Veteran CEOs Talk About How They Would Fix Troubled Companies

It’s more difficult than ever to run a blue-chip company—considering spotty economic growth worldwide, increasing geopolitical tensions, rising commodity prices, dissolving consumer loyalties and the ceaseless and often microscopic attention brought by the unblinking digital eye. As a result of these external forces and some internal missteps, some of the biggest corporations in America are facing the most challenging periods in their history. Their CEOs are encountering rough patches that even their immediate predecessors couldn’t have predicted.

That’s why Chief Executive is helping them out. We selected 10 of these giants of American commerce—Campbell Soup, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Radio Shack, Target, Walmart and Whole Foods Markets—and sought advice from experienced business leaders on how to fix them. Our experts ranged from chiefs of billion-dollar companies and owners of significant small and medium-sized enterprises to respected academics to sought-after consultants.

Of course, it’s always easier to prescribe strategy from the outside than to actually be in the hot seat; but sometimes, the best advice can come from the less-stressful sidelines. Here’s what our experts had to say.


Campbell Is in the Soup

The Situation
The $8.1-billion consumer-packaged-goods giant headquartered in Camden, N.J., remains weighed down by the continued sluggishness of U.S. consumers and by its historic association with prepared foods that are falling out of favor. CEO Denise Morrison has made some major strategic moves during her three-year tenure, such as acquiring fast-growing healthy-food superstars Bolthouse Farms and Plum Organics. She’s also tried to appeal to a Millennial generation oriented toward fresh foods with gambits, such as Go! Soup in aseptic pouches and catchy flavors. Still, Campbell’s performance has been erratic even at best.

The Solutions
Adnan Durrani: Campbell should restructure its beverage division, get rid of their energy drinks—because they can’t compete in distribution with theirs—and focus on re-launching the V8 brand with a lot of discipline and push natural and organic versions.

Jay Gould: They’ve historically not leveraged their balance sheet for growth, so it took Morrison a lot of courage to spend $1 billion on Bolthouse Farms and Plum Organics, two moves for non-organic growth that hopefully will stimulate the company.

David Leider: I worked on Campbell Soup advertising 20-plus years ago, and they have the same mentality today: Advertising and marketing is a cost, not a driver of business. They need to change that mentality. Rather than put money into shopper-marketing programs, they need to get people to understand their brands better.


Grappling With Recalls at General Motors

The Situation
Detroit’s $155-billion automaker fields the best product lineup in its history and Mary Barra, the industry’s fi rst female CEO. But GM’s safety-recall crisis preoccupied her from the start of her tenure in January, with Barra attempting to change a GM culture that had remained sclerotic and secretive. Meanwhile, the performance of the company’s brands has been uneven. So Barra recently brought in Johan de Nysschen, who turned around Audi in the U.S. market and was helming Infiniti worldwide, to head Cadillac.

The Solutions
David Cole: A broken culture? She can’t throw away the good things, which includes the fact that GM’s portfolio of products now is world-class. Yet, [Barra] needs to look beyond what’s happening now. I’ve suggested to Mary that she take the lead in tackling the issue of training the workforce of the future in this country.

Seth Goldman: How do you change the conversation? Maybe, almost, over-sharing. What if GM created the world’s biggest database about auto accidents? And about the safety features and comparisons of every car, including competitors? It could be almost an “open sourcing” of the consumer experience with safety and show they’re not hiding anything.

Dennis Zeleny: She still needs to work on the tone at the top. If [Chief Counsel Michael] Millikin knew nothing about the big safety problem before the recall, he at least had lawyers beneath him who failed to communicate with him. So the question for [Barra] is—is it OK to let him keep running a division when he didn’t know this?


Rally Receding for Hewlett-Packard

The Situation
Left behind by the Silicon Valley boom has been one of its original major players, which continued to lose ground over the years as its emphasis on selling PCs, printers and other computer hardware was outstripped by its neighbors’ surging software and services businesses. Under CEO Meg Whitman since 2012, Hewlett-Packard had seemed to stabilize and rally as she nudged the company in rivals’ direction even while stubbornly maintaining its traditional reliance on hardware. But HP said last spring that it would cut up to 16,000 jobs on top of 34,000 positions previously targeted in a multi-year restructuring.

The Solutions
Marc Brownstein: HP should get back to what it was known for. Here’s a company that used to come out with these wonderful products—often early to market—that has become reactive with me-too products and gotten bloated. I would set up an incubator division and put their smartest people there.

Leider: Maybe they need to spin off their hardware. And figure out how to connect with people as they did during their pretty cool ad campaign last year about photo sharing. Possibly Facebook could swallow them up and HP could be tied together with Instagram; at least, she needs to think about more partnerships.

