Dale Buss

Dale Buss
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Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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Airstream Enjoys Return to U.S. Space Program in Partnership with Boeing

Airstream has become known as the makers of the pinnacle of recreational vehicles signified by their “silver bullet” profiles. But a half-century ago, Airstream also was recognized as a supplier of transportation services to the American space program. Now the company is getting a chance to reprise its role in rocketry as the U.S. space program begins experiencing a bit of a renaissance. The Jackson Center, Ohio-based manufacturer has initiated a partnership with Boeing as the aircraft giant competes with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch next year what would be the first contingent of Americans taking off for space from U.S. soil since the last Space Shuttle launch in 2011. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is slated to carry three humans to the International Space Station in 2020. No, the Starliner isn’t shaped like an Airstream travel trailer. But Airstream is supplying a vehicle known as Astrovan II to transport the astronauts to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The vehicle is a modified Airstream Atlas Touring Coach named after the original Airstream trailer, nicknamed “Astrovan,” that, beginning in 1983, carried astronauts the last few miles to their space-shuttle launches at the Cape. “More than just a promotion, this represents the latest chapter in Airstream’s involvement in manned space flight,” Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler told Chief Executive. “We love this part of our history.” And actually, Airstream’s history with the space program goes back way before the space-shuttle program. Airstream first became associated with the space program in the public consciousness in 1969, the year Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It was tasked with supplying a vehicle that many Americans of baby boomer vintage and older will remember: the trailer that quarantined astronauts from other earthlings after they returned home from the moon. NASA scientists wanted to protect against the possibility that the astronauts might carry back some alien pathogen from humanity’s first physical contact with the lunar environment. And so Airstream outfitted a modified version of its Excella RV to house Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins after they splashed down on Earth from their triumphal return from the moon. “We were seen as a capable technology company building mobile environments, where we developed special air filtering and handling equipment,” Wheeler explained. “They wanted to keep the astronauts isolated for a time in that kind of environment. It seems quaint at this point, but put yourself back then.” Airstream built a total of four of the mobile quarantine labs for NASA’s use in the last years of the Apollo program. Now it is being re-enlisted as America begins re-engaging space travel in a number of ways. Some key fans of the brand inside Boeing, Wheeler said, helped get Airstream consideration for the role that became Astrovan II, including Warren Brown, Boeing’s executive director of marketing, brand and advertising, and Chris Ferguson, who led the final space-shuttle mission as an astronaut and is scheduled, at the age of 59, to command the first Starliner flight. “He was a three-time original shuttle astronaut,” Wheeler said. “He told me he loved the original Astrovan. So we had [Brown] pushing on one side and the guy who’s leading the [next] mission say he’d love to have Airstream be part of this story.” Wheeler said the company, a unit of Thor Industries, is “just thrilled” with its partnership with Boeing. “It’s an interesting sidelight to the [Airstream] brand overall, but it also demonstrates that very high-level technology organizations respect what we do in a way that compels them to involve us in their efforts.”

UAW President Jones Risks Upending Union’s Long Tradition of Leadership Integrity

