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一家零售业巨头的70年自毁之路

去年申请破产给西尔斯的现任领导层招来了铺天盖地的批评。但作为曾经的《财富》美国500强中坚力量,让它轰然倒下的问题要追溯到艾森豪威尔时期。这家偶像级企业的缓慢崩塌给企业领导者带来了哪些启示呢?

今年4月西尔斯宣?#23478;?#24320;三家小型门店,从而收获了近几年最友善的媒体关注。《今日美国》在充满希望的标题中说“西尔斯新时代的开始?这家零售商宣布开店,而不是关闭?#20445;?#24341;发了美国媒体的共鸣。

但仔细品味就会发现,媒体报道中更多的是怜惜,而不是振奋。对这家昔日的全球零售巨人来说,现在新闻中的好消息却只是:三家门店,其中一家设在阿拉斯加,西尔斯的前CEO艾迪·兰伯特的房子都比这些门店要大,门店内的商品搭配也有些令人困惑,大多是家电和床垫。西尔斯坚持说这番“小动作”是一项新战略的开端,将带来“一家更强大、盈利更多的公司?#34180;?#32780;零售业的同行们都不觉得西尔斯还有机会。长期?#37038;?#38646;售咨询的波特·弗里金格指出:“兰伯特推出的模式没有不失败的。”西尔斯前高管史蒂夫·丹尼斯的看法是:“这些举措最终会毫无收获,带来或带走一些微不足道的东西。”

14年来西尔斯关闭了3500多家门店,并在去年秋天申请破产,现在它可以利用一些真正的好消息了。该公司的发言人表示,申请破产以后西尔斯“?#34892;?#22810;可以使其致胜的资产和优势?#34180;?#20294;?#23548;噬希?#38500;了兰伯特,别人都不相信西尔斯能够扭转命运,而且从2005年兰伯特的对冲基金ESL Investments收购西尔斯并将其与凯马特合并后,他就已经让大家明白不要相信他的那些乐观言论。尽管兰伯特预言“战略转型”会让西尔斯变成“真正伟大的零售企业?#20445;?#20294;2010年以来该公司的年收入一直都没能增长,也没有实现任何利润。最新的剧情反转是:西尔斯控股,也就是将资产转让给兰伯特的破产实体已经起诉兰伯特等人,理由是后者在担任CEO期间侵吞?#26031;?#21496;数十亿美元资金。兰伯特和ESL Investments则否认自己有任何行为不当之处。

The kindest media attention Sears has attracted in years arrived in April, when the company announced it was opening three small stores. “The start of a new Sears era? The retailer announces openings, not closings,” read USA Today’s hopeful headline, which echoed others nationwide.

But viewed through a longer lens, the coverage was more pathetic than upbeat. This is what now passes for good news at the onetime colossus of global retailing: three stores, one of them in Alaska, each smaller than owner Eddie Lampert’s house, offering a somewhat puzzling product line consisting mostly of appliances and mattresses. Sears insists this tiny event is the leading edge of a new strategy for becoming “a stronger, more profitable business.” No one else in retailing seems to think it has a chance. “Lampert has never initiated a format that didn’t fail,” notes longtime retail consultant Burt Flickinger. The verdict of consultant Steve Dennis, a former Sears executive: “It will almost certainly amount to zilch, plus or minus bubkes.”

After shedding more than 3,500 stores over the past 14 years and filing for bankruptcy last fall, Sears could use some genuine good news. A Sears spokesman says the post-bankruptcy business “has many assets and advantages that position the company for success.” But virtually no one other than Lampert expects a reversal of fortune, and he has taught the world not to believe the happy talk he has been dispensing since ESL Investments, his hedge fund, bought Sears in 2005 and merged it with Kmart. Despite Lampert’s predictions of a “strategic transformation” that would make Sears “a truly great retail business,” the company hasn’t managed a single year of revenue growth since then, or earned a dime of profit since 2010. The latest twist: Sears Holdings, the bankrupt entity that sold its assets to Lampert, is suing him and others for stripping the company of billions when he was CEO. Lampert and ESL have denied any wrongdoing.

打造?#27604;伲好?#35199;西比州杰克逊市的一家西尔斯门店,1949年。西尔斯在20世纪40年代决定扩张业务网络,这是它在二战后的增长期实现垄断的关键。图片来源:Bettmann Archive—Getty Images

即使是今天,?#30475;?#30340;惯性或许也能够让西尔斯品牌维持下去。虽然受了致命伤,但在截至去年10月底的12个月中,西尔斯仍然实现收入132亿美元。但对这家公司来说,唯一重要的问题是它能够撑多久。丹尼斯的结论是:“没有哪项业务有任何生存能力。”保险公司Allstate的CEO汤姆·威尔森曾经于20世纪80、90年代在西尔斯担任高管,他说兰伯特“是清理炉?#19994;?#38149;炉工。西尔斯根本不可能起死回生。”

