198_Polo_Ralph_Lauren_logo_profileThe stock price of Ralph Lauren, an upscale apparel company renowned for its Polo brand, has taken a thrashing lately. The stock has declined by about 50% over the past one year because of sluggish demand in the US and a decline in the value of its overseas sales from a strong dollar. In the third quarter of this year, the company reported a colossal 39% drop in  earnings.  The company also lowered its fiscal 2017 guidance numbers. Investors fear that the company may be at the vortex of a long-term slump.

End of an Era

To energize the polo pony, Mr. Ralph Lauren, the iconic designer-founder of Ralph Lauren and its sole Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Creative Officer, finally decided to step down as the CEO after being at the helm for almost 50 years. Mr. Lauren is hoping to inject some youthfulness into the septuagenarian polo team. Stefan Larsson, who is a former H&M executive and president of Old Navy, was hand-picked by Mr. Lauren to take charge of a company that is under attack.

Mr. Larsson will report to Mr. Lauren, although Mr. Lauren characterized their relationship as a “partnership” which is understandable considering that Mr. Lauren is the largest individual shareholder in his company and is expected to play a role in major decisions. Essentially, the company is separating the roles of the professional manager from that of the creative manager. The separation of the two roles will help assure Wall Street that the creative aspirations do not bleed the financial foundations of company.

Brutal Cost Cutting

Under the new strategy labelled as “New Plan Forward,” the incoming CEO intends to slash costs to fashion a reversal in downward profits. The company intends to close 50 stores, lay-off about 1,000 employees (or 7% of its workforce), and remove three of the nine layers of management that stand between the CEO and sales team.

The clothing production lead times will be amended from 15 to 9 months. Certain clothing lines will be on a hyper fast production time whereby it will be moved from the development stage to the shop floor within eight weeks.

The cost cutting strategy is bold and brutal, the Swedish CEO intends to slash costs by about $180 million to $220 million per year which is in addition to the $125 million in cost cutting completed last year.

Restructuring Costs

According to the plans, the company is projecting $400 million in restructuring charges and additionally the company intends to write off as much as $150 million in inventory that is scheduled to be liquidated. Evidently, near term earnings numbers are going to take a big hit before increasing.

Uncertain Prospects

The reasons for Mr. Lauren giving up some operational and financial control of the company after 50 years are notable and praiseworthy. Once a founder-owner company becomes sufficiently complex, the natural economic progression for the company is to retain a high quality professional manager who is responsible for supervising day-to-day operations, mange investments, and make optimal financing decisions with the objective of maximizing firm value. The advent of a professional managers also assures investors that the financial aspects of the company are not being compromised as creative side blossoms.

However, some of the restructuring plans are hard to assess. Some immediate concerns include,

  1. Why hire a CEO from outside the company? Why not hire an insider who understands the value of the brand?
  2. Can young CEO render value while being under the influence of a powerful founder-owner?
  3. Why pick a CEO from a low-priced apparel designer company that is not a direct competitor?
  4. Why are the business models that helped revive the fortunes at Old Navy and H&M likely to be useful for Ralph Lauren?
  5. Cost cutting strategies can only render value up to a point, eventually the principal driver of earnings is revenue growth.
  6. Too much cost cutting can also harm the brand value because of a loss in human capital.

Considering all these questions, the future of Ralph Lauren remains highly uncertain.

Helsinki, June 21, 12.48P.

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