"Purpose-inspired growth" is out. "Choiceful" decisions and "value creation" are in. That was the message of P&G (PG) CEO and Chairman A.G. Lafley's first earnings call since replacing Bob McDonald in the corner office on May 23.
First, the numbers, which beat analysts' already lowered expectations, with fiscal 2013 annual net sales up 1%, to $84.2 billion and core earnings per share up 5%. The stock rose 1%, to $81.40 on the news. It is clear that the productivity improvements put into place under McDonald, which have included some 7,000 job cuts to date, are delivering some results.
But the malaise that the massive consumer goods company has suffered from in recent years is as much about innovation as it has been about cost-cutting. Morale suffered under McDonald as the company failed to grow at the pace of rivals like Unilever (UL) in emerging markets. It has also stumbled badly in North America and in the beauty business -- both of which had exploded under Lafley's tenure before leveling off. Former executives spoke of a corporate culture that had stagnated and a loss of the P&G pride that made the company a talent magnet for so long.
While the mood is said to be improving at the company, it was difficult to tell from Lafley's remarks what exactly he intends to do to restore the company to greatness. Lafley spoke of making "productivity a core strength, just like innovation," and alluded to his remarkable transformation of P&G the last time he was CEO, when he was brought in to replace Durk Jager after just over a year. In a very subtle dig at the previous regime -- which he stood behind until being asked to take over -- Lafley said, "We have spent the past two months doing a deep dive. We are seeking to understand our consumers and our markets, and we are trying to see things as they are, not as we want them to be."
Going forward, Lafley said he would orient the company around what he called "value creation" and making "choiceful" decisions. "Regardless of what segment you're in," he said, " value is a factor. So if you're buying [high end skin cream] SK-II at 145 bucks, there's still a value equation. If you're buying Charmin Basic at a buck or two, there' s a value equation. We are never going to compete purely on price. "
All of this makes sense, but those looking for specifics on new products, productivity initiatives, or competition were surely disappointed. Also, P&G said it would provide only annual earnings guidance going forward rather than quarterly guidance, though annual guidance would be updated quarterly -- a move that's more in line with rival Unilever, which doesn't issue guidance at all. That may ease some pressure in the short term, but it's hard not to wonder, based on past history, if Lafley will conclude that something a bit more radical is needed, such as, perhaps, a reorganization of the company's internal organizational structure. "We view this as a transition year," he said. "And we'll see how it goes."
Hopefully, there aren't too many more transition years on the horizon.