Surely Walter Reuther and Doug Fraser are rolling over in their graves. For all the bad situations that business leaders can find themselves in these days, United Auto Workers President Gary Jones is in about one of the worst: as a target of a fast-expanding federal probe into corruption. And it’s even worse because Jones is the besmirched chief of a proud union whose founders, such as Reuther, and later leaders of demonstrated integrity, including Fraser, made sure that, whatever else the critics of the UAW could say about one of America’s most powerful organized-labor groups, they couldn’t say it was corrupt. Jones’s situation leaves the union and its rank-and-file with flaccid leadership, rattled and unable to enjoy fully what it might consider a “victory” for gains made during the just-concluded six-week strike against General Motors. Even worse, in the wake of the demonstration of its remaining power against the marquee member of the Detroit Three automakers, the UAW is still dwindling and is more uncertain of its future now than ever. Rory Gamble, vice president in charge of the UAW Ford department that just reached a deal with America’s No. 2 automaker without a strike, has become acting president and vowed in a letter to union members that he is “angry” with the stains caused by the investigation but “not here to pre-judge anyone. I am here to take this union forward.” He may follow in the tradition of other UAW presidents, such as Owen Bieber and Steven Yokich who, even while not possessing quite the leadership or rhetorical skills of Reuther or Fraser, also demonstrated integrity. Jones is taking a leave of absence as federal prosecutors in the widening corruption investigation appear to be closing in on possible charges against him and, even worse, are investigating his predecessor, Dennis Williams. According to the Detroit News, Jones has been implicated in the probe that so far has resulted in 12 charges and 10 guilty pleas among UAW leaders and some low-level auto-company executives. He hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing. But Jones’ weekend request to the union for a leave of absence came two days after prosecutors accused a former top aide to Jones and six other UAW officials of embezzling $1.5 million in union funds and filing false expense reports to conceal the wrongdoing. The admitted and alleged wrongdoing uncovered by the investigation is ugly stuff involving not only embezzlement but also gross abuse of expense accounts—which ultimately stem from UAW member dues—by union officials renting villas in California, scoring rounds of golf at prominent West Coast courses, and buying some very expensive liquor. The News also reported that “UAW Official A,” which is the moniker for Jones in the investigation, was in possession of more than $32,000 in cash at his personal residence on August 28. That’s the day Jones’ home was raided, along with those of other UAW officials, and when media reports quoted witnesses as saying that investigators were counting cash, according to the newspaper. With all of this going on in the background, it’s not a stretch to believe—as many have posited—that Jones helped lead the union’s strike against GM as a sort of Wag the Dog gambit to distract attention from the probe and to seem like a tough-guy leader to unionists who were demanding more gains from the automaker than it initially wanted to give. Still, Jones lost two key things at the table. First, GM CEO Mary Barra publicly disclosed the basic outlines of the automaker’s last offer to the UAW before the strike, and now union members can see that the walkout led by Jones didn’t gain them substantially more than the company was prepared to offer two months ago. Second, Barra actually won her key “demand” even after the strike and $3 billion in lost profits: to maintain the labor flexibility the company needs for the future, including no reversals of its closure of three big assembly plants. Even more important, the union leadership discreditation and paralysis comes at a time when UAW membership overall continues to dwindle and the future of blue-collar work in America’s auto plants is under intensifying assault from the growing capabilities of industrial automation and from the lower labor requirements for the all-electric vehicles that are becoming commonplace in the market. What’s more, with leadership that they can’t trust, there’s the prospect that more rank-and-file members of the UAW may begin to opt out of the union under provisions of the right-to-work laws that have been put on the books over the last several years in significant membership states including Michigan and Indiana. Jones may have helped lead an epic UAW strike against GM that squeezed more gains for expectant union members out of a company that has enjoyed a decade of strong profits after the Great Recession and U.S.-government bailout. But he may not be around to enjoy the afterglow.

The World Changed, So Why Didn’t McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook?

[caption id="attachment_65169" align="aligncenter" width="696"] Former McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook.[/caption] When Steve Easterbrook was fired as CEO of McDonald’s on Sunday over a personal relationship with an employee, it was yet another reminder that even though rules for corporate leadership have changed in the era of #metoo, some business chiefs are having a hard time getting the message, despite the enormous potential consequences. The board of the fast-food giant terminated Easterbrook, and he resigned from McDonald’s board, after an investigation of a consensual relationship with an unnamed employee. “This was a mistake,” Easterbrook wrote in an e-mail to McDonald’s employees on Sunday conceding that he had violated company policy on personal conduct. “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time to move on.” McDonald’s forbids managers from having romantic relationships with direct or indirect subordinates. Easterbrook is divorced, but Sunday’s developments were a remarkable admission that he hadn’t heeded the company’s clear policy on personal relationships in the office or society’s intensified focus on CEO behavior and the possibilities for abusing their power. He's hardly alone. Intel’s Brian Krzanich, Boeing’s Harry Stonecipher, Best Buy’s Brian Dunn are just a few of the CEOs who have been forced to resign because of improper relationships with employees. “We do see a trend here,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, CEO of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute, and Chief Executive columnist told CNBC. “Of these roughly 90 CEOs who left office last year, 40 percent of them were for misconduct.” Easterbrook was replaced by Chris Kempczinkski, who was president of McDonald’s USA and an Easterbrook protégé. On Sunday, Kempczinski told the Wall Street Journal that McDonald’s has a responsibility to address workplace well-being. The company had strengthened workplace training and protocol for reporting potential employee misconduct earlier this year, the newspaper said. The “great news,” said Sonnenfeld, is that “this is a board that has been prepared for unexpected crises” and was ready with a seasoned executive to take over the top job. The bad news? This is the company’s seventh CEO in 13 years. “The transitions have been pretty smooth,” said Sonnenfeld, “even though they’ve been way too frequent for this amount of time.” Sunday’s termination brought to an end a long career at McDonald’s in which Easterbroook eventually headed the company’s U.K business and returned it to growth. His four-year stint atop the entire company began when he replaced the largely ineffectual Don Thompson in 2015. McDonald’s was mired in slowing sales and greater competition at that time, and Easterbrook took several steps that re-energized the chain for a while. But while building on success for McDonald’s used to be as simple as introducing a new sandwich or a new product line — such as the establishment of the McCafe coffee brand on U.S. national menus a decade ago — Easterbrook took over at a time when that was never going to be enough anymore. He faced issues including greater criticism of the health of McDonald’s food, the incursion of online ordering, increased consumer demands for delivery service, labor protests over its wage rates, and franchisee disenchantment over operational demands for fulfilling the changing palates and technological demands of the American and global consumer. Easterbrook got some initial juice with moves such as making many breakfast items available at McDonald’s restaurants 24 hours a day and de-complicating some operational initiatives. He committed the chain to switch to cage-free eggs, antibiotic-free chicken and hormone-free milk and raised workers’ pay above minimum wage. More recently, Easterbrook pulled the trigger on the acquisition of Dynamic Yield Ltd., an Israeli digital startup that is supposed to improve in-store ordering and online marketing, in McDonald’s biggest acquisition in two decades. But at the same time Easterbrook wasn’t able to elevate McDonald’s clearly above the vast secular changes that are challenging not only the world’s leading fast feeder but also every part of the global restaurant business. Now it will be up to Kempczinski—who told the Journal that “there isn’t going to be some radical, strategic shift” under his command—to pick up where Easterbrook involuntarily left off.

