couple of years. In 2012, he announced an audacious goal: Boosting sales more than 50 percent to as much as $100 billion in 2015.

His investments turned out to be ill-timed. Emerging markets slowed, and Caterpillar’s revenue over the last three years fell to less than half his target. On Monday, the Peoria, Illinois-based company, a bellwether for U.S. manufacturing, said Oberhelman was stepping down as CEO. His successor will have to negotiate both a sluggish market and more vigorous foreign competition.

Analysts said Oberhelman had fallen prey to the whipsaw of emerging economies: He had been worried about being unable to fill orders fast enough during a boom and was then forced to cut costs in a commodities-market bust.

“When he first came on, his original focus was not to be caught short of capacity,” said Stephen Volkmann, a New York-based analyst for Jefferies LLC. “We are now many years into a downtown.”

Under Oberhelman, Caterpillar bought Bucyrus International Inc. in 2011 for $8.6 billion, including debt. It was the company’s biggest deal ever. The next year, the company acquired Hong Kong-based ERA Mining Machinery Ltd. and its unit Siwei. That purchase led to a $580 million writedown.

Since then, Oberhelman reorganized Caterpillar’s mining and energy segments, shutting down dozens of factories and eliminating thousands of jobs. Profit margins increased, even as sales slipped.

‘180 Degrees’

“I give him a fair amount of credit for being willing and able to turn his view 180 degrees,” Volkmann said.

Oberhelman, the son of a John Deere salesman, grew up in the small town of Woodstock, Illinois, only a few hours from Caterpillar’s headquarters. He joined Caterpillar’s finance department right out of college, later working in Uruguay in the early 1980s and then Japan before returning to Peoria in the mid-1990s. Now 63, he has worked for Caterpillar, the largest maker of construction and mining equipment, for 41 years.

Oberhelman has a high profile. In 2010, he became chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, the industry’s largest trade organization. Oberhelman’s 2015 compensation was $17.9 million. He will retire with pension benefits worth at least $25.5 million, and stock options valued at $6.44 million as of Friday’s close, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

CEO-Chairman

Jim Umpleby, who is currently a group president for energy and transportation, will succeed Oberhelman as CEO. Umpleby, 58, is also a Caterpillar die-hard. He joined Caterpillar subsidiary Solar Turbines Inc. in San Diego in 1980 and worked in engineering, manufacturing, sales, marketing and customer service. The positions took him from the U.S. to Singapore and Malaysia.

But unlike Oberhelman, his successor will not be chairman, suggesting an outsider may have more of a role in decision-making. Oberhelman will remain as chairman until March 31 when Dave Calhoun will assume the role. Calhoun, who is currently on the board, is senior managing director and head of private equity portfolio operations of The Blackstone Group LP. Umpleby also will join the board.

Volkmann, who hasn’t spoken with Caterpillar about why the positions will be split, said an enhanced board role in investments, such as the ones made early in Oberhelman’s tenure, “may have been wise.”

Trailing Peers

Since Oberhelman became CEO in July 2010, Caterpillar shares have climbed 45 percent. That trails the 87 percent gain of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, of which Caterpillar is a member, and competitors such as Komatsu Ltd., which rose 50 percent in that time. The stock, which has rallied 28 percent this year along with a recovery in commodity-producer shares, fell 0.1 percent to $87.18 at 10:16 a.m. Tuesday in New York.

Caterpillar faces plenty of skeptics on Wall Street. In May, David Einhorn, who runs the hedge fund Greenlight Capital, said he had bet against the company and questioned whether its stock had bottomed. Jim Chanos, who predicted the collapse of Enron in 2001, has long been critical of Caterpillar. Its ratio of short interest divided by daily volume stands at 7.74 after reaching 12.52 in August, the highest since 1994.

Formidable Rival

The new CEO will face a more formidable global competitor after Komatsu, the second-biggest mining and construction equipment maker, agreed to buy Joy Global Inc. for $2.89 billion in July -- closer to the bottom rather than the top of the cycle. The Tokyo-based manufacturer secured the largest independent maker of underground-mining equipment, as well as the heft to better compete with Caterpillar beyond Komatsu’s dump-truck and excavator businesses.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. analysts Ann Duignan and Thomas Simonitsch had assumed Oberhelman would stay in the role until he reached 65, they said in a note to clients. The announcement comes a week before Caterpillar reports third-quarter earnings, when it often provides initial guidance for revenue growth for the upcoming year.

“The timing of the change in leadership suggests confirmation that the outlook for 2017 may be for a fifth consecutive year of revenue decline,” Duignan and Simonitsch said.

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