Saturday, December 24, 2011


Jeff Grubb has a very interesting window into how corporations act to try and create endless cycles of growth:
And part of it is that the corporation demands continued growth and profit. It can defer some of its growth for long-term development, or keep on an unsuccessful project that someone really likes, but really it boils down to guaranteed growth. And if you attain that growth, then they need to increase that rate of growth. And lord help you if you have a very good year - that very good year becomes the baseline for further calculations. In short, it is a vicious cycle.So they pass out the budgets for next year and now the departments have to plan. Yeah, some of that planning involves going back and telling the guys with the budgets that this makes no sense and sometimes that works. More often it involves figuring out what goes overboard in order to jack up profitability.Sometimes it is a new process that saves times or lowers cost of materials. Sometimes it is a new market that has been opened. Sometimes it is that "big hit" that suddenly arrives and surprises everyone (businesses actually don't like the "big hit" - it really screws up their planning. If they say you are going to lose 3 million this year and you instead MAKE 3 million, you make them look like idiots, and you will be punished accordingly).
There are two chilling comments here. One, is the idea that a good year can become the baseline for future expectations. So it makes sense to ensure that you don;t have any unexpected surprises. Two, which is the icing on the cake, is the idea that an unexpected burst of profitability will actually be punished. How this can actually be an efficient system is astonishing.

The standard explanation of "creative destruction" (badly run firms fade to be replaced with better run firms) presumes that we actually let large corporations fail. But there has been a general reluctance to do this in fields ranging from automobile manufacture to banking. Without that safety valve, this approach is going to be very dangerous to efficiency. In a later post, Jeff Grubb notes the CEO compensation for Hasbro (the subject of the first post) is pretty decent:
For those not linking, it is an announcement that the CEO of Hasbro is getting paid $23 Million this year. And yeah, it is like pouring oil on troubled water, then tossing in a match.Now, doing the digging in the article, the CEO gets a raise in salary from $1 Mill to $1.2 Mill (hardly chump change), and the rest being common stock. And to the best of my knowledge (the Internet will correct, of course), this means that it comes out of the company till - they are reassigning stock held by the company to the individual. And this assignment may have other strings attached - the stock cannot be sold except back to the company, it may only be sold at a particular price, it must be sold on leaving the company. So it is a fuzzy number, but a very large fuzzy number.The article also makes clear that this is a retention payment, negotiated last year, to keep the CEO around. It also notes that Hasbro had a weak 2010 in sales (stock prices went up, though). 2011 is nothing to write home about (stock prices have since deflated) and 2012 is not shaping up to be any better (Upcoming big movie: Battleship). So this is not about performance, but rather about stability. This is payment for showing up.
What is fascinating about part two is that this is the same company that just laid off two popular and productive long term employees in the Wizard's of the Coast division. So I googled game developer salaries and found this:
Game designers who work for a big company such as Hasbro or White Wolf Publishing can expect a more reliable salary, usually averaging between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.
Now let us presume fringe and overhead double the salary, and that both of the senior developers were at the very top of this range. The retention bonus portion of the CEO retention payment was enough to pay 400 developer-years of salary )both have fringe and overhead, it's unclear how this would work out in the details but this is a good starting estimate). Seriously, keeping the CEO around for another year was worth hundreds of experienced employees. What is ironic, is the base salary of the CEO is that of twenty senior developers (raised to that of twenty-four this year). That is actually a credible ratio of the benefit of a good CEO for a company (they have about as much influence as a couple of seasoned design teams). The additional $22 million is hard to understand. No wonder companies don't like comparisons between executive compensation and line worker compensation.

I do not really have a good idea about how to handle this issue in a more global sense, but I am deeply worried that this pattern could be playing out in corporations that we simply are unwilling to let go under.

That is a scary thought.


  1. It's interesting how three of OE's recurring topics intertwine here:

    The Growth Fetish

    Executive Compensation

    Intellectual Property (trademarks, patents and copyrights are a huge part of Hasbro's business model)

  2. @Mark: Agreed. In some ways the last one is critical if unmentioned. Because a more efficient company cannot decide to produce D&D or Battleship, Hasbro has a lot of IP protection against bad decisions.

    But you'll note how successful Paizo, a small company, has been with Pathfinder (which is the Open Game License portion of the last edition of Dungeons and Dragons). From a small start-up, it is at risk of outselling Wizard's of the Coast.

  3. "Because a more efficient company cannot decide to produce D&D or Battleship, Hasbro has a lot of IP protection against bad decisions."

    This also minimizes the potential damage of management changes, so there's even less justification for huge retention bonuses.

    To add an extra layer of irony, Hasbro didn't actually invent Battleship; they took a popular, decades-old pencil and paper game by the same name, added pegs and slapped a trademark on it.