MISSION INTANGIBLE

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MISSION:INTANGIBLE, the blog of the Intangible Asset Finance Society, offers critical comments on intangible asset, corporate reputation, and finance; supplemented by quantitative reputation metrics. Intangible assets include business processes, patents, trademarks; reputations for ethics and integrity; quality, safety, sustainability, security, and resilience; and comprise 70% of the average company's value. MISSION:INTANGIBLE is a registered trademark of the Intangible Asset Finance Society.

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GM: Beating the odds at 1 in 6000

C. HUYGENS - Wednesday, July 09, 2014
In a game of heads you win, tails I lose, the only strategy is land a coin on its edge. According to Daniel Murray and Scott Teare writing in Physical Review E, the probability of an American nickel landing on edge is approximately 1 in 6000 tosses.

In a game of bet-the-company, those aren't great odds. Caught between customers and victims who wanted open ended compensation, and creditors and investors who wanted to protect GM's assets from open compensation, CEO Mary Barra was bound to anger at least one key stakeholder group -- and therefore lose. As the metrics below report, she beat the odds and successfully delighted both.

According to the reputation analysis published by Consensiv, the reputation controls company, based on reputation value metrics from Steel City Re, the reputation insurer, GM's reputation benefitted from the appointment of Kenneth Feinberg to oversee GM's compensation fund.

The bump to observe on the graph begins around June 15th, the week Google Trends shows a significant and steady uptake in Google search interest in Kenneth Feinberg. That same week witnessed the beginning of an uptick in the reputation metrics. GM’s reputation premium, a measure of additional value arising from favorable stakeholder expectations, rose to the 46th percentile within the 37-member automotive peer group, while the consensus trend, a measure of stakeholder surprise, showed a reasonable increase up to 1.2%.

Of course, the company’s overall reputation health is still middling.

The strategy Barra used has a name. Read all about it at Risk & Insurance or at Business Insurance.

Emerging Trends in Reputation Risk Management

C. HUYGENS - Tuesday, June 03, 2014
A growing number of corporate pioneers are starting to treat the management of reputation risk as a separate function with formal reporting to the board, and some companies have restructured their leadership team and reporting systems: five of the FTSE 100 have introduced steering groups to focus on reputation risk.

Read more.

Target: Risks when stakeholders expect more, and the board is blind

C. HUYGENS - Monday, May 05, 2014
Reputation risk is when stakeholders expect behaviors from a company that it can't deliver. It is an enterprise-level event. Target, one of the largest American retailing companies, founded in 1902 and headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, encourages its customers to "expect more." Around twenty weeks ago, Target failed to meet expectations twice: through a breach in IT security and then through poor follow up management of the consequences.

When a company such as Target has a superior reputation and then fails to meet expectations, stakeholders may give the company the benefit of the doubt. However, failing twice without an adverse reaction is asking much from stakeholders today. The board of directors at Target, as we learned today, was not about to take chances. Adverse reactions include what the Financial Times defined some time ago as "the pile on of litigators, regulators and mommy bloggers." The Germans call it a "shitstorm." And unless immunized prior to the crisis, the primary beneficiaries of the opprobrium from the masses are the company's directors and officers.

Neither the Directors nor Officers of at Target was immunized. This morning, Target announced that Chairman, President and CEO Gregg Steinhafel is out. Steinhafel, a 35-year veteran of the company and CEO since 2008,  agreed to step down, effective immediately. He also resigned from the board of directors. The modern day Jonah was thrown into the sea by his directors to appease the mobs evidencing a reputation crisis. Or perhaps the board over-reacted.

Calling for the heads of directors and officers is not new. D&O liability insurance was introduced years ago in recognition of the fact that a disenchanted stakeholder group needed to vent, and it was unreasonable to ask directors and officers to bear the personal costs. Alas, absent immunization, they are bearing the personal costs to their reputation. "They" include the risk committee board members of JPMorgan Chase, the four senior-most directors at Duke Energy, and now the Chairman and CEO of Target.

Favoring the argument that the board overreacted, shares in Target fell nearly two percent in pre-market trading Monday. Ninety minutes into the trading day, shares were down nearly 3% while the S&P500 was flat. Equity investors, it seems were  disappointed with the removal of Steinhafel who has reinforced Target's reputation for stellar customer-oriented service. Of course, there is the alternative explanation that investors are both delighted Steinhafel is gone and are expecting more bad news which is not yet public but, which known to the board, Other sources of intelligence, specifically, the Steel City Re reputation metrics, favor the first explanation - the Board of Directors unnecessarily tossed Steinhafel overboard to appease the crisis management gods.

