Tag Archives: bankruptcy

The Dangers of Standing Still

One of the most telling episodes of Kodak’s slide into bankruptcy was how it incorporated digital capabilities into its Advantix camera system.

Kodak spent more than $500 million to develop and launch the Advantix in 1996. The system capitalized on emerging digital capabilities— especially the digital sensors that Kodak engineers had invented two decades earlier—to capture date, time, shutter speed and lighting conditions to produce better pictures. The strategy culminated in the Advantix Preview camera, which allowed photographers to preview shots and mark how many prints they wanted. Kodak gave users no ability to save the digital images, however. The Advantix required traditional silver halide film and prints.

Advantix flopped. Why buy a digital camera and still pay for film and prints? Kodak wrote off almost the entire cost of development.

Kodak’s strategic blunder was not because of a lack of technological prowess; it was because of an inability to embrace business model innovation. Kodak was the market-leading photo film, chemical and paper business. It bet its future on “the hope that demand for digital images would sell more film.” As a result, Kodak protected its traditional business to the bitter end—until others leveraged digital to make film irrelevant.

Judging from recent comments by Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s chief executive, we might one day read about how Nissan repeated the pattern of Kodak’s decades-long blunder and demonstrated the dangers of standing still during a period of industry innovation (like what’s happening in insurance).

Ghosn has championed his company’s efforts to develop autonomous driving technologies to allow cars to operate without human intervention. And, unlike some other large automakers (such as Toyota), Ghosn does not dispute the technical feasibility of driverless cars.

But Ghosn views the choice of semi-autonomous vs. driverless as a strategic decision—and he is clear that his choice is to use autonomous technologies as incremental enhancements to cars with drivers. As reported by the Associated Press via the New York Times: Ghosn said Nissan sees autonomous vehicles as adding to driving pleasure, and a totally driverless car is not at the center of the automaker’s plans. The autonomous driving Nissan foresees will assist or enhance driving. Nissan may end up with a driverless car, but that was not the automaker’s goal, he said. “That is the car of the future. But the consumer is more conservative. That makes us cautious.”

In other words, Ghosn’s strategy is to hope that the demand for autonomous technologies will sell more cars. Like Kodak, he is aiming to reinforce Nissan’s current business model rather than embrace business model innovation.

By being cautious, however, Ghosn risks emulating Kodak’s failure by waiting for others to leverage driverless technologies to make traditional cars irrelevant. He also risks ceding emerging business innovations to Google, Uber and others willing to make driverless cars their explicit primary goal.

The unanswered question is whether Ghosn, behind the scenes, is parlaying his technological forward-mindedness into strategic preparedness.

Carlos Ghosn need not shed his caution. But, as I previously argued, trillions hang in the balance. Given those stakes, has Ghosn hedged Nissan’s strategic bets in case the driverless “car of the future” comes more quickly than he expects?

Some argue that, of course, Nissan won’t be caught flat-footed even if driverless cars come sooner than expected. Look, for example, at its research partnership with NASA. But research is not enough.

A trap that market-leading companies fall into is believing that they can catch up if their initially cautious strategies turn out to be wrong. One lesson that Paul Carroll and I found in our study of thousands of large company failures is that it is very hard to excise denial from multiple layers of the organization—even after objective evidence argues for doing so. Another lesson is that, while it is possible to catch up on raw technical expertise, it is hard to catch up after yielding multiple product-oriented learning cycles to competitors.

Take electric hybrid cars. A former senior technologist of one of the big automakers told me his company considered but rejected hybrid electric cars before Toyota launched the Prius. The automaker was at first dismissive of the Prius and then surprised by its market success. It did jump into the market with its own offering. But, the technologist bemoaned, it has not been able to catch up. With each model, Toyota gets further ahead. The company ceded too many learning cycles to Toyota.

The same could be happening with driverless cars.

Nissan espouses caution about driverless cars. Whatever research is going on in its labs is mostly hidden from the public (perhaps to not confuse the market or provide succor to competing strategies).

Google, on the other hand, will soon release 25 prototype driverless cars onto the streets of Mountain View, with plans to launch 75 more. Google’s self-driving cars have logged a collective 1.7 million miles and are adding about 10,000 miles per week, mostly on city streets. Google has not cracked all the issues involved with driverless cars. It has, however, created the ability to learn faster.

