Commentary

Lafley Returns To P&G As McDonald 'Retires'

An old new sheriff is back in town at Procter & Gamble. Former CEO A.G. Lafley replaced his handpicked successor, Robert McDonald, late yesterday and further changes are in the air.

“Stay tuned,” Lafley tells the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Byron and Joann S. Lublin in response to a question about other residents of the reportedly funereal 11th floor executive suite in Cincinnati and other far-flung corners of the globe. 

“We’re always improving the team; we’re always trying to position players where they can perform the best,” Lafley tells the Cincinnati Enquirer’s David Holthaus. And sometimes that’s from the sidelines.

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Formally, McDonald is “retiring” effective June 20. Rumors that his days were numbered have been pervading stories about P&G like too much classic Old Spice on an old man and, apparently, they even made McDonald gag. 

In a letter to his “P&G Friends,” he writes, “During the past year, much attention has been focused on me from several angles, which has been a distraction that is not in our best interests. I’ve always believed that we are a Company -- One Company -- comprised of great individuals. When we get to a point where too much attention becomes a distraction, it’s time to change that dynamic.”

The headline on Jeremy Bogaisky’s story on Forbes.com flat out congratulates Bill Ackman, an activist investor by trade who heretofore “has had a rough year with the failure of his handpicked CEO at J.C. Penney, Ron Johnson, and a so-far wrong way short bet on Herbalife.” 

Ackman reportedly has been highly vocal in pressing the board to do something about McDonald since he “burst on the scene last summer, purchasing a nearly $2 billion stake in the consumer products giant and demanding big changes to boost P&G stock,” as the Cincinnati Inquirer’s Alexander Coolidge put it earlier this month.

Ackman “has argued that the company was burdened with bloat, inefficiency and excessive marketing expenses,” Michael J. de la Merced writes in the New York Times, and has also charged that  “McDonald had been distracted by outside commitments, including seats on other organizations’ boards.” 

“As we’ve said all along, we have confidence in the board of Procter & Gamble to do the right thing for the company and the shareholders,” Ackman told the Times yesterday. 

But Ackman was not alone in his disparagement of the McDonald regime. “In fact, investors began taking shots at McDonald a year ago,” points outBusiness Insider’s Jim Edwards. “On a conference call at that time, Ali Dibadj of Sanford C. Bernstein suggested McDonald wasn't cutting it. ‘How much patience does the board have?’ is the quote that will go down in history.”

Bloomberg’s Lauren Coleman-Lochner and Carol Hymowitz remind us that that McDonald “embarked on a turnaround plan last year to cut $10 billion in costs through 2016 and renew focus on the company’s leading businesses after losing market share to such rivals as Unilever.”

“The board called me and asked me if I would come back, and frankly, duty called,” Lafley tells them a telephone interview. “I’m back. I’m full on, I’m engaged, and I’m ready to get into the business.”

Indeed, Lafley is not returning as a mere caretaker, Ad Age’s Jack Neff suggests. “Unless and until the board decides otherwise, A.G. will be the CEO with all the authority and responsibility that goes with the position,” P&G spokeswoman Jennifer Chelune tells him -- “noting that it's not an interim assignment.”

Lafley, 65, whose first tenure as chairman and CEO began in June 2000 when he replaced the embattled Durk Jager, had been a senior advisor at a private-equity firm, Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. His bio on its website sums up his achievements: 

“Under Mr. Lafley’s leadership, P&G grew its billion-dollar brands in number from 10 to 24, more than doubled sales and increased market capitalization by over $100 billion, making the company one of the most valuable in the world. Mr. Lafley is co-author of The Game Changer, an operating manager’s guide to turning innovation into strategic advantage and Playing to Win, which provides a practical approach to winning strategy. He holds a B.A. from Hamilton College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.”

But not everything came up smelling like Febreze under Lafley’s tenure. 

“Some of the problems currently plaguing P&G have their roots in Mr. Lafley's time as CEO,” the WSJ’s Byron and Lublin observe. “Critics point out that his focus on creating evermore premium products and relying on the U.S. market rather than building a bigger business in the developing world set up P&G for a big fall when the recession hit.” 

Boy, it’s sure not easy nowadays to operate in 41 countries with 126,000 employees and annual sales upwards of $84 billion -- more than double those of your closest competitors.

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