The American Cheese Melt Down: 3G Capital Sets Out To Dismantle Kraft
Summer is a time for being in the moment. Long days, full of light and warmth, urge us to slow down and savor the moment. It’s the season for baseball, golf and tennis – games that aren’t played against the clock like most fall and winter sports, but mosey along toward conclusion at their own deliberate pace.
Several years ago I wrote a piece about the benefits of slowing down – not just away from work, but at work as well. I suggested that time should be carved out of our frenetic days for pursuits such as deep thought and imagination. Imagine that! A shift, if only a temporary one, from being reactive to proactive. It’s an easy enough concept to support in principle, but we don’t often see it in practice. As the mantra of cost cutting in business and government shows no sign of abating, it seems that there are just too few people left to do way too much work.
This results in frazzled people doing their best just to get their day-to-day work done with little time (or budgets) to think through truly effective solutions to long or short-term challenges.
My premise several years ago was that there would be a high price to pay for this dearth of thoughtfulness. Long established companies, having neglected brand building, innovation and capital improvements to prop up quarterly earnings would implode, including some very large companies that might have been considered bulletproof just a short time ago.
I stand by this premise, but with a slightly different, more nuanced perspective that looks more closely at the sometimes complex relationship between “short-term” and “long-term,” while introducing the critical, yet impossible to measure, “passion factor” into the equation.
Three major influences were at work for me here: Several articles on the newly merged Kraft Heinz company, a recent column by Jane Brody, the renown health columnist for the New York Times, entitled Rethinking Exercise as a Source of Immediate Rewards, and the meditation practice I started this past January.
Let’s start with the Brody piece. Her premise, backed up by research, is that people who take up exercise for long-term benefits such as improved health, weight loss, body sculpting or disease prevention are less likely to exercise than those who work out for short-term benefits such as simply feeling good.
That doesn’t seem to make sense at first blush. Wouldn’t you think that those with important, tangible, health concerns, sometimes very serious, would be more likely than anyone to embrace exercise? However, as I always love to say, the facts seldom matter in marketing or life. When you accept that emotion is always more powerful than fact, the research cited by Brody is easy to accept.
“Though it seems counterintuitive, studies have shown that people whose goals are weight loss and better health tend to spend the least amount of time exercising…Rather, immediate rewards that enhance daily life — more energy, a better mood, less stress and more opportunity to connect with friends and family — offer far more motivation…”
This is as simple as understanding how different it feels to be told to do something compared with doing something because you simply want to. My own experience with work, exercise, playing music, reading and other “good for you” endeavors that became life-long passions are completely consistent with Brody’s premise.
I discovered, or at least feel that I did, these passions on my own. Yes, there were stern authority figures telling me what I had to do when I was a teenager, and I resented it. My parents and teachers would urge me to “read to improve myself” as well as to “read for pleasure.” But those were foreign concepts to me. Reading was “work” and associated with school. My priority was “play.” Moreover, the very well intended encouragement I received was interpreted by my immature, ignorant, arrogant teenage brain as lecturing, badgering and bullying.
However, a major shift was well underway by the time I went off to college and started to feel somewhat independent and grown up for the first time in my life. Motivations to engage in “good for me” activities started to emerge from the inside out. I now had actual goals that I could articulate – to be fit, well-informed, get good grades, be popular and more. But as discussed in the Brody piece, it turned out that feeling good in the moment about the work I was putting in to those ends mattered as much as or more than the final results. They joy of learning a new song, the endorphin high after a long run or swim, the feeling of accomplishment after spending several hours in the library to feel prepared for class the next day or better understanding the human condition after reading a novel became motivations in and of themselves.
My decision to take up meditation also had its roots in long-term concerns, but the calmness and clarity I experience on a daily basis simply feels great. Meditation, of course, is all about “mindfulness” and “being in the moment.” One must be “present.” While it is impossible to control your thoughts – and meditation practice tells you not to try – you must acknowledge those thoughts. “That’s anxiety,” or “that’s sadness,” or “my cheek itches” – almost as you were observing as a third party. The idea is to note the feeling, accept it, and then go back to focus on the breath or a mantra. It doesn’t get more “short-term” than that.
There is no goal setting in meditation, other than showing up. You can set a broad intention such as calmness, but it needs to be set aside while you sit, rest your mind and breathe. Andy Puddicombe, the man and the voice behind the Headspace app, a wonderful system of guided meditations I discovered online and now use, frequently reminds us that meditation will not make stress or anxiety go away. However, acknowledging those feelings and being curious about them ultimately creates “more space in the mind” and helps us deal with those kinds of negative (or positive) emotions when they arise.
The daily commitment required by meditation was a bit intimidating to me at first. Could I really sit quietly for 20 minutes every damn day? Yet another obligation, another item on an already crowded to-do list.
Yet here I am, more than seven months later, sitting down to meditate every day without fail. It feels nothing like an obligation. Like reading, playing music and exercise, it’s something I love to do. Even on those days (and there are a lot of them) when I’m feeling anxious about the day ahead or thinking about something that might have happened the day before, I feel completely different by the time the 20 minutes are up. Calm, centered and focused, ready to be productive.
