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CEOs on Journal’s Most-Stressed List Aren’t All the Same

Dissatisfied activist investors helped put several heavyweight CEO pelts on the wall last year, including Procter & Gamble’s Bob McDonald, JCPenney’s Ron Johnson and Groupon’s Andrew Mason. So, despite record-high overall stock-market values lately, these hedge-fund maestros and other influential investors are sure to join with restive board members to put pressure on other CEOs in 2014.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal opened the new year with a story that identified the CEOs of six companies who are under growing pressure by impatient investors and skeptical directors and, presumably, will have to deal decisively with such threats before 2014 is over.

Those fingered by the publication were:

Michael Jeffries, Abercrombie & Fitch

Edward Lampert, Sears

Sheri McCoy, Avon Products

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!

Irene Rosenfeld, Mondelez

Don Thompson, McDonald’s

The Journal’s choices are ones who have generally come under pressure from activist investors lately, who of course are only too happy to heighten the angst around any CEO for their own purposes.

But they’re mostly companies – Abercrombie, Avon, McDonald’s and Sears – whose CEOs basically have been struggling to keep their companies’ traditional business models relevant to new realities imposed by factors ranging from a sluggish economy to fading brand relevance to the ever-changing vagaries of the digital tsunami.

The two others – Mayer of Yahoo! and Rosenfeld of Mondelez – are in the midst of drastic overhauls that they hope will reposition their companies solidly on new business models.

And to paraphrase Sesame Street, which of these CEOs is not like the others – which of these just doesn’t belong? Maybe Thompson of McDonald’s. Yes, the fast-food giant had a terrible 2013 in which nothing the CEO did seemed to work, including new products and customer service. But the whole Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) sector has been struggling mightily with a stingier new kind of consumer, and Thompson’s predecessor, Jim Skinner, had lots of naysayers when he began as CEO too.

Ironically, Lambert may be in the least trouble for his job of all six CEOs listed even though Sears arguably is the most existentially challenged of the half-dozen companies. That’s because he individually owns Sears’ biggest shareholding. But that status, of course, also means that Lambert is the mostly likely chief of the group to go down with the ship.



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