For many years Tesco sold people the groceries they wanted. Tesco’s market share went up and up. Profits and dividends rose whilst prices remained competitive. Sir Terry Leahy presided over a huge success.
For many years Manchester United built up a reputation for being the best or one of the best clubs in the Premier League. Under Sir Alex Ferguson the club won many trophies, increased its world fame and fan base, and became a huge revenue generator from tv rights, sales of products and even from selling tickets for games.
During their glory years both UK success stories had their critics. Tesco attracted endless criticism for being too big, for being too tough in negotiations with suppliers, Councils and other partners. Yet they remained the UK’s favourite grocer as measured by how many people shopped there and by how much product they purchased. Manchester United of course drew the criticism and the jealousy of the supporters of many other teams that they usually defeated, and the special criticism of the few teams that could give them a good match and could sometimes beat them in competitions. Sir Alex’s style with the media often encouraged verbal retaliation.
When these two leaders retired from their jobs, both organisations started to record disappointing performance. Manchester United had a poor season last year under a new manager chosen with the support of Sir Alex. This season has started badly under a costly new foreign manager who was meant to change things for the better. A club like Manchester United with very expensive and well trained players does not expect to lose 4-0 to MK Dons nor to be so far adrift of the top of the Premier league.
Tesco has reported slipping market share, with more people going to competitors than before. Last week came the shocking news that things were not expected to get better anytime soon, and the dividend was slashed by three quarters to conserve cash and reflect the realities of lower profits.
In each case there are three popular explanations of the changes.
Some think Leahy and Ferguson were special managers, and their replacements so far have failed to show anything like their skill at mobilising the very considerable resources at their command and inspiring their teams to perform. They have on their side the fact that the decline seemed to set in in each case on the departure of the old boss. In each case there has been subsequent management change as the owners seek to recapture the old success, implying those most involved think management is the problem or part of it.
Some think the later years of both super managers left problems behind which suddenly surfaced or became clear on their departure. Did Sir Alex fail to buy the new younger players needed in time? Did Sir Terry push too hard to cut costs and raise profits to the point where service was damaged or prices were too high? It is always tempting for new incoming management to blame the outgoing, and some times it is right. The weakness in this argument is the new management at Manchester United was able to buy new players, and Tesco’s management has been free to raise service levels and or cut prices if they were an inherited problem.
Some think the problems lie outside the managements, especially in the case of Tesco. Maybe the competition has just got a lot better, which would have posed as big a problem for the retiring managers had they stayed.
In the last couple of years Manchester City with a big chequebook and a skilful leadership, Chelsea with billionaire backing and talented management, and an improved Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham have all perhaps made it more difficult for the old leader.
In the grocery area the last couple of years has seen a strong and well marketed challenge from the big discounters to Tesco and to the other old leaders including Sainsbury. It may not just be Tesco that suffers from the outbreak of much tougher price competition, with customers becoming cannier and reaping the benefits.
Do you have a favourite explanation? I suspect there is some truth in all three explanations. I also think Ferguson and Leahy do make the case that some managements can make a lot of difference and are worth the money.