From succession planning and digesting megamergers, to repairing embattled businesses and learning from #MeToo-related scandals, 2019 is set to be a consequential year for the heads of some of the most iconic American companies. We've scanned the stars for clues to what lies ahead for a select group of them based on their zodiac signs. What follows is our third annual compilation of CEO horoscopes:
Capricorn: Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors Co
Capricorn, your best quality is pragmatism. It's a trait that can make you seem cold, but some decisions - like reshaping General Motors for the future - require practicality. In 2018, you chose to shutter several US plants in a shift away from sedans and hybrid cars, in favor of higher-margin SUVs and a bet on fully electric vehicles. The move will cause pain to those working-class communities, and since it runs counter to President Donald Trump's rhetoric about restoring manufacturing jobs, you knew it would instigate a Twitter tirade. But you also know that for GM to remain a leader and survive the next potential recession without another bailout, this is what it must do. It's not enough, though. Investors show little faith in the long-term earnings prospects of US automakers, and the $6 billion in annual savings you project from the plant closures probably isn't enough to truly transform GM. Meanwhile in China, the electric-car market is booming, but the Chevy Bolt isn't. You must work faster to get costs under control and pursue a profitable electric-vehicle strategy unencumbered by White House bluster and an outdated image of GM.
Aquarius: Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of Walt Disney Co
Aquarius is the visionary of the zodiac, and that trait was on display in your dealmaking at Disney. First with Pixar, then Marvel and Lucasfilm ("Star Wars"), your acquisitions have allowed the company to dominate the box office and continue drawing swarms of fans to Disney's theme parks. But your vision is less understood when it comes to your recent $85 billion takeover of 21st Century Fox Inc.'s TV and film studios. In theory, owning these assets will cement Disney's position as it pursues a new audience of TV streamers through the soon-to-come Disney+ app. Yet, this megadeal and Disney+ also complicate a previously meticulous strategy. This year, you must focus on tidying up the Magic Kingdom so that its success can outlast your time at the helm. Retirement is just a couple of years away and there's much work to be done, including grooming a successor. That will only get more difficult if Disney+ causes strife within the empire by forcing different divisions to compete for content and resources. You must also take care not to alienate fans as you start to preserve some of Disney's best movies and TV shows for the app. More reflection on this new streaming strategy may serve the company -- and your legacy -- better in the long run.
Pisces: Larry Culp, Chairman and CEO of General Electric Co
Pisces, you'll set the tone for the year early on when you unveil your much-anticipated plan for steering the embattled industrial giant out of its current crisis. You've made some missteps in your first few months as CEO: you ruled out an equity raise only to put one back on the table; your attempt to ease investors' anxiety via a CNBC appearance backfired; and your decision to re-hire a long-time insider to chair the eyesore gas-turbine business confounded investors expecting deep-rooted cultural change. But there have also been signs of progress, including your decision to appoint a power and insurance expert to the board and to start shopping for a new auditor. To regain investors' confidence, you must inject more transparency into GE's earnings, provide clarity on its liabilities and, most importantly, present a viable plan for reducing its bloated debt load. An equity raise would give you breathing room, as would scrapping the spinoff portion of a planned GE Healthcare divestiture. But your most difficult challenge is finding a way to balance restructuring and debt repayment with growth investments, so that whatever remains of GE once you're done has a competitive leg to stand on. (By Brooke Sutherland)
Aries: Shari Redstone, Vice Chair and controlling shareholder of CBS Corp. and Viacom Inc
The last few years have a been a struggle, but an Aries doesn't back down. Just when you finished cleaning house at Viacom and started seeing the fruit of the regime change, arguably worse problems arose at CBS. Now, with the removal of Les Moonves following the numerous sexual-misconduct allegations made against him, and the overhaul of a board that had turned hostile to you, you're probably through the worst of it. CBS is in culture-repair mode, and Viacom is making progress turning around its Paramount film studio and ramping up TV production. Still, you know that neither company can thrive on its own in the long run as Disney and AT&T get bigger and join Netflix and Amazon.com Inc. in streaming domination. This is the year to finally do what you've long wanted - to recombine CBS and Viacom. It may even make sense to form a three-way merger involving CBS's new chairman, Strauss Zelnick, and his $12 billion video-game company, Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. as another step toward building direct-to-consumer relationships. Scale and content are the themes in the industry, and CBS and Viacom could use more of both. Take your cue from the ram and charge ahead.