在兰伯特时代,灾难性数字和?#22909;?#26032;闻层出不穷,西尔斯也在这个阶段浪费掉了内在优势和革新机遇。但对管理和领导专业的学生来说,今天的垂死挣扎只是西尔斯这部大戏的结局。真正注定西尔斯失败命运的史诗性冲突发生在很久以前,那时西尔斯还处于主导位置,人们根本不可能想到它会衰败。这正是今天的领导者应该从中吸取教训的地方。当然,西尔斯的故事独一无二,而且那些决策出台的时代和我们这个时代有很大的不同。但仔细观察就会发现,西尔斯的致命失误具有普遍性,而且就和明天要播出的新闻一样适用于当下。

Still, even today, sheer inertia may enable the Sears brand to linger. Despite its mortal wounds, the company brought in $13.2 billion of revenue in the 12 months through last Oct. 31. But the only significant question about Sears is how long it can hang on. Dennis’s bottom-line take: “There’s nothing in the portfolio with any viability.” Allstate CEO Tom Wilson, a Sears executive in the 1980s and 1990s, says Lampert “is the janitor cleaning up the ashes. There’s no way it’s going to come back.”

The Lampert era has played out in a continual drumbeat of catastrophic numbers and negative headlines, during which Sears squandered intrinsic advantages and opportunities for reinvention. But for students of management and leadership, today’s death throes are merely the denouement of the Sears drama. The truly epic conflicts that doomed the company happened long ago, when Sears was dominant and its demise was unthinkable. That’s where to look for the lessons for today’s leaders. Sears’ story is unique, of course, and the decisive events took place in an era much different from ours. But a close examination shows that its critical mistakes are universal and as contemporary as tomorrow’s news.

****

直到1991年,西尔斯还是世界上收入最高的零售商。所以看到它的市值在1965年5月4日见顶会让人冷静下来,这是芝加哥大学布斯商学院安全价格研究中心按照不变美元推算的结果。按现在的价格水平计算,西尔斯在那个春天的市值高点为921亿美元,此后再也没能突破该水平。西尔斯自己的分析后来发现,它在零售领域的?#25345;?#21147;于1969年达到顶峰。在那一年,西尔斯的销售额占美国整体经济规模的1%;每个季度?#21152;?#19977;分之二的美国人在西尔斯购物;一半的美国家庭?#21152;?#35199;尔斯信?#27599;ā?/p>

从那时到现在的50年里,西尔斯一直在为自救而战,但屡战屡败。像全球最大零售商倒闭这样的大事件绝不会只有一个原因或者即刻发生。回过头来看,转折点在于当时西尔斯并未意识到的两大失误。

As late as 1991, Sears was the world’s largest retailer by revenue. So it’s sobering to see that its market value, calculated in constant dollars, peaked on May 4, 1965, according to data from the Center for Research in Security Prices at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Sears has never been more valuable than it was on that spring day—worth $92.1 billion in today’s money. Sears’ own analysts would later determine that its domination of retailing reached its apex in 1969. That year, its sales were 1% of the entire U.S. economy; two-thirds of Americans shopped there in any given quarter; and half the nation’s households had a Sears credit card.

From then till now—for 50 years—Sears has been fighting and losing a war to save itself. Nothing as large as the demise of the world’s biggest retailer happens for a single reason or all at once. But looking back, two major errors stand out as turning points, unrecognized at the time.

西尔斯门店中工具区的购物者,1943年。图片来源:Bettmann—Getty Images

几乎所有公司倒闭都可以追溯到失败的CEO更迭,而这正是西尔斯的第一个重大失误。?#23548;噬希?#21487;以认为这家公司做了5、6次糟糕的换届,原因是董事会让这个错误存在了20年。这个错误让西尔斯的弱点逐步堆积,最终变得几乎无法应对。

第二个重大失误是选择了糟糕的策略,也就是为了多元化向金融服务大举进军。当时这项计划看起来还不?#25285;?#32780;且有几年它似乎取得了成功。但?#23548;?#19978;这是一场灾难。在1981年开始实施这项策略时,西尔斯是零售之王。而整整12年后,当它?#29260;?#36825;项策略时,西尔斯已经在滑坡,已经不再是全球或者美国最大零售商,也已经永远失去了重新夺回这个称号的机会。

CEO更迭问题始于1954年,当时西尔斯董事会在一个伟大人物的统领之下。我们不能责怪他们。董事长罗伯特·E·伍德将军推动西尔斯做出了该公司历史上最成功的三项决策。第一项是在1925年将业务扩展到目录零售之外并开设商店。其?#38382;?931年创建Alllstate汽?#24403;?#38505;公司。第三是在二战结束时决定大举增设门店,特别是在城市郊区和美国西部(西尔斯的主要竞争对手Montgomery Ward做出了相反决定,也就是在战后的衰退中进行收缩,结果再也没能?#27492;眨?/p>

后来,75岁的伍德决定退休了。这让董事会有机会任命一位靠得住的继任者,某位饥渴的年轻经理人,可以带领西尔斯开启新的未来。但伍德在任的时间太长了,几位年纪较大的潜在继任者都在排?#21360;?#33891;事会不仅没有忽略他们,反而认为每个人都值得一试。随后的四位CEO平均任职时间都只有三年多——他们都按?#25307;?#30340;退休制度在65岁卸任。