Schnatter Launches PR Blitz To Put Papa John Departure in Better...

John Schnatter is not going quietly in his ongoing battle with the company that he founded and that booted him out as chief last year. Now the former CEO of Papa John’s Pizza, who remains its largest shareholder, has mounted a big publicity campaign in which he offers observations about the continued travails of the Louisville-based company and criticizes the way he was dumped for his use of a racist slur. Over the last several days, Schnatter has provided an op-ed piece to the New York Post, been interviewed on Fox News, and provided comments to CNBC, among other moves, in an effort to put a friendlier spin on the circumstances of his departure from Papa John’s last year. The company and Papa John’s franchisees “have struggled without my leadership and brand expertise,” Schnatter wrote in the Post. He criticized Papa John’s board, which recently added former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, as having “no one … [with] any experience in the pizza industry. They couldn’t possibly understand the steps necessary to correct this very complicated, struggling business as I had on a number of occasions in the past.” Papa John’s circumstances are giving Schnatter plenty of grounds to criticize. Several weeks ago the chain fired Steve Ritchie, who had been Schnatter’s choice as CEO when Schnatter moved to the chairman’s job in late 2018 in the wake of criticism about his comments concerning the National Anthem controversy in the National Football League, of which Papa John’s was a major sponsor. Papa John’s named Rob Lynch, the former president of Arby’s, as Ritchie’s replacement. Meanwhile, same-store sales growth for Papa John’s has remained negative as the company participates in a dog fight with industry leader Domino’s and No. 2 Pizza Hut. Among the issues they’re all dealing with is the increasing role of home delivery for fast-food and even fast-casual chains that are competing for customers with a pizza industry that traditionally dominated in home delivery. In his PR campaign, Schnatter endorsed the dispatch of Ritchie—who ended up executing the break between Schnatter and Papa John’s last year—and praised Lynch. He “has proven to be an effective marketing leader in previous roles,” Schnatter wrote. “As the company’s largest shareholder,” with a 16.7-percent stake, “I’m hopeful that he can be successful at Papa John’s.” But Schnatter is saying that one of Papa John’s biggest problems is product quality, a major concern for a brand whose slogan has been “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” “Papa John’s management may be emphasizing cost-cutting over product quality,” he wrote. “Even the pizzas don’t appear to be made the way that I made them just a few years ago.” Schnatter also said he’s been hearing from store managers, franchisees and employees that “morale is at an all-time low.” Schnatter also has been using his visibility blitz to plead his case that his use of the “n-word” in a diversity-training exercise in the summer of 2018, when he was still chairman, “in fact” came in the context of remarks that expressed his “disdain for racism.” (In fact, it came in the context of his complaining that Col. Sanders used the slur and never faced public backslash.) He has also compared his scenario with that of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who used the n-word during a radio interview in October while discussing historical discrimination toward darker-skinned Italian immigrants. Response to Cuomo’s remark, Schnatter complained, “is in stark contrast to the irrational overreaction and internal exploitation of my comments.”
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