Taurus: Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO of AT&T Inc
You have difficult days ahead. While you imagined this would be one of the most exciting times for AT&T, the stock instead finished 2018 near an almost eight-year low. Investors don't yet grasp your vision for turning a stable wireless-service carrier into a cyclical and challenged media conglomerate that is now trying to go head-to-head with Disney, Netflix and Amazon - especially when Verizon Communications Inc. seems to be moving in the opposite direction. The pressure is on to prove that the Time Warner assets and beleaguered DirecTV business can both flourish within AT&T, and also that the company's mountain of debt and wireless spending needs - related to the crucial build-out of AT&T's 5G network - won't get in the way of shareholders' beloved dividend payments. You'll launch a new video-streaming service in 2019 that will offer three pricing tiers with varying assortments of movies and shows, which does help attract a wider audience and serves as a threat to other offerings out there. But it may also cause further confusion for consumers in an already muddled marketplace of streaming packages. There's little room for error, so in the event of any unforeseen setbacks or economic disruptions, you may have to look to the dividend as the sacrificial lamb.
Gemini: Stefano Pessina, Vice Chairman and CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc
Geminis are said to always be looking for their other half, and it's true that you've been no stranger to corporate tie-ups. You built Alliance Boots through mergers, then combined it with Walgreens four years ago. But lately, the company has taken a back seat from dealmaking, preferring partnerships over acquisitions, while others in the health-care space have done industry-shifting vertical megadeals. Rival CVS Health Corp. is re-imagining the health-care business with its $77 billion takeover of insurer Aetna Inc. Meanwhile, Walgreens was left with a consolation prize of just under 2,000 Rite Aid Corp. stores after regulators stood in the way of a larger transaction between the pharmacy chains. Since then, you've been talking with Humana Inc. about taking mutual investment stakes and expanding an existing senior-focused health-care alliance. You argue that partnerships provide many of the advantages of a merger without having to shell out billions of dollars, and you're not wrong about that. But they are fundamentally half-measures that may leave Walgreens ill-prepared to deal with the retail and pharmacy threat of Amazon, and the heft of other vertically consolidated health-care giants. (By Max Nisen)
Since this sign is represented by the twins, here's another Gemini horoscope:
Howard Willard, Chairman and CEO of Altria Group Inc
Like your Gemini peer above, you have been forging alliances with businesses around your industry, seeking to remake Altria as cigarettes become less relevant and a real cannabis industry rises from their ashes. Altria hasn't often made big acquisitions, but in 2018 that changed as you recognized the urgent need to diversify Altria's portfolio of Marlboro cigarettes, Skoal rings and other traditional tobacco products. First, Altria agreed to pay $1.8 billion for a 45 percent stake in Cronos Group Inc., one of Canada's fast-growing cannabis producers. Just a few weeks later, you closed a $12.8 billion deal for a 35 percent stake in Juul Labs Inc., the maker of electronic cigarettes that are popular among younger smokers. It was a smart move; the only question is, why did you stop at 35 percent? Buying Juul Labs outright may be down the road, and it would even be a logical precursor to a recombination with Philip Morris International Inc. The two of you are already partnering on the iQos tobacco-heating device to target older smokers, a product that may complement Juul's. Deepening all these ties would give you greater control over Altria's future.
Cancer: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Inc
Cancers can be a bit impulsive - like the times you picked fights with sell-siders, spelunkers and the SEC, tweeted out "funding secured" and blazed up live on air. Tesla's shareholders were understandably unnerved by some of your actions in 2018, but all seemingly was forgiven after unexpectedly good third-quarter results. Investors clearly foresee those becoming a regular fixture, judging by the multiples they're paying for the stock. Whether that unusually strong performance can be sustained is, therefore, a big question for 2019. The picture is hazy, with federal tax credits for Tesla's vehicles due to decline and Model 3 sales likely shifting toward lower-spec versions (though the vaunted $35,000 version remains elusive). Another, related, mystery is whether Tesla will raise more capital. You say it isn't necessary, but prudence suggests Tesla should have capitalized on its sky-high stock price and sold more already. You closed the year in unexpected, yet familiar, fashion by sending a modified Model X on a bumpy ride through a short Boring Co. tunnel in Los Angeles, thereby demonstrating a new future for transportation, we are told. As useful as an uneventful 2019 might be, that's the one thing we can't see in the stars. (By Liam Denning)
Leo: Ginni Rometty, Chairman and CEO of International Business Machines Corp