在20世纪50年代剩下的时间里以及20世纪60年代,这些还算称职的领导者带领西尔斯稳步前行。公司规模增大,股价上涨。但世界开始发生变化,西尔斯的领导者则没有看到,也许是不想看到他们基于大?#27573;?#25361;选、高质量服务和定期大幅打折的业务模式成为老古董。

西北大学的经济学家罗伯特·J·戈登将1870年至1970年称为美国经济增长的“特殊世纪?#20445;?#20182;说“这是一个不可复制的高增长阶段?#34180;?#22312;此期间,西尔斯已经成长为杰出的美国企业。对1886年成立的西尔斯来说,这个特殊世纪就是它所知的全部现实。它让这种快速增长及其中的基本人员组成,也就是年轻的蓝领家庭走向?#27604;佟?#20294;随着这个特殊世纪在20世纪60年代走向尾声,新建立的蓝领家庭变少了,剩下的那些蓝领家庭的可支配收入也下降了。

与此同时,消费者开始满怀热情地接纳一?#20013;?#30340;购物方式,那就是折扣店,后者基于?#22270;?#26684;、最少量的服务以及高商?#20998;?#36716;率。1962年是零售业的奇迹之年,沃尔玛、凯马特和塔吉特先后开业;2005年兰伯特上任时,前三家零售商的年收入?#23478;?#32463;超过西尔斯。西尔斯的领导者清楚这种情况,但他们沉着地认为自?#22909;?#26377;受到威胁。他们对自己说,毕竟西尔斯是折扣零售行业的王者。他们似乎未能发现这?#20013;?#19994;态在本质上有所区别,后者采用较为基本的陈设,商品价格则要低得多。但消费者注意到了二者的差异。

西尔斯的表现是如此之好,以至于领导者们显然认为没有必要更新控制和成本会计系统,这让经理们无从知晓自身业绩优劣,这种情况令人震惊。如此之多的成?#23613;?#21830;品、物流、资金成本等等都在整个公司平摊,几乎不可能弄清楚盈利和亏损之处。虽然沃尔玛老员工都知道对创始人山姆·沃尔顿来说,damncomputer(即damn computer,该死的电脑)是一个?#21097;?#20294;在用IT管理物流?#22836;?#26512;经营?#32431;?#26041;面,他让沃尔玛?#23545;?#36208;在了别人前面。本有可能率先这样做的西尔斯却?#24202;?#21462;这样的措施,这让它的成本效率在几十年时间里一直落后于竞争对手。

20世纪60年代对自身?#27604;?#30340;满足感,再加上董事会未能?#19994;?#19979;一个罗伯特·E·伍德为西尔斯陷入困?#38472;?#19979;了伏笔。1967年,西尔斯意识到自己需要调整策略。?#36335;?#26696;——用定价?#32454;?#30340;商品吸引较富裕的购物者一度奏效。1969年,该公司的毛利率达到近40%的最高点。但此项策略削弱了西尔斯长期打造的根基,那就是美国面向大众的伟大供应商。接下来出现了经济衰退,几年后?#30452;?#21457;了更?#29616;?#30340;衰退,通胀率也达到两位数。特殊世纪告终,西尔斯的新策略也大错特错。消费者想要便宜商品,而所有的折扣店都处于完美的位置,可以为这些消费者提供服务。

到了20世纪70年代中期,西尔斯再也无法忽视这些问题,并且因此进入了否定的下一个阶段——坚持说业绩滑坡并不是自己的过错。西尔斯的研究人?#27604;?#20026;,这要怪经济。同时,美国的百货商场实在太多了。此外,整个行业的利润率都在下降。还有就是人口老龄化。总之一句话,错的是世界,不是我们。1983至1987年,作家唐纳德·卡茨获准近乎无限制地参加公司会议。他在《大商店》(The Big Store)一书中这样总结西尔斯20世纪70年代的内部观点:“日复一日,无论我们有多优秀,赚钱就是会变得更加困难。”

终极结论就是,试图让西尔斯及其零售业务?#25351;?#21040;以前大家所知的样?#37038;?#24466;劳的。卡茨写道,1978年开始担任CEO的爱德华·特林相信“仅靠现有业务,西尔斯帝国无法重新占据无可匹敌的位置,超越几乎所有其他公司。特林认为西尔斯需要一个全新的企业信条……如果?#19988;?#21619;着如此?#28798;?#22320;改变西尔斯,以至于当特林完成任务时这家公司会变得面目全非,那么这就是他们要做的。”

Almost every corporate demise can be traced to a blown CEO succession, and that was Sears’ first decisive error. Indeed, it could be regarded as five or six bad successions because the board perpetuated its error for 20 years. This error permitted a gradual accumulation of weaknesses that became almost insurmountable.

The second decisive error was a bad strategic choice: to diversify heavily into financial services. The plan didn’t look bad at the time, and for a few years, it seemed to succeed. But in fact, it was disastrous. When the strategy was adopted in 1981, Sears was the king of retailing. By the time it was fully abandoned 12 years later, Sears was in decline, no longer the world’s or America’s largest retailer, and it had forever lost any chance of regaining the title.

