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The fall of Peloton’s John Foley and the stock market’s big founder problem

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John Foley, co-founder and chief executive officer of Peloton Interactive Inc., stands for a photograph during the company’s initial public offering (IPO) in front of the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Roughly two months after Peloton’s IPO, founder John Foley appeared on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” where he touted the “predictability of the revenue” of the connected fitness company.

“We know how to grow and stick the landings on what we tell the Street, what we tell our board and our investors [about] how we’re going to grow,” Foley said in that Nov. 5, 2019 interview.

That’s a very different tone from what Foley said on the company’s second-quarter fiscal 2022 conference call on Feb. 8, where he acknowledged that the company had “made missteps along the way,” that it was “holding ourselves accountable,” and he was going to “own” that — which included his departure as CEO, several executive and board changes, and a wide range of cost-saving measures, including cutting roughly 20% of its corporate workforce.

Peloton, a two-time CNBC Disruptor 50 company, had been led by Foley since it was founded in 2012, and his fellow founders Tom Cortese, Yony Feng, and Hisao Kushi have remained as senior executives. The other co-founder, Graham Stanton, left in March 2020 but has stayed on as an advisor, per his LinkedIn.

Peloton’s bumpy road that has seen its stock price drop more than 73% over the last year has raised the question of how long a founder-CEO like Foley should hang on post-IPO, especially if that journey starts to look more like a HIIT and hills ride than an easy one.

The track record is very varied. On one side, you have a founder like Jeff Bezos who stayed on as CEO for more than 20 years after Amazon‘s IPO with massive growth along the way. Of course, there’s Steve Jobs, who ended up leaving Apple amid board tensions after he hired “professional CEO” John Sculley, only to ultimately return to oversee one of the most remarkable business turnarounds in market history. On the other side, you have Groupon founder Andrew Mason, who was fired as CEO in 2013, roughly 18 months after the company went public, following a series of Wall Street misses, a declining stock price and very-public mishaps.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at Yale School of Management, said that 20 to 30 years ago, the trend from many venture capitalists would be to push out founding management at a critical change in the life stage of a company, “then the quote-unquote ‘professional management’ came in,” he said.

That’s happening less now, and Sonnenfeld said that some of that is for good reasons, like having a more experienced leadership group in place that has experience leading companies through various lifecycles. Foley did, with Barnes & Noble and other start-ups. But there are bad reasons, such as “founder shares that secure your leader-for-life status in the empire,” he said. In the case of Peloton, where Foley will remain chairman, he and other company insiders still control about 60% of the company’s voting stock.

Peloton did respond to a request for comment by press time.

When is it time for a founder to step aside?

More founders, especially in tech, are replacing themselves. Manish Sood, who founded cloud data management company Reltio, wrote in a 2020 CNBC op-ed that the reason he replaced himself as CEO after nearly a decade in charge is that he “recognized that to sustain predictable hyper-growth requires a special set of skills, and Reltio would require a CEO with experience leading public companies.”

“Preparing for growth takes courage at all phases,” Sood wrote. “In the beginning, entrepreneurs often risk everything to start companies because they believe in a new or different vision. They often face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It takes a great deal of insight to recognize when an emerging growth company needs to pivot or change direction as it grows.”

Jack Dorsey shared a similar sentiment when he suddenly stepped down as Twitter CEO in November.

“There’s a lot of talk about the importance of a company being ‘founder-led.’ Ultimately I believe that’s severely limiting and a single point of failure…I believe it’s critical a company can stand on its own, free of its founder’s influence or direction,” Dorsey wrote in a memo to Twitter employees.

There have been some efforts to try to figure out exactly what that founder-CEO shelf life is. A recent Harvard Business Review study of the financial performance of more than 2,000 publicly traded companies found that on average, founder-led companies outperform those with non-founder CEOs.

However, that difference essentially drops to zero three years after the company’s IPO, and at that point, the founder-CEOs “actually start detracting from firm value.”