Twenty weeks out from the breach, Target's reputational value is staging a comeback from the initial depression. The substantial drop in the company's Reputation Premium from the high 80's to below the 50th percentile is stabilizing around the 64th percentile relative to the 15 companies in the Discount Stores peer group. In fact, last May around this time, Target's Reputation Premium was lower. Further, looking at the measures of reputational volatility, the Consensus Trend, there was never a major shock among key stakeholder groups. Overall, Reputational Health is good.



How good is a good reputational health? In the case of Target, its reputational value peaked near June 2013 as shown in the 3-year chart below. The decline in reputational value since then is nearly linear, with the immediate effects of the data breach being nothing more than a short-term shift in the overall trend.  In other words, the data breach was not the long-term cause of Target's loss of Reputation Premium nor the long-term cause of Target's loss in Reputational Value. Rather, the entire industry - discount retailing -- is losing its value proposition. The data breach at Target helped temporarily mask the real cause of decline: the business strategy is failing.

It can be argued that a CEO is obliged to fall on his sword for advocating and implementing a failing strategy. And with this in mind, it might be argued that the equity price fall Monday morning represented equity investor recognition of the real reason for termination. But frankly, absent quantitative metrics to inform the board, management, and the communications arms of Target, it is hard to know what they know or why they think they acted the way they did. Worst, if Steinhafel was aware of the overall industry decline and was working on a plan to save Target, then it is a particularly bad time to be making changes at the top. Remember how well that worked out for JCPenny (JCP).

Managing an operational failure with one eye towards the media is prudent, but the tail should not wag the dog. If the real problem is a sector decline, it would be best to focus attention on that problem and not the irrelevant noise generated by those who make a living generating noise. Sir John Rose, former CEO of Rolls-Royce (LON:RR), set the standard to putting mind to what mattered when he ignored the media for weeks after a Rolls-Royce engine exploded on a Quantas super jumbo in November 2010. Instead, he identified the source of the problem and fixed it to the satisfaction of regulators, and more importantly, a key customer. Less than 10 weeks after what was viewed as a reputational crisis, British Airways announced that it was equipping its latest super jumbo acquisitions with...the same Rolls-Royce engine. And as Rolls-Royce spent ample cash indemnifying customers for downtime, and as the sales book was booming and stock price rocketing, less than 20 weeks after the affair, Sir John stepped down, sat on his motorcycle, and rode into the sunset.

Twenty weeks from the breach and the Chairman/CEO has been sacrificed. Quantitative reputation metrics, including the Loss Gates charts for Target's objectively measured crisis trigger points, do not show a crisis. It is one more example of a needless loss of executive life.

Management and boards require metrics to do their work properly, and Directors and Officers deserve protections for their personal reputations in shitstorms. Absent measures of reputational value, rash decision informed only by PR and media activity may be made with awful consequences. Absent protections for corporate leadership, good people may be thrown overboard to no avail. There are many lessons to be learned here.

Purdue: Space cadets

C. HUYGENS - Monday, April 28, 2014
While the business sector can expect fluctuations of value on the order of 14% on average due to changes in reputational value, the academic sector can expect to shine or suffer a slow and ignoble death -- or at least a brief period of panic . Huygens enjoys regaling in stories of Universities that earn their reputation the old fashioned way - by producing graduates who go on to distinguished careers.

Purdue University can rightfully boast about such a story. It is the number one producer of American astronauts.

Read more.

General Mills: Briefly overrun by ronin

C. HUYGENS - Tuesday, April 22, 2014
As modern day knights, lawyers are expected to to fight and so serve their liege Lord according to the Code of Law. But they are also expected to exercise discretion. A reputation for a willingness to strike at any foe, real or perceived, will likely leave the liege Lord isolated, and in due course, destitute. Even if the liege Lord is a $32B manufacturer and marketer of branded consumer foods named General Mills.

And so it came to pass that only four days after posting on its website terms, that according to the New York Times, required "consumers downloading coupons, “joining its online communities,” participating in sweepstakes and other promotions, and interacting with General Mills in a variety of other ways to agree to arbitration in lieu of suing the company in the event of a dispute," the company reversed itself.

It was an own goal scored by a narrowly focused group in the legal department that failed to read the memo about corporate reputation protection - the one about not unpleasantly surprising customers and other stakeholders. "Those terms – and our intentions – were widely misread, causing concern among consumers. So we’ve listened – and we’re changing them back to what they were before," General Mills explained.

The reputationally-blind act, and the rapid retreat, were reminiscent of a similar cycle by AIG's legal department in January 2013. After being bailed out by the US Government to the tune of tens of billions, and running a major advertising campaign thanking the American people, AIG announced that it was considering joining a suit by former CEO Hank Greenberg against the US Government.