The succession blunder began in 1954 with the Sears board of directors in the thrall of a Great Man. You couldn’t blame them. Gen. Robert E. Wood, the chairman, had been the driving force behind what remain the three most successful decisions in the company’s history. The first was the strategy in 1925 to move beyond being a catalog-only retailer and establish stores. Next was the creation of Allstate auto insurance in 1931. The third was Wood’s idea at the end of World War II to add stores aggressively, especially in the suburbs and in the West. (Archrival Montgomery Ward made the opposite decision, pulling back in the postwar recession, and never recovered.)

Now, at age 75, Wood had decided it was time to step down. This was the board’s chance to name a worthy successor, some hungry young manager who could lead Sears into a new future. But Wood had held on so long that several aging potential successors were lined up at the turnstile. Instead of looking past them, the directors decided each deserved a shot. There followed four CEOs who on average served barely over three years, with each stepping down at the company’s newly mandated retirement age of 65.

These blandly competent managers steered Sears on a steady course through the rest of the 1950s and the 1960s. The company grew, the stock boomed. But the world was changing, and Sears leaders didn’t see, perhaps didn’t want to see, that their business model—based on broad selection, high service, and periodic steep-discount sales—was becoming an antique.

Sears had grown into a towering American institution during the period that Northwestern University economist Robert J. Gordon dubs “the special century” of U.S. economic expansion, 1870 to 1970, which Gordon calls “a singular interval of rapid growth that will not be repeated.” For Sears, founded in 1886, the special century was the only reality the company had ever known. It rode that fast growth and its human essence, young blue-collar families, to greatness. But as the special century faded in the 1960s, fewer new blue-collar families were being formed, and those that remained had less to spend.

At the same time, consumers were enthusiastically embracing a new way of buying: the discount store, built on low prices, minimal service, and high merchandise turnover. In 1962, a miracle year for retailing, Walmart, Kmart, and Target all opened their doors; all three would surpass Sears in annual revenue by the time Lampert took over in 2005. Sears leaders were aware of the phenomenon but felt serenely unthreatened. After all, they told themselves, Sears was the monarch of discounters. They seemed not to grasp that this new breed was fundamentally different, offering much lower prices in relatively bare-bones settings. But customers noticed the difference.

Sears was doing so well that its leaders apparently saw no need to update its control and cost-accounting systems, leaving managers shockingly ignorant of how well or poorly they were performing. So many costs—merchandise, logistics, capital, and more—were averaged across the company that deciphering where money was being made and lost was virtually impossible. Though Walmart veterans recall that “damncomputer” was one word, not two, in founder Sam Walton’s vocabulary, he put the company far ahead of the field in using IT to manage logistics and analyze operations. By failing to adapt when it first could have, Sears trailed ?competitors on cost-efficiency for decades.

Sears’ prosperous complacency of the 1960s, compounded by the board’s failure to find the next Robert E. Wood, set the stage for trouble. By 1967 the company realized it needed to shift strategy. Its new plan—stocking higher-priced goods to attract more affluent shoppers—worked briefly. Gross margins peaked near 40% in 1969. But the strategy undermined Sears’ long-built-up foundation as America’s great supplier to the masses. Then a recession hit, followed a few years later by a deeper recession and double-digit inflation. The special century was over, and Sears’ new strategy was exactly wrong. Consumers wanted cheap, and all those discounters were perfectly positioned to serve them.

By the mid-1970s Sears could no longer ignore these problems, so it moved to the next stage of denial: insisting its declining performance was not the company’s fault. It’s the economy, said Sears’ researchers. Also, there are just too many stores in the U.S. Plus, profit margins are shrinking across the industry. And the population is getting older. Bottom line: It’s everything except us. “As night follows day, no matter how good we are, it’s just going to be more difficult to make money” is how Donald Katz summarized the 1970s internal view in his book The Big Store, for which he was granted nearly unlimited access to company meetings from 1983 to 1987.

The ultimate conclusion: Trying to revive what the world knew as Sears—its retailing business—was futile. Edward Telling, who became CEO in 1978, believed that “the Sears empire could not retain its incomparable position above almost all other companies by relying solely on existing businesses,” Katz reported. “Telling believed Sears needed entirely new reasons for being?…?if that meant changing Sears so profoundly that it looked like something else when he was through, then that was what they would do.”

****

西尔斯的第二个重大失误由此开始,把零售降为二等业务(当然它从来没有这样?#20498;?#21516;时通过遥远、非常遥远的合并来追求金光闪闪的新前景。最初的合并伙伴“愿望名单”包括美国电话电报公司、雪佛龙、?#24049;?#36842;尔、IBM和迪士尼。所有这些候选人都在内部或西尔斯与之接触时被否定了。最终,这些战略规划者认定,新业务必须能?#28798;?#21463;益于西尔斯的既有强项。而稍早一些时候,民意调查机构Roper经调查指出,西尔斯是美国最受信赖的公司。在哪个行业信任最有价?#30340;兀?#36825;些规划者觉得答案是金融服务业。

