There are few instances in life that encapsulate all things capitalistic like starting your own company, growing it to the point it has an IPO on a major exchange, and running it after it's publicly traded. I think it was during this year's sleeper of a Super Bowl where I saw a commercial that showed the outside of a closed garage then named off a few companies that were all started in a garage. Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft to name a few. While I can't help but think about the Seinfeld episode where George is trying to sell computers for his Dad out of a garage, the reality of these titans of industry having such humble beginnings is amazing.
Inevitably, the founders of these fantastic companies get thrust into the spotlight on IPO day. Some of them adapt to the changes associated with having a board of directors and thousands of shareholders to answer to. Others struggle to find direction and end up on the outside looking in. It made me wonder, is it better to have a founder CEO or a professional CEO? After all, if the founder had enough vision to take it from nothing to a publicly traded company, how can you question the track record? But maybe some founders are just in over their heads at that stage and just don't have what it takes to bring the newly public company into the next level.
I don't think that anyone can look at Jeff Bezos at Amazon () and question his ability to remain CEO. Bezos has transformed the company from an online bookstore to an online retail giant. I'm almost embarrassed to call them that because they are so much more than that now. Amazon can also do your webhosting, get your groceries, and give you a tablet to read on. The frightening part for competitors is Amazon is still a growth company.
The stock has been an anomaly of sorts. Traditionally, companies are concerned with growing their earnings year after year and having a stock price that follows suit. Solid, steady growth makes everyone happy. Amazon takes a different approach though. Bezos really isn't that concerned with earnings, he's more concerned with growing the Amazon brand and spilling over to other industries and business segments. As a result, Amazon isn't really a darling in the eyes of our Zacks Rank. It seems like every year analysts come out and give lofty earnings expectations for Amazon then have to drop them again and again as Amazon goes on spending sprees, buying companies and expanding its business. The Zacks Rank #4 (Sell) on AMZN shows this trend in earnings estimates. A quick look at the price and consensus chart shows Amazons earnings growth and revision history, but also the remarkable run the stock has had since the bottom in 2009.
If the Amazon story is the pitch for a founder CEO, then the Groupon () story may be the polar opposite. Founder Andrew Mason saw Groupon stock shed 75% of its IPO valuation while at the helm. Mason left us with one of the most memorable resignation letters, admitting his shortcomings as a publicly traded company CEO and tipped his cap to his Groupon employees. Since relinquishing the top spot at the company, shares have rallied sharply and after a recent pullback still trade twice the share price at the time of Mason's departure.
The company has still struggled to find earnings growth. Analysts just recently dropped their earnings estimates for GRPN, predicting a loss for the current quarter as well as the current year. This helps contribute to a Zacks Rank #5 (Strong Sell) for the stock. With 11 analysts sharing a negative view of the earnings picture, even professional CEO Eric Lefkofsky couldn't turn this company around. As an aside, it's important to note that Lefkofsky was actually Groupon's original financial backer.
In the face of all this, Elon Musk is still running the show over at Tesla (). So the question is, is Musk more Bezos or Mason? I am in the Bezos camp as far as intellect and leadership, but I think that Elon has too many projects to dedicate himself to just one. Remember, Musk made his first fortune with PayPal and now runs Tesla in addition to SpaceX. Part of the reason for Amazon's success is Bezos has a singular vision and direction for the company. Musk has already exhibited in the past that he's not married to a single company idea. Perhaps TSLA will be bought out some day by one of the larger automakers.
Musk's SpaceX is another serious operation. Recently Musk was on Capitol Hill, making a push for SpaceX to be considered along with the United Launch Alliance to provide launch technology for satellites. Musk claimed that the government could save $280 million per launch just by allowing SpaceX to intervene in the process dominated by Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
You could bring up a hundred companies with similar stories to these stocks supporting either side of the argument. It seems to me like the answer to the question depends on the founder and what the founder's ultimate goal is. Was the founder's goal to get rich on an IPO and move on to the next thing or was it to blossom the company further? If it was a get rich scheme, then I say the professional CEO should take their place. If not, then who better to grow with than the founder and their vision?