According to the Wall Street Journal,  Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky at the New York Department of Financial Services, a key regulator of AIG's insurance businesses,  advised AIG CEO Robert Benmosche not join the suit, because he believed it would cause reputational harm to AIG that could affect the business and preclude it from getting federal aid again. The board expeditiously snuffed the suit.

Offended stakeholders may take a diversity of actions that can have significant adverse economic consequences. In the case of General Mills, customers opting not to engage the brand would be a material harm. "On behalf of our company and our brands, we would also like to apologize. We’re sorry we even started down this path. And we do hope you’ll accept our apology. We also hope that you’ll continue to download product coupons, talk to us on social media, or look for recipes on our websites."

General Mills could have done without the self-inflicted embarrassment. More important, the incident suggests that General Mills may not appreciate that reputation is an enterprise-wide asset, that reputation risk is created by failures in governance, controls and enterprise risk management (including internal controls), and that critically, reputation management has very little to do with brand.  In the company's most recent 10K from 2013, the only reputational risk cited in item 1A deals with food safety: "A significant product recall or product liability case could also result in adverse publicity, damage to our reputation, and a loss of consumer confidence." General Mills is learning the hard way that there are many paths to reputation damage.

The reputation metrics from Steel City Re, as interpreted by Consensiv, do not show any sudden major adverse reactions to the major error in judgement. Rather, they indicate a gradual progressive deterioration in General Mills' historically high reputation premium relative to the other 29 companies in its industry sector. Over the trailing twelve months, it has slipped from the top-ranked position to the 86th percentile. Similarly, the consensus trend, which is an indicator of stakeholder uncertainty, shows no major recent increase. Collectively, theses data suggest no short-term reaction to the legal silliness.

The fact that legal could come up with such a bad idea and deploy it, however is a worrisome indicator of culture. In this regard, the reputational health of General Mills, both by action and by metrics, is no longer in the top quartile.

Reputation Risk: Scoring an own goal

C. HUYGENS - Monday, April 21, 2014
A reputation crisis often follows a failure in an operational process when stakeholders hold the board culpable for a concomitant failure in governance, controls and risk management. There are specific strategies companies can follow, and products companies can acquire, that can protect Directors and Officers from undeserved opprobrium.

However, from time to time, the failure starts at the board level without any operational antecedent. There is little a company or an institution can do to deflect the well-deserved opprobrium other than listen to stakeholders, assess the importance of their support, and to find someone to fall on a sword. In the recent past, Susan Komen's Race for the Cure and Chick Fil-A had their self inflicted wounds spotlighted after positions were taken in the culture wars.

Months after the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure made national headlines for halting then reinstating funding to Planned Parenthood, the organization's two top executives, its founder and president, stepped down. With Chick Fil-A, CEO Dan Cathy shared his experience after making public homophobic remarks with the Huffington Post, "“Every leader goes through different phases of maturity, growth and development and it helps by (recognizing) the mistakes that you make,” Cathy told the AJC. “And you learn from those mistakes. If not, you’re just a fool. I’m thankful that I lived through it and I learned a lot from it."

More recently, it was (re)revealed that now-former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich had six years ago donated $1,000 to a group opposing same-sex marriage. Within two weeks of the public outcry, the board "allowed" the co-founder of the Mozilla project, which developed the Firefox browser, to step down. Of course, had the board done its homework, it would have found that the controversial donation was first hotly debated two years ago. Only then, Eich was not the CEO.

Meanwhile, at the centers of higher learning, the lessons are not sticking any better. Penn State University, whose former President, Graham Spanier is charged with covering up a child molestation scandal to protect the school's football program, has recently hired a new President who's prior school is being rocked by allegations of downplaying a rape scandal to protect the school's football program. According to Bloomberg,  "the New York Times has a front-page investigative story (and accompanying interactive) accusing both the school and local police of mishandling a Florida State University student’s report that she was raped by Jameis Winston, FSU’s star quarterback and winner of the 2013 Heisman Trophy." Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers wrote to Bloomberg that “Penn State Trustees conducted all appropriate, thorough background checks and investigations required by institutional policy.”

Reputation risk is the threat that stakeholders will discover that a company, foundation, or university is unable to meet their expectations, and as a result, change their expectations with resulting adverse economic consequences. There are strategies to align expectations and control operations. The first strategy is not to score an own goal.

All We Know Are the Facts, Ma'am

C. HUYGENS - Saturday, April 19, 2014
Sgt Joe Friday only knew facts. The rest of us have to ferret them out from all the spin. Fortunately, we are not alone. As further evidence that one of the causes of 21st century reputation risk is that anyone with a keyboard and access to the internet can be an investigative journalist, there are at least 59 organizations that "purport to check facts cited by politicians and news outlets that quote them."