锁定了“?#24179;?#30446;标”后,西尔斯开始收购其业务。1981年,它收购了住宅房地产公司Coldwell Banker和证券经纪商Dean Witter Reynolds。将这些公司与Allstate合并后,西尔斯突然成为美国收入规模最大的金融服务公司。一项宏大战略的元素已经到位。

回头看去,当时奔溃的迹象已经很明显。和许多全局战略分析师一样,西尔斯的主要规划者没有把顾客视为要服务的人,而是将其当作要开发的自然资源。宣布上述收购事项后,副董事长唐纳德·克雷布解释了缘由:“我们打算让Dean Witter和Coldwell Banker获得这个庞大的客户群体。”这是出于公司需要,而?#24378;突?#38656;要制定策略的典型例?#21360;?/p>

另一个不详征兆是西尔斯向投资者给出的收购上述公司的理由非常侧重于协同效应和交叉销售。几乎所有收购者都会提到这两大益处,而?#20063;?#19981;多都会夸大。西尔斯自然也不例外。西尔斯门店中的Dean Witter柜台的业务量低于独立的Dean Witter营业网点。新策略实施四年后,在312家西尔斯店铺中以多种组合方式集Allstate、Coldwell Banker和Dean Witter于一身的Sears Financial Center整体上仍?#20174;?#21033;。?#23548;?#24773;况证明,为交叉销售整合客户数据极为困难。一些措施取得了成功。Dean Witter推出了Discover信?#27599;ā?#23427;很受?#38431;?992年Dean Witter从西尔斯剥离出来后甚至更是如此,而?#31227;?#20182;零售商可以在不为其竞争提供支持的情况下?#37038;?#35813;信?#27599;ā?#20294;时任西尔斯顾问的?#24049;病づ赏?#26684;说,整体而言,“它跟其他公司几乎没有产生协同?#34180;?/p>

多元化以后,西尔斯在两方面?#21152;?#21040;了最糟糕的局面。金融服务没能像它此前预期的那样带来协同效应。零售也不再是西尔斯关注的核心,这在该公司历史上还是头一遭。Allstate的CEO威尔森说:“我觉得他们刚开始并没有打算不以零售为重点,但后来出现的情况就是这样。”对一家不再关注主业的零售商来说,那是一个可怕的时间点——家得宝、史泰博、百思买和Bed Bath & Beyond等仓储式“杀手”公司正在改变这个行业,沃尔玛则开始成为行业巨人。?#36175;?#26684;说:“董事会把门店视为现金牛,以前是这样。他们打算继续从零售业务身上‘挤奶’,直到挤不出来为止。”

业绩受到的影响很明显。当1981年宣布进行多元化时,西尔斯零售业务的销售回报率已经比零售行业中值低36%,这已经很吓人了。在西尔斯拥?#24515;?#20123;金融公司期间,其零售业务平均销售回报率和行业中值的差距达到了49%。表现欠佳的金融业务和走下坡路的零售业务共同产生了一个无法想象的结果:按不变美元计算,西尔斯1988年的市值已经比1965年的高点大幅下滑66%,华尔街也将西尔斯列为收购目标。

1992年,西尔斯最?#25112;型?#20102;自己的金融服务策略,而它宣布的出售或剥离对象不光是Coldwell Banker和Dean Witter,还包括已经在它旗下61年的Allstate。对这三家公司来说,这是它们的最美好经历。摆脱了西尔斯后,三家公司均得以蓬勃发展。

但对在大多数人眼中代表着西尔斯这块招牌的零售业务来说,重拾辉煌已经为时已晚。1991年初,在经历了15年来最糟糕的假期旺季后,新数据表明沃尔玛已经超越西尔斯,成为美国最大的零售商——《时代?#20998;?#21002;在一篇宣布新王登基的文章中将沃尔玛称为“曾经的边远地区廉价物品商店?#34180;?#35199;尔斯一如既往地将二者的比较斥为毫无意义。该公司发言人不以为然地说:“我们销售的商品中只有30%和沃尔玛存在竞争关系。”回过头来看,这似乎是在无意之中承认西尔斯的商品中只有30%是顾客最想要的。

沃尔玛的收入直线上升,西尔斯却基本上在原地踏步,这种情况下西尔斯根本找不到“重夺王位”的途径。?#36175;?#26684;说:“到90年代初,游戏就结束了。策略的最重要之处在于跟历史站在一边,他们却站在了另一边。”

Thus began Sears’ second decisive error, relegating the retail business to second-class status (without ever saying so, of course) while seeking gilded new prospects for a merger far afield—very far afield. An initial wish list of merger partners included AT&T, Chevron, John Deere, IBM, and Walt Disney. All those candidates got shot down internally or when Sears approached the target. Eventually the strategic planners concluded that the new business must be one that would benefit heavily from Sears’ existing strengths. A Roper poll had recently declared Sears to be America’s most trusted corporation. In what industry was trust most valuable? The answer, the planners determined, was financial services.

Having located El Dorado, Sears began acquiring portions of it. The company bought the Coldwell Banker residential real estate firm and the Dean Witter ?Reynolds brokerage firm in 1981. Combining these with Allstate made Sears suddenly the largest financial services company in America by revenue. The elements of a grand strategy were in place.