Your nearly seven years leading IBM have been defined by falling revenue, massive cost cuts and a stream of hogwash about how IBM is transforming into a technology leader. It is not. But then, Leo, you roared in 2018 by striking a $34 billion acquisition of business-software firm Red Hat Inc. It was one of the largest corporate acquisitions of the year, and by far the largest in IBM's 107-year history. The price you paid was steep, but an expensive roll of the dice is better than the status quo, and IBM and Red Hat together would seem to make a more compelling cloud-computing alternative than they could on their own. Your legacy rests on proving that the combined company can become a go-to shepherd for corporations that badly want to modernize their technology. Right now, that role is mostly filled by rivals such as Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. Leos are reputed to be fierce and passionate, and you'll need all those qualities and more to integrate the two wildly different cultures of IBM and Red Hat, and keep IBM going well into its second century. (By Shira Ovide)
Virgo: Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc
Virgo, you'll turn 89 this year, making it more important than ever that Berkshire Hathaway's next generation of leadership be given a chance to get properly acquainted with investors. Virgos are known to be methodical perfectionists, a quality that's been key to your decades of successful investing and dealmaking, but you could do better when it comes to messaging around your succession plan. You aren't ready to pass the torch and there's no sign you need to, but at least start to share the stage at appearances like Berkshire's annual investor meeting. Greg Abel and Ajit Jain, the executives you'll most likely name as your replacements, were notably absent from the feature moment of last year's meeting - the Q&A session - which draws investors from around the world looking to hear your market musings, outlook for Berkshire's array of businesses and about your hunt for takeover targets. After the S&P 500 index fell in 2018 by the most since the financial crisis, it's time to strike at least one last megadeal. To put a dent in Berkshire's cash, which long ago reached unproductive levels, would be the greatest gift to your successor so that he's not left to resort to a large dividend payout. Surely there are some Buffett-worthy bargains out there now - perhaps even one from this old wish list.
Libra: Reed Hastings, Chairman and CEO of Netflix Inc
Netflix has tried to give TV fans close to everything they want at an affordable price and without ads. It's only appropriate that as co-founder and CEO of the business, you're a Libra, a sign characterized by people-pleasers. But in 2019, the sustainability of Netflix's generosity - and that of its lenders - will be tested. Disney and AT&T are both launching streaming services aimed at Netflix's Achilles' heel: Many of its most-watched shows are the property of other companies, such as Disney and AT&T, that are in the early days of cutting off their supply to Netflix and confining their content to their own products. You've tried to neutralize some of that competition by signing deals directly with top content creators. Netflix's value proposition may also still ultimately be better for consumers should it sustain the variety and breadth of its library. However, as subscriber growth slows and some users defect to these new services, you may need to turn to price increases. Investors have always explained away Netflix's cash burn rate, but they may not be so willing to give the benefit of the doubt when Disney starts flexing its muscle.
Scorpio: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc
In your seven years in the corner office, the challenges have never been more daunting than they are now, and I know that can sting, Scorpio. Apple propelled itself into the most profitable company in the US -- and the most valuable in the world, until recently - thanks to the sales power of the iPhone, but it's running out of steam. Investors believe iPhone sales will decline in 2019, and it'll be tough for Apple to make up the difference with your higher-priced phones. You don't typically make big-ticket acquisitions, but the Apple holiday helpers have been busy writing checks not for companies, but for high-profile projects for Apple's coming Netflix-like web video service. There's programming coming from Oprah Winfrey, from the "Peanuts" cartoon kids, an elephant documentary and a lot more. You might need a strategy to go with that high-priced programming, though. With investors betting that Apple's growth relies on its ability to sell subscriptions to web video, news and other internet services, all eyes are on how you'll manage to offset the waning growth of the smartphone product that delivers two-thirds of Apple's revenue. (By Shira Ovide)
Sagittarius: Abigail Johnson, Chairman and CEO of Fidelity Investments
As a Sagittarius, you don't like to be held back. That's why Fidelity in 2018 pioneered the zero-fee index fund, bringing the management cost war to its logical conclusion. But now may not be the best time to try to pitch investors a broad market index fund. Those products launched in August, just one month before the S&P 500 index peaked at its all-time high and then sold off. Volatile environments are when Fidelity's stock pickers have shined brightest - that's how the firm built its reputation, after all. If things remain rocky, will you try to get your zero-cost funds out of the limelight and pivot back to the active management side of the business? That's more than enough to keep you busy in the new year, but as the most powerful woman in investing, you also have a platform to help fix the gender imbalance on Wall Street. Fund management is still a men's club, even though diversity and client returns are shown to go hand in hand. Even your firm has grappled with cultural issues following allegations of sexual harassment made against former portfolio managers. Continue to help Fidelity do its part as the industry - and the business world as a whole - slowly becomes a more equitable place. (By Brian Chappatta)
(Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals, Berkshire Hathaway Inc, media and telecommunications. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.)
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