The 16th US President once quipped, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." These 59 groups are determined to use facts to reduce the frequency of the first two scenarios.

Read more.

Speaking of substance and spin, if managing reputation risk is on your mind, read this helpful recent "how-to" article from Risk Management magazine.

Brand v. Reputation: GM edition

C. HUYGENS - Thursday, April 17, 2014
An operational failure in business process controls or supply chain integrity management can help sharpen the difference between the value of a reputation, and the value of a brand. For a company like GM being roiled by evidence of longstanding failures in governance, controls and risk management, the difference implies two very different future courses.

Jonathan Salem Baskin, Managing Director of the reputation controls company, Consensiv, explains:

If corporate reputational value were nothing more than immediate public opinion — like brand awareness — then the company could rely on consumers’ ability, if not overt desire, to forget the past and literally “buy” the company’s latest sales pitch. But reputation is an asset based in operational reality, not the minds of consumers, and GM faces a long list of stakeholder expectations, and resulting valuations, that won’t be easily erased or forgotten. From processes to supply chain relationships, analysis and reporting thresholds, to all of the substance of its relationships with its various communities have been called into question by the ignition crisis, and those stakeholders are and will make future decisions based on it.

Read more.

Duke Energy: Directors personally responsible for coal ash disaster

C. HUYGENS - Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Less than 90 days after of the nation's worst coal ash spills, four Duke Energy (DUK) directors are being held personally responsible for the disaster by two large activist pension funds. An operational failure led to failure in one of the six key processes that govern reputational value: sustainabilty. More interesting than merely affirming, yet again, that a corporate reputational crisis is always personal to a corporate director, the concerted action by these two pension funds represents an entirely new strategy. It appears these two funds are trying to preserve enterprise value and mitigate a reputational crisis by naming and removing individual directors promptly.

Reuters reports today that "The California Public Employees' Retirement System and New York City Pension Funds have written to shareholders of Duke Energy Corp, urging them to vote against the re-election of four directors. "The financial, legal, regulatory and reputational risks for Duke Energy are serious and mounting," Calpers corporate governance director Anne Simpson and New York City comptroller Scott Stringer wrote in their open letter. according to the Financial Times. The funds blamed Duke Energy directors Alex Bernhardt, James Hyler, James Rhodes and Carlos Saladrigas for the 39,000 ton coal ash spill in North Carolina's Dan river in February, after a stormwater pipe broke under a 27-acre ash pond at the company's coal plant."

The February 2 spill, according to the activist organization, Southeast Coal Ash, began when "a stormwater pipe burst beneath a coal ash impoundment at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River Power Station near Eden, North Carolina." Duke Energy estimates 30,000-39,000 tons and 24 million gallons of wastewater, or about 140,000 tons of toxic waste, entered the Dan River.



The reputational value metrics profile of Duke Energy is instructive. The company is, and has been a top performer in its peer group of 131 electric utilities, coming in this week with a Reputation Premium at the 98th percentile. Befitting a company with a superior reputation (read, high expectations among stakeholders), Duke Energy struck a conciliatory tone, admitting the spill at its Dan River plant shouldn't have happened. "Duke Energy takes full responsibility for this accident. We'll be taking a fresh look at all of our ash basins and how we handle that after we fix this pipe," Duke Energy spokesman Tom Williams told WSOC TV.

The Consensus Trend, an indicator of stakeholder uncertainty, started rising after the spill taking Duke Energy up from below the first quartile to the median. By any objective measure of reputational value, this is discomfort, but certainly not a crisis.

In what should be viewed as a possible sea change, activist investors are now getting ahead of the "usual pile on of litigators, regulators and mommy bloggers. " They are going directly after the board -- not to extract monetary compensation -- but to preserve enterprise the company's reputational health and top drawer reputational value by shaking up what the funds believe constitutes a failure in governance, control and risk management. The are demanding individual board members be held culpable -- very personal, indeed.

Brazil: The cost of a bad reputation

C. HUYGENS - Friday, April 04, 2014
The central bank, which does not enjoy formal independence in Brazil, has increased the interest rate by 375 basis points since April 2013. The most recent increase this past Wednesday, ranks Brazil at the top of the league table for the most rate rises globally over the past year, according to Bloomberg data.

Reputation is a reflection of governance, controls and risk management. Weak governance comes at a cost. The Financial Times reports that "Brazil has been under pressure to regain the trust of the market. In March, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating to BBB-, one notch above junk status, blaming several factors including the economic team’s lack of credibility."

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