Interestingly enough, I now sleep better, I’ve lost weight, I look at my phone far, far fewer times during the day, I’ve become a better listener and feel that I am more empathetic. My ability to look at issues from other points of view has blossomed. (Better late than never, I suppose.)
The prospect of enhanced calm was certainly a motivation for starting to meditate, but hadn’t considered any of the of the other benefits ticked off above. And I don’t think about any of that now. I just sit and breathe, in the moment. Short-term practices for long-term results.
Which brings me to the news about Kraft Heinz. 3G Capital Management, the Brazilian investment firm with stakes in Anheuser-Busch, Burger King and Heinz, and the driving force behind the Kraft Heinz merger, is know for its draconian, cutthroat, cost cutting practices. They generally lay off about a third of headquarter employees after they take over a company and then look in every nook and cranny for savings. According to the Wall Street Journal, executives are now required to share hotel rooms when they travel. In addition,
“3G has already made its mark on the company, announcing plans to move Kraft’s headquarters from the Chicago suburbs to a downtown office about one-quarter the size, and sending a memo to employees pushing for strict controls on spending, from double-sided printing to pulling back some of the free Kraft snacks offered in the office.”
How’s that working for them so far? The titles of two recent Wall Street Journal articles speak for themselves: Revenue Falls at Kraft, Heinz, and 3G Capital’s Brands Lose Market Share Amid Focus on Costs.
Still, it will likely end up very nicely for 3G and its investors. After sucking their stated goal of $1.5 billion in costs out of the newly merged company, firing people, letting brands wither on the vine, cutting back on research & development and pinching pennies wherever they can, profits, and most likely the stock price, should increase for at least a while. But the company won’t grow, unless by acquisition.
Indeed, the Wall Street Journal states that:
“3G’s strategy brings potential long-term downsides. (A report by McKinsey & Co.), while noting that the firm (3G) has “created tremendous operational value,” warns that its “focus on short-term profitability and cash flows does pose risks to brand health, particularly to future growth.””
Whether or not investors prosper, consumers will suffer. There will be no innovation, and existing brands, many of them iconic, will die premature deaths, resulting in narrowed brand choices and higher prices.
While there certainly must be a good deal of planning going on at 3G, it seems that it must be focused on the financials and the exit strategy. In other words, it’s all about the money and nothing else.
Contrast that with successful, contemporary global companies like Nike, Starbucks, Apple, Google and Amazon. They share with 3G a strong motivation to make buckets of money, but the similarities end there. These companies are passionate about changing the world and delivering great products and services. They were all founded by visionaries and continue to invest in the long-term. Unlike 3G, they take risks and tolerate failure to build a better future.
People covet jobs in these firms. Imagine what it must be like to go to work at Kraft Heinz since the 3G takeover. First they take away my free cheese snacks and now I have to share a hotel room when I travel on business? I can’t even make a copy without the CFO breathing down my neck!
There can be no joy in the land of Oscar Meyer and Cheez Whiz. Sometime after the mass layoffs there will be a point where the jobs that remain will turn over and need to be filled. Who’s going to work there? Certainly not anyone who has any other option at all. Hmmm…let’s see. Should I go to Google where I’ll be treated like a human being and a valued member of the organization, or should I go to Kraft and be abused? Let me think…
3G may be an extreme example, but they are not alone in their focus on cost cutting to make quarterly numbers and buoy share price. It’s a double whammy, a vicious cycle, as the lack of investment puts severe restraints on long-term prospects and morale is destroyed in the short-term. Who can think about being visionary when in survival mode?
The sadists in finance and HR who are hell bent on eliminating as much head count as they possibly can might enjoy coming to work at 3G. But it’s fairly safe to say that everyone else, especially the marketing people, probably aren’t dealing well the with nickel and diming and the prospect of coming to work each day to achieve the ridiculously impossible, “doing more with less.”
Here is where the importance mindfulness come in, that joy of “being in the moment” and enjoying the immediate experience as much as or more than the longer term results.
Marketers want to create and build. Managing decline while being abused? Not so much.
A healthy long-term vision sets up healthy short-term practices. If the vision is simply mercenary, to rape a company and debase its people in the process, there is little incentive for the people who were “lucky enough” to keep their jobs to perform. Or even to show up at work at all for that matter. The culture of penny pinching renders the possibility of any momentary joy at work impossible. There is no opportunity to be “mindful” or “in the moment” if employees are resentful about cutbacks and constantly fearful for their jobs.
A satisfying day at work is like the runner’s high or the feelings of calm and clarity after meditation. The feelings that result from these activities are rewards in and of themselves. Add them up and you’ve got a brighter future.
The 3G approach, shared by so many other companies, seems to guarantee harder times to come. It presents a bleak vision of the future while imposing stringent policies that frustrate and demean its workforce in the present. There is no slowing down, there are no work-related activities to savor and little opportunity for the type of positive reinforcement, craved by marketers, to help their company grow.
A lot of money will likely be made by a small group of people, but 3G is a destructive force. It doesn’t seem that this is the manner in which the “invisible hand” of the free market should work.