Kodak, as evidenced by its own tongue-in-cheek marketing video, ended up play “grab ass” for years with digital photography. Late attempts to “get serious” were too late. Even now, 40 years after Kodak engineer Steven Sasson invented the digital still camera, Kodak still struggles to realize the potential of its IP portfolio.

Likewise, every market-leading department retailer of the 1950s and ’60s, such as Macy’s, Woolworth’s and Ames, thought it could contend with discount retailers like Wal-Mart if the need arose.

Only Dayton Hudson took the discounting business model seriously. Rather than watch and wait, Dayton Hudson formed a discounting business unit and unleashed that subsidiary to compete as hard as possible against the traditional business. That discount subsidiary was named Target. Of the more than 300 department-store chains in the U.S. in the late 1950s, only Dayton Hudson/Target successfully moved into discount retailing. Most of the others preceded Kodak on the path to bankruptcy.

Rather than following in the footsteps of Kodak and all those defunct department stores, Nissan should be more like Dayton Hudson.

Instead of just betting on caution, Nissan should also unleash innovators to create its own driverless offering and charge them with competing as hard as possible against its traditional business.

What to Expect on Management Liability

Gradually, over the last four-plus years, several management liability insurance (MLI) carriers have shifted their underwriting appetite and guidelines nationally, most dramatically in California. These changes have included some combination of:

·         Increased rates
·         Increased retentions
·         Reductions in coverage
·         Reductions in total limits offered
·         Reductions or removal of wage and hour defense cost sub-limits
·         Non-renewal of insureds based on industry, asset size, financial condition or loss experience.

This is quite a change, as for the previous 10-plus years there has been a surplus of capacity and MLI carriers were eager to write accounts at very attractive rates and terms. While there are still numerous MLI carriers with significant capacity, including some new entrants, the marketplace appears to be reaching a point where this capacity will no longer be use to offer the terms and pricing that we had been accustomed to seeing. This raises the question, “Why?”

Based on our conversations with MLI carriers in this niche, here are a few of the reasons:

·         Poor economic conditions five to seven years, ago leading to a significant spike in the frequency of employment practices liability (EPL) and directors and officers (D&O) related claims

·         Dramatically rising EPL claims expenses (even if a claim is without merit — remember, these policies cover defense costs)

·         Significant and continual increase in the filing of wage and hour claims (wage and hour suits are up 4.7% in the last year and 437% in the last decade)

·         Uptick in D&O claims involving bankruptcy-related allegations, breach of contract, intellectual property, federal agency investigations and judgments, family claims  and restraint of trade

·         The duty-to-defend nature of the policies, forcing carriers to provide a wide expanse of defense coverage for what might be arguably uncovered claims or insureds

What can our current (and new) non-profit and privately held management liability insureds expect as a result of the changes in the marketplace?

Our recommendation is to set expectations as follows:

·         There will be increases in retentions and premiums.

·         Smaller clients will need to absorb bigger percentage increases in premium and retention (as well as possible reductions in coverages), although in many situations the incumbent carrier will still be the best option if the increases are not outrageous.

·         A reasonable degree of competition and capacity will still be available for the larger management liability client. This may help mitigate increases in premium and retention.

·         Increases will be felt by insureds located in major cities (carriers generally still like risks in smaller cities and outside of states such as California, Florida, Illinois, New York and New Jersey).

·         Coverage for the defense of wage and hour claims will be more difficult to obtain and, when available, likely more expensive to purchase and with possibly lower limits or higher retentions.

·         Non-renewals by some carriers, based primarily on class of business or location. Some of these classes of business include:

o    Real estate

o    Healthcare

o    Restaurant/retail

o    Social media

o    Pharmaceuticals

o    Tech/start-ups

·         Carriers are asking for much more underwriting information than they have previously, especially if the insured has challenging financials, the insured is seeking additional funding or the insured has a challenging loss history.

Since 2010, Socius has been advising our clients that the MLI market appeared to be trending toward a hardening, following on the heels of numerous years of softness. As we get deeper into 2015, we continue to believe that this is the case.  The gradual transition that we initially described has, in fact, taken firm hold. We hesitate to pronounce the market as officially “hard” only because we hear rumblings that suggest that market conditions could very well deteriorate further, making what we consider hard today even harder.

For the moment, the watchword to agents and brokers is: “Manage expectations!  Difficult news is coming, so let clients know early – and often.”