Heinz and the Soul of Pittsburgh

The New York Times paints the fight for control of Heinz's board as another battle for the soul of Pittsburgh. How much of the affection for Heinz is a product of the company's contemporary significance, and how much of it is nostalgia and affiliation? From the Times:
Residents say they have reason to be jittery. Since 1970, the city and surrounding area have lost more than half of their manufacturing jobs and 14 percent of their population.

Many are also skeptical about the Trian Group’s director, Nelson Peltz, who is known as a “quick flipper,” an expert at buying companies, whipping them into shape and then selling them at sizable profits. That is good news for some investors. But it has the 1,200 Heinz employees here and the 10,000 Heinz pensioners in the city and surrounding area wondering whether promises made now by Trian will matter if the investment group sells its shares.

“If that corporation gets all mixed up and moves, Pittsburgh is going be lost,” said Irene Sample, a retired nurse who lives in Mount Lebanon, just outside the city.

And what, exactly, will Pittsburgh lose? From the Trian Group's Heinz site:
[D]espite the Company’s iconic namesake brand, portfolio of power brands and robust cash flow characteristics, Heinz’s total shareholder returns have almost uniformly underperformed those of both the broader market and the consumer packaged food universe since the current management team began leading the Company in April 1998. In fact, total shareholder returns at Heinz have been negative over this timeframe (-10.8%) while other packaged food companies with leading brands such as The Hershey Company, PepsiCo, Inc. and Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, the three companies specifically referred to by management as the most focused in the industry,(ii) have generated total shareholder returns of 60.4%, 60.4% and 65.3%, respectively, during this timeframe.


I don't have a dog (or a vote) in this fight, but is this really a legitimate case of industrial insecurity? Is it the return of Gordon Gekko, in the early 21st century? Or is it Pittsburgh-as-Popeye, saying "I've had all I can stand, and I can't stand no more." Put "symbolism" at one far end of a spectrum, and "long v. short term returns" at the other end. Where does the Heinz case lie?

Comments

1 Response to "Heinz and the Soul of Pittsburgh"

Judge Rufus Peckham said... 8/15/2006 5:41 PM

It's symbolism. It's Pittsburgh drawing a line in the sand, like when Reagan fought to keep the Panama Canal. Compare this to when Alcoa quietly moved its official corporate headquarters to NYC. We yawned and said, "Don't let the aluminum door hit you on the way out" (hopefully it won't have a long-term imact on jobs). But Heinz is different because it's Pittsburgh's premier brand name going back longer than anyone alive can recall (although Bayer's US presence is headquartered here, it is, and it's viewed as, a German company --but it has a pretty good name brand, too). Heck, Mike, you see the hand-wringing over Kaufmanns' name change to Macy's. The funny thing about that is that Edgar Kaufmann himself sold the store to the May Company before you or I were born. So, yes, apart from the jobs (which is always the critical issue), its symbolism.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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