The original Szelhamos Rules ran for precisely 1 year, from February 2007 – February 2008. This article originally appeared March 29, 2007. For Michael Dell update, read “How Much Bad News Can we Handle? (August 19, 2011)





Recent data seems to refute this old adage. After spending 5 or 6 years in college, many newly minted, diploma holding graduates are returning home. “Failure to Launch” was a reflection of a growing phenomenon around the country. For me however, the sight of Terry Bradshaw’s butt, has made that both a memorable and disturbing film. But the reality is that you can go back home. It’s cozy, it’s safe and it’s cheap. And everyone is doing it.


But in the world of business it’s not quite so clear that you can go back home. Steve Jobs and Charles Schwab did, and their company’s shareholders were elated to welcome them back. Apple Computer may just have well been named Jobs Computer, because there was only a rotten Apple during his absence. Even the threat of his departure, whether due to personal health or options related scandal, had depressed the stock price, and his returns to grace and health saw upward moves in Apple’s price.


In Charles Schwab’s case, the company was already called Charles Schwab. No need for renaming. But when he left, it lost focus. When he came back, Schwab, the company came back, better than ever. Among the discounters it is still able to command a premium for its services.


So they could go home. And everyone lived happily after after, that is, until they leave again. And someday Steve Jobs and Charles Schwab will pack up and go. Planned succession? Who could fill their shoes? John Scully?


But it’s not always that way. Remember Gateway Computer? It’s still around. It’s a $2 stock that every now and then gets speculative play because people think that it will return to its former glory. And why not? A couple of years ago it’s iconoclastic founder, the pony-tailed Ted Waites returned, to help rescue the company, that littered the landscape with its ubiquitous cow boxes in the mid-90’s. Gateway once had cachet, now it has some shelf space at Best Buy.


Well, you know what happened. I already told you it was a $2 stock. Buying out low quality maker eMachines didn’t do much for Gateway. Bringing the cow boxes out of pasture didn’t help much either. And so Ted Waites left again. He couldn’t go home. He never did learn to avoid the pastures while in sandals. That was his real downfall.


Why bring this up? Who really cares about Gateway? Although I still have my first PC, a Gateway P70, with a kicking 1 Gig hard drive, I really don’t think about Gateway. In fact, the only reason I still have the unit is that it is too heavy to take to the dump. There is nothing compelling about their machines, other than to bring back memories of the early post-IBM days when Gateway and Dell slugged it out for the hearts of the computer newbies.


No DellBut I do care about Dell. A few days ago I wrote that I was planning to make a sale of my Dell stock if it reached 25, which I was expecting, since the bad news was certainly behind us.


In my own mind, I may think that I’m pretty important, but I’m pretty sure that my disclosing my intentions didn’t send panic waves through the market for Dell stock. O, as it turned out, it was more bad news.


A couple of months ago, the famous founder, Michael Dell himself, stepped back up to the plate. Out was his hand picked CEO successor, whom he had wholeheartedly endorsed just weeks before. That’s always the kiss of death. The stock rallied on that news. The prodigal father was returning to rescue his child. Dell would go up, would go down, would show some brief upside trends on news. But Michael was back. He came back.


Now it’s never good news when you start the morning with an announcement that trading in Dell stock is halted. That was this morning’s news. It followed yesterday’s announcement that there may be a need to restate prior year’s’ earnings. Irregularities. How I hate that word, at least if it refers to a stock that I own. At my age, it’s very important to be regular.


Dell is a good example of how not to buy a stock. A while ago, after quarter after quarter of great earnings and guidance, Dell announced a disappointing quarter. The stock fell about 10% on that news. I though that was a great opportunity to buy into a great company, at a great price. Not !


Who knew that the house of cards was beginning to crumble. Those disappointing results may have been the first indication that you can’t hide irregularities forever. Manipulate as much as you want, but sooner or later the truth comes out. And so for the past 18 months or so, its been one delayed filing after another. That’s never good news. Yet Michael Dell stood by his man. After all, they did share an office.


In hindsight, with the continued delays, and the continued support of Michael Dell, there should have been alarms going off for me. But I kept confident. Secure in the fact that even while no longer running the company, Michael Dell would get this thing back on track.


He didn’t and he hasn’t. It’s hard too imagine that he didn’t know the depths of the problems at Dell. They still make a great product, albeit not price competitive, but a great product. In a household full of computers and laptops, our Dell is our top dog. But as a company, it’s broken, and Michael Dell should never have gone back home. Only time will tell what whether there was criminal activity or securities violations and now Michael Dell is back. If he knew the depths of the problems, his arrogance is mind boggling. The market wants results, not camouflage and not a soft shoe shuffle.


Maybe more disturbing is that if he didn’t know what was going on, what is he doing coming back? Stay away. How could he have been so removed? That’s very different from the departure of Jobs from Apple. If he was so removed and distanced from operations at Dell, how in the world could he be prepared to rescue them from this morass?


I hate selling on bad news. That’s why I didn’t panic last month. The difference is that ultimately, with a broad enough time frame, the market always recovers. Remember 1929?


You can’t say the same for companies. Remember Enron? Maybe Dell makes up a few cents, but it’s hard to see a return to its glory days. There’s lots of competition. Computers are commodities and are priced as such. Dell products are no bargains and you have to wait a few days to get yours. Americans want instant gratification, not a visit from the UPS guy.


Oh, and the SEC problems don’t help, either.


I have two solutions. Think private equity, if you can’t comply with the SEC.


So, Michael. Come. Visit. Have a nosh. But seriously, what were you thinking?


And my other solution?


It’s time to go before you end up on Best Buy’s shelves, next to your old friend, Ted.


 


NOTE:  The graphic appearing in this blog article did not appear in the original version


 


 


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