“Our data shows that the presence of a founder-CEO increases firm value before and during IPO, suggesting that a founder-friendly approach actually makes a lot of sense for VCs, who typically invest while companies are still in their earlier stages and cash out shortly after they IPO,” the authors wrote. “However, given our finding that on average, post-IPO performance is lower for firms with founder-CEOs, investors looking to get in after a company has already gone public would be wise to take a less founder-friendly approach — and investors, board members, and executive teams alike will benefit from proactively encouraging founder-CEOs to move on before they reach their expiration dates.”

It’s unclear what the future holds for Peloton and if it can regain the momentum that saw it disrupt the fitness industry.

The company’s new CEO, Barry McCarthy, cited his experience working with two “visionary founders” in Reed Hastings and Daniel Ek at Netflix and Spotify, respectively, in his first email to Peloton staff, which was obtained by CNBC, saying that he is “now partnering with John [Foley] to create the same kind of magic.”

“Finding product/market fit is incredibly hard to do. It’s extremely rare. And I believe we have it,” McCarthy wrote. “The challenge for us now is to figure out the rest of the business model so that we can win in the marketplace and on Wall Street.”

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Trump media company subpoenaed in federal criminal probe of SPAC deal

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump gives the keynote address at the Faith & Freedom Coalition during their annual “Road To Majority Policy Conference” at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center June 17, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Seth Herald | Getty Images

Donald Trump’s media company was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in connection with a criminal probe, according to the company with which the former president’s firm plans to merge.

Digital World Acquisition Corp. said in a filing Friday that Trump Media and Technology Group received a subpoena from the grand jury in Manhattan on Thursday. The Trump company also received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding a civil probe on Monday, DWAC said.

DWAC also said some current and former TMTG employees have also recently received grand jury subpoenas.

The filing came days after DWAC said the government investigations could delay or even prevent its merger with Trump’s newly formed company, which includes Truth Social, a social media app intended to be an alternative to Twitter.

Neither TMTG nor a spokeswoman for Trump immediately responded to CNBC’s requests for comment.

The Justice Department and the SEC, which regulates the stock market, are investigating the deal between DWAC and Trump Media. By merging with DWAC, which is a kind of shell company called a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, Trump’s firm would gain access to potentially billions of dollars on public equities markets.

Trump established Truth Social months after Twitter banned him for his tweets on Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Trump Media’s CEO is former Rep. Devin Nunes, one of the former president’s most ardent loyalists in the Republican Party. Trump is also considering whether to run for president in the 2024 election.

Trump has continued to spread the lie that the election was stolen from him. His alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection is being probed by a House select committee that has accused the former president of being at the center of a multipronged conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power to Biden.

Early criticism of the Trump-DWAC deal came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. In calling for an investigation, she wrote to SEC Chair Gary Gensler in November, telling him that DWAC “may have committed securities violations by holding private and undisclosed discussions about the merger as early as May 2021, while omitting this information in [SEC] filing and other public statements.”

DWAC shares are far off their highs, closing Friday at $24.20. The stock had surged above $90 in October, after the deal with Trump’s group was announced.

DWAC on Monday revealed in a securities filing that it learned June 16 that each member of its board of directors received subpoenas from the same federal grand jury.

The grand jury sought documents similar to those the SEC already requested as part of its civil probe, DWAC said. The company itself was served with a subpoena a week ago with similar requests, along with other requests relating to communications, individuals and information involving Rocket One Capital.

DWAC also revealed Monday that a board member, Bruce J. Garelick, had told management that he would quit the board during the previous week. Garelick said his resignation “was not the result of any disagreement with Digital World’s operations, policies or practices,” according to the company filing.

— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Thomas Franck contributed to this story.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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Walmart is working on a response to the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, CEO says in memo

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Walmart CEO Doug McMillon speaks at the CNBC Evolve conference November 19th in Los Angeles.

Jesse Grant | CNBC

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told employees on Friday that the company is weighing how to respond to a Supreme Court decision that ended the federal right to an abortion.

“We are working thoughtfully and diligently to figure out the best path forward, guided by our desire to support our associates, all of our associates,” he said in a memo sent to employees on Friday. “We will share details on our actions as soon as possible, recognizing that time is of the essence.”