In retrospect, signs of a debacle were apparent. The company’s planning masterminds, like many big-picture strategists, regarded the company’s customers not as humans to be served but as a natural resource to be mined. After the acquisitions were announced, vice chairman Donald Craib explained the rationale: “We’re going to allow Dean Witter and Coldwell Banker exposure to this tremendous customer base.” It was a classic example of a strategy derived from the company’s needs, not customers’ needs.

Another ominous sign was Sears’ justification to investors for buying these companies, which leaned heavily on synergies and cross-selling. Almost all acquirers invoke those two blessings, and nearly all overestimate them. Sears certainly did so. Dean Witter offices in Sears stores did less business than freestanding offices. Four years into the new strategy, the Sears Financial Centers, which combined Allstate, Coldwell Banker, and Dean Witter in various permutations at 312 Sears stores, were still unprofitable overall. Merging customer data for effective cross-selling proved extremely difficult. Some initiatives succeeded. Dean Witter launched a credit card, the Discover card, which became highly successful—even more so after Dean Witter was spun off from Sears in 1992 and other retailers could accept the card without supporting the competition. But overall, says John Pittinger, a consultant to Sears at the time, “there was almost no synergy with the other companies.”

By diversifying, Sears got the worst of both worlds. It didn’t achieve the synergies it had counted on from financial services. And for the first time in Sears history, retailing was not the company’s central focus. “I don’t think they set out not to be focused on the merchandise group,” says Allstate’s Wilson, “but that’s what happened.” It was a terrible time for a retailer to take its eye off the ball, with big-box category killers—Home Depot, Staples, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond—transforming the industry, and Walmart becoming a giant. “The board viewed the stores as a cash cow, which they were,” says Pittinger. “The directors were planning to milk the retail operation until it stopped.”

The effect on performance was stark. In 1981, when the diversification was announced, the Sears retail group’s return on sales was already an appalling 36% worse than the retail industry median; during the period when Sears also owned the financial firms, it averaged 49% worse. Combining an underperforming finance business with a cratering retail business produced an unthinkable result: By 1988, Sears’ market value had plunged 66% in constant dollars from its 1965 peak, and Wall Street had Sears pegged as a takeover target.

Sears finally pulled the plug on its financial services strategy in 1992, announcing it would sell or spin off not just Coldwell Banker and Dean Witter but also Allstate, which had been part of the company for 61 years. It was the best thing that ever happened to those three businesses. Liberated from Sears, all of them blossomed and thrived.

But it was too late for the retail operation—what most people meant by the word Sears—to return to glory. In early 1991, after its worst holiday season in 15 years, new figures showed that Sears had been surpassed as North America’s largest retailer by Walmart, “a onetime backwoods bargain barn,” as Time called it in a story announcing the new king. Sears, characteristically, dismissed the comparison as meaningless: “We compete with Walmart on only 30% of the goods we sell,” sniffed a spokesman. It seems, in hindsight, an unwitting admission that Sears was selling only 30% of the goods consumers wanted most.

With Walmart’s revenue rocketing while Sears’ was essentially stagnant, Sears couldn’t plot any path to regaining the throne. “By the early ’90s, the game was over,” says Pittinger. “The most important part of strategy is being on the right side of history, and they were on the wrong side of history.”

****

近30年后,西尔斯勉强活了下来。20世纪90年代,它一度重获动力。当时,孤注一掷的高管和董事会打破了100年来的传统,聘请了一位外部人士来经营公司。他就是萨克斯第五大道精品百货店的高管亚瑟·马丁内斯。他发现西尔斯仍然无法正常运转。马丁内斯回忆道:“那时只?#22411;断?#20869;部和上方的目光。所有东西?#23478;?#24324;到最高层去。根本就没有责任制可言。”他带来了自己的外部人员团队,并且迅速提高了销售额、营业利润、股价和?#31185;?#20294;在2000年马丁内斯卸任时,西尔斯的股价?#21482;?#21040;了他刚上台时的水平。

马丁内斯的继任者,前首席财务官艾?#20303;?#33713;西非常努力地想把西尔斯从购物中心里搬出来。莱西说,他这样做的原因是这些“门店的模式以服务为基础,而我们的顾客不愿意在这样的模式上花钱?#34180;?#20182;试图建立类似于沃尔玛的非购物中心风格店铺,称为Sears Grand,但并未成功。西尔斯的股价大幅波动。当艾迪·兰伯特于2004年上任时,董事会认为他的收购建议是他们面对的最佳选择。

我们应该从这个令人叹息的长故事里汲取哪些教?#30340;兀?#25776;写或参与撰写了超畅销商业书《基业长青》(Built to Last)、《从优秀到卓越》(Good to Great)和?#22534;?#25321;成就卓越》(Great by Choice)的吉姆·柯林斯还?#22402;?#19968;本较薄而且不那么出名的书,叫做《巨人如何倒下》(How the Mighty Fall)。他说分析和叙述衰退要?#35753;?#20889;成功难得多。柯林斯说:“成为伟大公司的路很窄。有些事必须得做。但为走下坡路的公司确立一个框架非常困难。这就像打台球——用三?#24378;?#25670;球的方法只有几种,?#20174;?#26080;数的办法把球打散。”

