A CEO change isn't the end of the world -- as long as it's planned and amicable
Posted October 31, 2019 3:33 p.m. EDT
CNN — There has been an unprecedented amount of turnover in the corner offices of Corporate America this year. The CEOs of sneaker rivals Under Armour and Nike both announced plans last week to step aside -- on the same day no less.
According to executive recruiter Challenger, Gray & Christmas, 1,160 CEOs had left their jobs through the end of September. That's up 13% from the same period last year and is the highest total since Challenger began tracking such data in 2002.
With that in mind, financial data research site YCharts recently took a look at how shares of companies that announced CEO changes in the past two years have done compared to the broader market.
YCharts found that companies making a change at the top lagged the broader market in the first month after the CEO departure was announced. But after that, shares of these firms easily outperformed the S&P 500 for the next six and twelve months.
In fact, shares of a group of 15 high profile companies that had CEO changes between September 2017 and September 2018 beat the overall market by nearly 12%.
The list includes Starbucks, where Howard Schultz passed the baton to Kevin Johnson; Pepsi, whose long-time CEO Indra Nooyi was succeeded by Ramon Laguarta; and Chipotle, which hired Brian Niccol from Yum! Brands-owned Taco Bell to take over for Steve Ells.
So it appears that once the initial shock of a CEO change fades, the new leader winds up getting a bit of a honeymoon period from Wall Street.
"There were short-term blips, but companies tend to be bigger than one individual," said YCharts CEO Sean Brown in an interview with CNN Business. "Companies that are prepared have much better performance. But you have to have a good plan in place."
In other words, companies with a good CEO transition plan that isn't melodramatic like on the buzzy HBO show "Succession" usually do better than companies who are forced to change leaders because of controversy or have no clear cut second-in-command that can take over on a moment's notice.
But Brown noted that not every company that changed leaders wound up doing well. And there was a common thread connecting many of those that didn't, namely that the CEO stepped down because they were forced out.
"Tainted companies underperform," Brown said.
Chip giants Intel and Texas Instruments lagged the market after their CEOs left following improprieties, for example.
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich's had a romantic relationship with a fellow employee while TI's Brian Crutcher left after just six weeks for what the company called "violations of the company's code of conduct related to personal behavior."
There are two other prominent examples of corporate leaders leaving under a cloud of scandal recently.
CBS lagged the broader market after long-time CEO Les Moonves said he was leaving in September 2018 after a number of women made allegations of sexual harassment. (CBS later said he officially was fired for cause and did not receive severance. Moonves has denied any wrongdoing.)
And Papa John's underperformed in the first twelve months after founder John Schnatter resigned as chairman following the news that he used a racial slur on a conference call. Schnatter stepped down as CEO in December and was replaced by veteran Papa John's exec Steve Ritchie.
But Ritchie didn't last long on the job. Activist investing firm Starboard Value bought a stake in Papa John's earlier this year and Starboard CEO Jeff Smith took over as the company's chairman in February.
Papa John's ultimately hired Arby's president Rob Lynch to take over as CEO from Ritchie, news that sent the stock soaring. Lynch, it appears, is being hailed as a fresh voice and not a legacy Papa John's insider.
So investors in companies with new CEOs should take heart. A change at the top can be a good thing.