Joel Trammell: At one point in time, HP was known as the leading engineering company in the world. They should try to recreate that asset. That would drive everything else.


IBM’s Need for Speed

The Situation
The trailer for IBM’s recent woes may have been a five-minute video made by CEO Virginia Rometty last year in which she pleaded with employees to move faster. It was cinéma vérité: The $100-billion computing icon based in Armonk, N.Y., has been slumping lately with no end in sight. IBM continues to invest heavily in data analytics, cloud computing and corporate mobile and social computing in a shift of emphasis to service and software over hardware. Rometty, however, hasn’t proven she can expand the former quickly enough to take the traditional load from the former; and this summer, she announced the once-unthinkable: a landmark mobile alliance with Apple.

The Solutions
Brownstein: IBM is growing only through acquisition, and they need to figure out how to clip it all together. They’re profitable, but they’re not really growing. I’m not sure what they stand for.

Trammell: They’re getting fuzzier in their vision under Rometty, not clearer. Everything publicly is very focused around Watson [the supercomputing program that beats chess masters at chess], so why would I call IBM? They’ve become almost like a holding company for 50 underlying entities, trying to be all things to all people. The executive structure, at least, should change so that it resembles more of a light holding company for all these regional services operations that actually drive the organization. And maybe they should sell o their mainframe operation, which generates lots of cash but isn’t core to a services company.


McDonald’s: Outgunned by Newbies

The Situation
The traditional and once-unassailable leader of the global fast-food industry has sunk recently under the weight of its own mistakes—such as a paucity of hit new products, and foundering service—as well as greater competition from fast-casual chains and traditional quick feeders. Under CEO Don Thompson, over the last three years, the $28.1 billion Oak Brook, Illinois-based restaurant pioneer also has demonstrated an inability to deal decisively with consumers’ tilt toward healthier fast food and its growing reputation as the poster child for “unfair” minimum wages.

The Solutions
Brian Cohen: In its heyday, McDonald’s was where you went because the food was inexpensive but also because it was good. But now, they’ve commoditized the food and sent the message that it’s not about good food, it’s about price. They have to go back to doing what they were good at.

Paul Mangiamele: Re-establish that emotional connection. No one talks about Ronald McDonald now, his appeal to children or the quality of McDonald’s food anymore. [McDonald’s founder] Ray Kroc said that quality plus service plus cleanliness equals the experience. But McDonald’s restaurants aren’t clean anymore and employees don’t deliver service.

Jason Sullivan: Even as a fast food [restaurant], McDonald’s is struggling to keep pace at store [level] with longer lines and drive-throughs. On the other hand, Chipotle and Starbucks have worked hard to optimize their processes to deliver a positive consumer experience in terms of wait time.


Problems for P&G

The Situation
The $85-billion, Cincinnati-based giant remains the worldwide leader of the consumer-packaged goods business, touting 25 brands, with more than $1 billion a year in sales each. It’s also increasingly gaining sales and share outside the U.S. A.G. Lafley just decided to jettison dozens of underperforming brands. But he faces tough competitors in his second go-round as P&G’s CEO, which began in mid-2013 when he succeeded his hand-picked initial successor, Bob McDonald. The man once known as a corporate innovator nonpareil also has seen his company lose the edge in innovation.

The Solutions
Greg Bustin: Lafley can’t be a caretaker. He’s got to make bold moves and demonstrate a sense of urgency. And removing ambiguity around the new succession plan has to become a priority.

Gould: Maybe McDonald lost track of it a little bit, but one thing P&G did a great job of historically was managing their core business while also investing in growth ideas and using their balance sheet to help them invest in new business models. They have to get back to the core of doing that.

Zeleny: Lafley’s decision to take out $10 billion in costs was smart, but he should move briskly. He also should consider bringing in some new blood from other companies [who] have different perspectives on speed and growth. And the [CEO] problem last year should be a warning to be realistic as they look at succession throughout the organization.


RadioShack: Mired in the Past

The Situation
The Fort Worth-based retailer has been on life support for a while, unable to create a coherent position after one trend upon another eroded its traditional identity as the go-to depot for all things electronic. RadioShack overshot its possibilities as an all-purpose store for wireless, for example. It posted a $400-million loss for 2013 on $3.4 billion in revenues. And when the company tried to close 1,100 stores, lenders balked. Lately CEO Joseph Magnacca has staked out a plan to crowdsource new products. But the brand’s humorous Super Bowl commercial in February hailed the ’80s—unfortunately, the high point of RadioShack’s relevance.

The Solutions
Brownstein: I’d sell the assets to Je Bezos. RadioShack doesn’t have a reason for existing anymore. The value they brought to the marketplace has long since passed.