柯林斯并没有为了?#35789;?#32780;研究西尔斯,但他发现的并?#20197;?#26368;近几次采访中阐述的框架几乎可以精准地套用在西尔斯的溃败上。这个框架始于自大——西尔斯?#22836;?#24120;的傲慢。在20世纪70年代陷入困境前,西尔斯的零售业务从未聘请过顾问,也从不相信外人能够给他们提出任何有价值的建议。“西尔斯人”从不参加零售行业会议,他们自觉高人一等。这?#32844;?#24930;的最响亮表述来自于110层的芝加哥西尔斯大厦,它在20世纪60年代投入使用。时任CEO的戈登·梅特卡夫对《时代?#20998;?#21002;解释说:“作为世界上最大的零售企业,我们觉得自己应该有世界上最大的总部。”该公司当时还预测,到2000年,西尔斯员工将占据全部110个楼层。而?#23548;噬希?#35199;尔斯并没有出现增长,反而萎缩了,并在1995年搬出了这幢大楼。现在这座建筑被称为威利斯大厦。

傲慢会削弱自律,而自律?#24378;?#26519;斯企业衰退分析的核心。成本自?#36175;?#24448;第一个消失;西尔斯当然也是这样。在很长一?#38382;?#38388;里,外界一?#27604;?#20026;规模效益或许能够让西尔斯在为商品定价时永远具有无可匹敌的成本优势,其实并非如此。西尔斯的商品采购价或许确实比其他公司都低,但它浪费的经常性开支是非常之多(想想那座大楼),以至于它的总成本?#23545;?#36229;过行业平均水平。

成功带来增长,增长孕育出官僚作风,官僚作风则破坏自律。柯林斯说:“是什么取代了为什么。你要?#32321;?#30340;可不仅仅是10名、100名或者1000名员工能够完成工作,所?#38405;?#32473;每个人都发了锦囊妙计。讽刺的是这些人都不知道自己为什么要遵循这样的方法。它变成了教条,而不是得到理解。”在西尔斯,问题和这家公司一样大;据说它的员工手册有29000?#22330;?/p>

柯林斯指出,在衰退的下一个阶段,领导者会把问题归咎于外部因素;20世纪70年代的西尔斯就是这么做的。一个相关的毛病是忽视“基本飞轮?#20445;?#20063;就是构建企业的基本商业理念。柯林斯说:“人们往往低估了一个伟大飞轮的作用。”西尔斯领导层押注在金融服务?#24076;?#22240;为他们觉得自己的“飞轮?#20445;?#20063;就是零售业务,40年前就已经停止增长。家得宝、劳氏和沃尔玛等公司已经证明他们错的有多离?#20303;?/p>

在四处想办法解决问题时,领导者往往会重组公司,而且有时会重组?#20687;?#36825;也是西尔斯的特征之一。20世纪70和80年代,西尔斯曾经多次采?#27599;?#32929;公司结构,并将庞大的金融服务业务的边边角角在相互敌对的高管统领的不断变形的私人领地之间颠来倒去。这些措施一点儿用也没?#23567;?#22312;衰退晚期,公司有可能把希望寄托在外人身?#24076;?#24076;望他成为救世主一样的领导者。这样的负责人刚上台时,公司一般都会变得有起色,但接下来却仍然会令人失望。亚瑟·马丁内斯掌权时的局?#21697;?#21512;这样的模式。

最后一个阶?#38382;?#30495;正的公司衰亡期——资不?#32456;?#24182;且销声匿迹,或者干脆变得无足轻重,西尔斯就是这样。一个名叫西尔斯的实体也许可以再?#20598;?#24180;。但说到作为当今美国文化的元素之一,作为长期增长前景令人称道的零售商,西尔斯已经不在其?#23567;?/p>

这个过程耗时之长令人咂舌。凭借鼎盛时期的成功,西尔斯的衰退期?#21364;?#22810;数公司都长的多。但即使是不那么大的公司,败亡?#24067;负?#24635;是一个迷惑人的缓慢过程。柯林斯说:“?#24618;?#20255;大的过程非常缓慢,想想沃尔玛或西南航空就会明白。滑?#30053;?#21644;崛起完全一样,都是一个积累的过程。一家伟大公司的衰退只?#24378;?#36215;来像是发生在一?#24067;洌?#36825;是因为问题已经很?#29616;?#26102;人们才会注意到。而这也正是它如此危险的原因。”

在为西尔斯哀叹之际,我们或许不该为它的崩塌而哭泣过长时间。没有哪家公司能永远存在下去,但它的生命必须?#20013;?#36739;长时间,值得称赞而且成绩卓著。同时,西尔斯的故事应该让我们感到害怕。它向所有公司领导者表明,无论他们有多出名,?#21482;?#22312;自己的公司多?#20174;型持?#21147;,毁灭之力?#21152;?#21487;能正在暗中作祟,它可能?#20174;?#25104;功而又为成功所掩盖,并且正在破坏这些领导者所做的一切工作。在它们带来难看的结局前,能够发现这些毁灭之力的高管确实少之又少。(财富中文网)

本文另一版本登载于《财富》杂志2019年6月刊,标题为《70年的自?#19968;?#28781;》。

译者:Charlie

审校?#21512;?#26519;

Nearly 30 years later, Sears survives, barely. It regained momentum briefly in the 1990s when top executives and the board became so desperate that they broke with a century of tradition and hired an outsider to run the place—Saks Fifth Avenue executive Arthur Martinez. He found an organization still in its dysfunctional mode. “It was inward-looking and upward-looking,” he recalls. “Everything rose to the top. There was no accountability.” He brought in his own team of ?outsiders, quickly elevating sales, operating profit, the stock price, and morale. But when he left in 2000, the stock was right back where it had been when he took over.