He did not say what changes the company is considering, such as if it may cover travel expenses for workers who must travel to another state where abortion is available.

The memo was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Arkansas, home to Walmart’s headquarters, is one of several states with severe limits or bans on abortions that went into affect after the high court’s ruling.

Walmart is also the country’s largest private employer. It has about 1.6 million employees across the country, including many who live and work in states across the Sunbelt with abortion restrictions such as Texas, Oklahoma and Florida.

Since the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, companies across the country have had a mix of reactions. Some, including JPMorgan Chase, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Target, have announced new plans to cover employee travel to other states for abortions. Others, such as Kroger and Apple, said they already cover travel for medical treatments and reproductive health care. And still others have remained quiet.

Amazon, the second-largest private employer in the country, said in May that it would pay up to $4,000 in travel expenses each year for non-life-threatening medical treatments, including abortions.

Walmart already covers employee travel for some medical procedures, such as certain heart surgeries, cancer treatments and organ transplants.

Walmart health benefits cover only some abortions. According to the company’s employee handbook, charges for “procedures, services, drugs and supplies related to abortions or termination of pregnancy are not covered, except when the health of the mother would be in danger if the fetus were carried to term, the fetus could not survive the birthing process, or death would be imminent after birth.”

Plan B, an over-the-counter form of contraception, is covered only if the person gets a prescription. The pill, often called the “morning after pill,” works by preventing ovulation or preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb. It can be taken after unprotected sex or when contraception fails.

Other forms of contraception are also covered with a prescription, including birth control pills, injections and intrauterine devices, or IUDs. Some anti-abortion activists also oppose IUDs because they can stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

In Friday’s memo, McMillon said Walmart has gathered input from employees as it decides what to do. He also alluded to the size and diversity of both the company and its customer base.

“We know our associates and customers hold a variety of views on the issue, and this is a sensitive topic about which many of us feel strongly,” he said. “We want you to know that we see you, all of you. No matter what your position on this topic is, we want you to feel respected, valued and supported.”

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FCC authorizes SpaceX to provide mobile Starlink internet service to boats, planes and trucks

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The Starlink logo is seen in the background of a silhouetted woman holding a mobile phone.

Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission authorized SpaceX to provide Starlink satellite internet to vehicles in motion, a key step for Elon Musk’s company to further expand the service.

“Authorizing a new class of [customer] terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move, whether driving an RV across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a U.S. port, or while on a domestic or international flight,” FCC international bureau chief Tom Sullivan wrote in the authorization posted Thursday.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the FCC decision.

Starlink is SpaceX’s network of satellites in low Earth orbit, designed to deliver high-speed internet anywhere on the globe. SpaceX has launched about 2,700 satellites to support the global network, with the base price of the service costing users $110 a month. As of May, SpaceX told the FCC that Starlink had more than 400,000 subscribers.

SpaceX has signed early deals with commercial air carriers in preparation for this decision: It has pacts with Hawaiian Airlines and semi-private charter provider JSX to provide Wi-Fi on planes. Up until now SpaceX has been approved to conduct a limited amount of inflight testing, seeing the aviation Wi-Fi market as “ripe for an overhaul.”

The FCC’s authorization also includes connecting to ships and vehicles like semi-trucks and RVs, with SpaceX having last year requested to expand from servicing stationary customers. SpaceX had already deployed a version of its service called “Starlink for RVs,” with an additional “portability” fee. But portability is not the same as mobility, which the FCC’s decision now allows.

The FCC imposed conditions on in-motion Starlink service. SpaceX is required to “accept any interference received from both current and future services authorized,” and further investment in Starlink will “assume the risk that operations may be subject to additional conditions or requirements” from the FCC.

The ruling did not resolve a broader SpaceX regulatory dispute with Dish Network and RS Access, an entity backed by billionaire Michael Dell, over the use of 12-gigahertz band – a range of frequency used for broadband communications. The FCC continues to analyze whether the band can support both ground-based and space-based services, with SpaceX pushing for the regulator to make a ruling.

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