Leider: They’ve got to go back to their roots as the leader in expert customer service. An advice orientation also could help them succeed online, where that is important. One thing in their favor right now is that “reverse showrooming,” seems to be increasing, where more people now are looking online but buying at retail. It could give them a shot at a turnaround.

David Silverstein: What is their old customer building today? They’re into home automation and home power generation. Battery technology is moving at lightning speed, and people are wanting to become more independent from the power grid. That’s their only remaining chance. Otherwise, I’d be looking to sell RadioShack to Home Depot or Lowe’s, which easily could have a RadioShack section in their stores.


Target in the Bull’s Eye

The Situation: Few companies have been whacked lately like Target, the $73-billion Minneapolis-based retailer that used to epitomize strategic savvy. History’s biggest hacking fiasco afflicted the brand last Christmas, and its invasion of the Canadian market has fallen flat. Those mistakes brought down Gregg Steinhafel as CEO in the spring. But as Target searched for his successor this summer, it also became apparent that its appeal to U.S. consumers as the hip discount store already had been fading for a few years.

The Solutions
Cohen: They have to be bold again—get fashion-forward designs at cheap prices to get customers back in. The headwind they have is that the value-conscious customer doesn’t have as much spending power in this economy as that customer did in Target’s heyday. And they should make the difficult decision and get out of Canada.

Durrani: Their problems started before the data breach; their store traffic dropped to 32 percent of all U.S. shoppers from 38 percent about two years ago. Their online launch was very slow and they dropped prices dramatically to compete with Amazon and it didn’t work. Target needs to get back to the formula that worked five and 10 years ago among younger, and even older, educated shoppers.

Kurt Jetta: They’re at a severe disadvantage in Canada because it’s extremely price-sensitive, and Target has gotten away from compelling price promotions. Plus their big emphasis on fresh groceries in the U.S. isn’t sustainable because Target doesn’t have enough store traffic to make that business really vibrant.


Walmart’s Wind Down

The Situation: The company strode as a Gulliver amid legions of Lilliputian critics because as long as its core customer base remained loyal to Walmart’s unbeatable low prices and selection, any CEO could withstand rhetorical attacks on the company’s business model. Major expansion in groceries fueled even more sales and foot traffic. But Walmart has reported six consecutive quarters of declining same-store sales in the U.S., even as its efforts abroad—including a bribery scandal in Mexico—continue to flounder. CEO Mike Duke is pushing smaller stores as a major solution.

The Solutions
Gould: Restoring the company requires a healthy core business. You can wonder if they have enough global growth; but even more, they have to fix the U.S. same-store sales phenomenon. And have they sufficiently mastered the omni-channel approach to retailing? I don’t think the web-site-to-store pickup gambit is really the way people want to shop these days.

Silverstein: As a giant, Walmart should be running 100 different market experiments. They have to be in the business of creating new things and assuming that, like any startups, 90 percent of them are going to fail. They need to be creating the equivalent of a new Fortune 500 company each year. Meanwhile, the company has got to sell everything online like Amazon does, not just focus on the products they sell in Walmart stores.


Whole Foods Markets: Losing its Niche?

The Situation
The retailer that essentially created the U.S. better-for-you food category relied for its first two decades on a near monopoly selling organic and natural fare, a hold that was supported by a knowledgeable and helpful staff of crunchies and was reinforced by Whole Foods’ vast control over shelf space for hundreds of startups that coveted its upscale and health-conscious clientele. However, the $12.9-billion, Austin-based company has struggled lately as competitors rushed to offer much the same fare at lower prices. Whole Foods is responding with its first-ever national ad campaign, more experimentation with home delivery and bigger selection of its own lower-priced goods.

The Solutions
Durrani: Their foray into private label in a heavy way, through the “365” store brand and others, adds to cash flow and allows them to compete against Trader Joe’s and Costco. But it’s a flawed strategy and it isn’t working because people go to Whole Foods for branded, premium products—not private label. They need to go back to their roots and innovate. And they need to stop worrying about lower-priced competition because people who go to Whole Foods aren’t going to Walmart.

Ayall Schanzer: The only way to fend off competition is to broaden its base of clients beyond the affluent. How can their proposition cascade down to more middle-income individuals and capture more households? However, Whole Foods still has to offer an experience that is differentiated enough to get people to come to its stores.

Silverstein: Whole Foods needs to preserve and—in fact—build up the unique culture that it has that other stores don’t, inside its stores and for its employees, like Starbucks has. It needs to be recruiting in high schools to become the place that every kid wants to work when they’re in high school.

Meet the experts.

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