His successor, former CFO Alan Lacy, tried hard to move Sears out of its mall locations because those stores “had a service-based model that our customers weren’t willing to pay for,” he says. He tried a Walmart-like, off-mall style of store called Sears Grand, but it didn’t take. The stock swung wildly. When Eddie Lampert came along in 2004, the board decided his buyout offer was the best option they faced.

What lessons should we distill from this long, sorry tale? Jim Collins, author or coauthor of business mega-sellers Built to Last, Good to Great, and Great by Choice, also wrote a slimmer, less famous book called How the Mighty Fall. Collins describes analyzing and writing about decline as a far tougher task than writing about success. “To become a great company is a narrow path,” he says. “There are things you have to do. But it’s so hard to get a framework of decline. It’s like a pool table—there are only a few ways to rack the balls but an infinite number of ways to disorder them.”

Collins didn’t study Sears for his book, but the framework he identified, and on which he elaborated in recent interviews, fits Sears’ demise almost precisely. It begins with arrogance, which Sears developed at mammoth scale. Until the troubles of the 1970s, Sears’ retail operations had never hired a consultant, believing no outsider could possibly tell them anything of value. “Searsmen” didn’t attend retail industry conferences, considering themselves members of a higher caste. The loudest expression of arrogance was the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago, commissioned in the 1960s. “Being the largest retailer in the world, we thought we should have the largest headquarters in the world,” then-CEO Gordon Metcalf explained to Time. By 2000, the company forecast, Sears employees would occupy all 110 floors. In reality, Sears shrank rather than grew and had vacated the building by 1995. It’s now known as the Willis Tower.

Arrogance erodes discipline, and discipline is central to Collins’s analysis of decline. Cost discipline is often the first to go; it certainly went at Sears. Outsiders long assumed that economies of scale would forever give Sears an unassailable cost advantage in pricing merchandise, but it wasn’t true. The company could indeed buy goods for less than anyone else—but its profligate corporate overhead was so massive (think of that building) that its total costs were bloated far beyond the industry average.

Success creates growth, which spawns bureaucracy, which subverts discipline. “The what replaces the why,” Collins says. “You have to make sure not just 10 or a hundred or a thousand people can do something, so you give everyone the recipe book. The irony is that all those people don’t know why they do it this way. It becomes dogma rather than understanding.” At Sears, the problem was as big as the company; the employee manual reportedly ran to 29,000 pages.

In the next stage of decline, leaders externalize the blame for what’s going wrong, Collins says; Sears certainly did that in the 1970s. A related pathology is neglect of “the fundamental flywheel,” the basic business idea on which the company is built. “People often underestimate how far a great flywheel can go,” Collins says. Sears’ leaders bet on financial services because they thought that retail, their own flywheel, had run out of growth 40 years ago. Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, and others showed how wrong they were.

As leaders cast about for solutions, they typically reorganize the company, sometimes obsessively, and Sears checks that box. At various times in the 1970s and 1980s, it adopted a holding company structure and shuffled bits and pieces of its financial services empire among shape-shifting fiefdoms overseen by warring executives. None of it helped. In the late stages of decline, companies may invest their hopes in an outsider as savior-leader, under whom an initial upswing is common, followed by disappointment. The Arthur Martinez era fits that bill.

The final stage can be literal corporate death—insolvency and disappearance—or it can just be irrelevance, which the company has already reached. An entity bearing the Sears name could persist for years. But as an element of today’s American culture, and as a retailer with plausible prospects for long-term growth, Sears is done.

It’s astonishing how long it has taken. By virtue of its tremendous success at its height, Sears extended its decline much longer than most. But even for lesser companies, failure is almost always a deceptively slow process. “Greatness gets built very slowly—think of Walmart or Southwest Airlines,” says Collins. “Decline is just like ascent, a cumulative process. The decline of a great company only looks instantaneous because you notice it when it’s acute. That’s what’s so dangerous about it.”

As we mourn Sears, maybe we shouldn’t weep too long over its demise. No company lives forever, and it has had a long, laudable, productive life. But the Sears story should scare us. It shows every business leader that no matter how celebrated or dominant his or her business may be, the forces of destruction could be at work right now, unnoticed, caused by success but also hidden by success, undermining all the work the leader has done. Rare indeed is the executive who can spot those forces before they lead to an ugly end.

A version of this article appears in the June 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Seven Decades of Self-Destruction.”

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