Lessons from record-breaking bankruptcies

Published at Nov 27, 2015, in Features

There are six factors that can cause companies to fail according to a new report released by Katrin Werres, Senior Industry Analyst at Google and Loizos Heracleous, of Warwick Business School.

The pair combined to study the two of the biggest bankruptcies the world has ever seen.

Telco giant WorldCom was the largest bankruptcy in US history when it filed in July 2002 with $35 billion of debt.

Nortel Networks, once the powerhouse of the Canadian tech industry, collapsed in 2009 following an accounting scandal.

“We identified six interrelated factors of strategic misalignment, the processes that can lead to corporate failure if left unchecked,” said Professor Heracleous.

“Once strategic misalignments are established these then spread to other areas inside the organisation.

“In the latter stages significant gaps are created between the strategy and competencies of the firm, and between strategy and the demands of the competitive environment, which leads to corporate failure.”

On The Road To Disaster: Strategic Misalignments And Corporate Failure is a paper that looks to identify typical patterns of strategic misalignments.

It found six factors:

  • Factor 1:Ineffective leadership and a passive, dominated board of directors.
  • Factor 2:Aggressive growth strategy (eg via acquisition), or over ambitious investments, funded by easy credit and overvalued stock.
  • Factor 3:Lax strategy execution (eg insufficient post-merger integration).
  • Factor 4:Misalignments at the organisational level from duplication of processes leading to inefficiency, while downsizing leads to the loss of talented people.
  • Factor 5:Further misalignments at organisation level, ie the culture becomes unproductive and inward looking, and core competencies weaken. These are exacerbated within an unforgiving environment (eg industry hit by an external shock like the 2007-08 financial crash).
  • Factor 6:Strategy and core competencies are not aligned with the requirements of the competitive environment, leading to failure.

WorldCom’s rise was glorious at first.

Founded in 1983 as LDDS Communications, it became America’s second-largest long-distance company and the largest handler of internet data.

However through rapid acquisitions, WorldCom ended up accumulating $41 billion in debts.

To make matters worse, and with the telco industry in decline at the time, WorldCom were found to be covering up its losses – inflating its total assets by about $11 billion and making this the largest accounting fraud in US history when the company went bust in 2002.

“A case analysis of WorldCom indicates three main interconnected areas of misalignment,” said Professor Heracleous.

“Firstly, between strategy and organisation, due to aggressive expansion and insufficient integration of acquired firms. Secondly, internal misalignment due to problematic corporate culture and human resource practices. Thirdly, compounding both of those, ineffective leadership and corporate governance.”

Looking at Nortel, this company was worth $300 billion and employed more than 90,000 people globally.

It came crashing down after an accounting scandal left it needing a credit support facility of up to $750 million from the Canadian Government.

The year was 2003, but with the financial crash in 2007-08, Nortel was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2009.

“With Nortel three main areas of misalignment can be identified as being most significant, ultimately leading to its downfall. Firstly, a misalignment between strategy and environment; secondly, a misalignment between strategy and competencies; and thirdly, a misalignment affecting all levels of the organisation, rooted in ineffective leadership and corporate governance. External, industry factors contributed to Nortel’s ultimate failure, by exacerbating the effects of these misalignments.

“In both cases the three initial factors – ineffective leadership and governance, followed by unduly risky strategic decisions and then by lax implementation – set the stage for failure,” Professor Heracleous said.

Corporate failure should not be understood simply as the result of a single wrong action, it is a process arrived at over time.

“The findings point to a back-to-basics approach for senior executives. They remind us of the crucial role of leadership and governance, the limits and dangers of risky and aggressive growth strategies and how a dominant CEO combined with a passive board can enable aggressive growth strategies to go unchecked.

“Such strategies can become a stone around the neck of organisations if the environment turns sour and if, in the meantime, they have built up substantial debt, which they cannot service once their performance and share prices decline.

“A risky strategy, badly executed, is a recipe for failure. It leads to organisational misalignments that gradually spread to put the organisation in a highly compromising position, from which it is almost impossible to recover.

“Being aware of these risk factors and avoiding them is essential for leaders and boards of directors.”

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