Wednesday, October 26, 2005

October 26, 2005
Got an Ailing Business? He Wants to Make It Right

Lots of people call Wilbur L. Ross Jr. a vulture investor. He finds that ridiculous. If one must liken him to a bird, he says, then make it the phoenix, the mythical creature that repeatedly rises from its own ashes.

"Vultures pick off the flesh and leave the carcass to rot," he said, during a conversation in the Manhattan offices of W. L. Ross & Company, his investment firm. "We help dying companies survive and grow."

Maybe so. But can he do that for Collins & Aikman, the bankrupt auto parts supplier, or for the many other parts suppliers - possibly including Delphi, which recently sought bankruptcy protection - that he acknowledges are on his radar screen?

Clearly, he thinks he can. This month, W. L. Ross and the Lear Corporation announced a joint venture to buy ailing auto parts companies, and combine them into a global auto parts powerhouse. Mr. Ross said his company would own a majority of the venture. Lear, which is contributing its business of car interiors, with about $3.5 billion in annual sales, and other investors would own the rest.

The yet-to-be-named company plans to buy Collins & Aikman, and is looking at some operations that Visteon, an ailing parts supplier, transferred to its former parent, the Ford Motor Company. "There's no reason why we can't be a $10 billion or even a $15 billion player," Mr. Ross said. His track record is certainly good. Starting in 2002, Mr. Ross began rolling the remains of five bankrupt steel companies into the International Steel Group, which he sold to Mittal Steel in April for $4.5 billion, about a tenfold profit, he said.

In 2003, he began turning the remnants of Burlington Industries and some other textile companies into the profitable International Textile Group. And last year he began turning ailing coal assets into the International Coal Group, which he is in the process of taking public.
"I'd never bet against Wilbur Ross," said Robert S. Miller, who was heading Bethlehem Steel when Mr. Ross bought it and now heads Delphi.

Mr. Ross's game plan for his nascent auto parts conglomerate, he said, is to take it public quickly. And even investors who have steered clear of automotive supply stocks say they are looking forward to it.

"The company he envisions is small enough to avoid antitrust issues, but big enough to be a real player," said Timothy M. Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Asset Management. "I'd buy stock in that kind of company."

Still, Mr. Ross is buying into a $75 billion global car interiors industry that is operating at about 65 percent of capacity, that has huge pension and health care costs and that has been rife with bankruptcies and earnings disappointments.

By the time Mr. Ross began buying steel companies, their previous owners had transferred their pension liabilities to a Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation that was then robust. But the auto parts industry has not resolved its pension obligations.

Moreover, ever since the guaranty corporation took on Bethlehem Steel's pension liabilities, it has struggled with its own record deficits, and may be less inclined to assume the pension problems of the auto parts makers.

Mr. Ross, who assumed Burlington's underfunded pension plan, says he expects the guaranty corporation to accept more pension plans. Even if it does not, he says, he will buy only companies whose pension liabilities can be offset by cost cuts elsewhere.
"Unlike health care, with pensions you know what your costs will be, so you just do the arithmetic," he said.

Other drags on earnings are harder to calculate. Automakers have put great pressure on their suppliers to cut prices, even as the suppliers face ever rising costs for labor and petrochemical raw materials.

Nor is increasing demand from Asia likely to bolster prices. South Korea, China and other Asian countries have local parts companies serving their automotive industries.
"What investor wants to buy a company that sells plastics to G.M. when plastics are going through the roof while the prices G.M. pays go down?" asked Robert D. Barry, an analyst at Goldman Sachs who recommends that investors be cautious about all auto parts suppliers.
The answer, of course, is Wilbur Ross. Mr. Ross concedes that "the industry model is broken," but says he can fix it. Some of his plans are obvious: buy flailing companies at rock-bottom prices; eliminate duplicate staffing and inefficient plants; and negotiate better labor contracts.
But some are less intuitive. He plans to pump a lot of money into product research, for example. "This industry should be overspending on R & D, but the companies responded to the pricing pressures by cutting back on it instead," he said. Mr. Ross said he was particularly interested in safety systems, and in new uses for nanotechnology, the science of manipulating very small particles.

W. L. Ross recently teamed with Masters Capital, a hedge fund, to buy up nanotech companies. "A lot of technologies don't exist here yet," he said. "But they will."
Mr. Ross is also certain that a huge company has a better chance of locking in its prices for raw materials, and of exerting influence with its automotive customers.
Even though parts for car interiors are a commodity in the sense that many suppliers can bid for the business, winning bidders do have some sway over customers. The tools and processes they use cannot be quickly replicated by their rivals.

Moreover, the parts themselves are bulky, which makes it uneconomical for automakers to buy parts that must be shipped long distances. Indeed, automakers have lent Collins, for one, millions of dollars - money they are unlikely to get back - to keep parts flowing to their factories.
"Automakers who pushed their original supplier over the brink will be more likely to give concessions to a new company," Mr. Barry of Goldman Sachs said.
That may also be true of unions. Mr. Ross negotiated flexible work rules and productivity-linked pay at the steel companies, but he preserved jobs and many benefits.
"He's tough, but he brings as much credibility and integrity to the bargaining table as anyone I've dealt with in the last three decades," said David McCall, District 1 director of the United Steelworkers of America, who negotiated most of the International Steel Group contracts.
Mr. Miller of Delphi said Mr. Ross honored severance promises made to executives at Bethlehem. "He is a brilliant negotiator who does his homework and recognizes those points on which the other party cannot give ground," Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Ross is counting on labor's help. He noted that the health care concessions that the United Automobile Workers granted to G.M. are highly unusual outside a bankruptcy. Although Mr. Ross signed the Lear deal before the G.M. agreement became public, "We were betting that it would happen, and that the unions will offer similar concessions to the parts makers."
He is also betting that the union's flexibility on health care will extend to negotiations about pensions. "Historically, health care has been the most sensitive issue," he said.
The recently enacted bankruptcy law may also help Mr. Ross's prospects, in that it makes it harder for bankrupt companies to pay huge bonuses to executives. "The incentive for executives to hide out in bankruptcy is gone," he said, "and that will hasten their decisions to sell."
For now, Mr. Ross is not going after Delphi, although he readily conceded that "parts of Delphi are certainly interesting."
Mr. Miller said that on July 1, the day he joined Delphi, Mr. Ross called to express interest in investing in auto parts. "I told him it was premature to talk," Mr. Miller said. But he said he would welcome calls when Delphi was in better shape.
"Wilbur likes to invest in industries that are out of favor, and auto parts are certainly in that category," he said. "But he wants assets that have gone through bankruptcy, had the barnacles stripped off and the liabilities resolved."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

How to Make Millions in eretail Sales During a Short Window of Opportunity: 5 Tactics

CHALLENGE Although has been selling costumes successfully year-round online since 1998, President and CEO Jalem Getz is ruefully aware that few consumers realize it.
Fact is, the overwhelming majority of consumers only shop for costumes once a year -- at Halloween. "The sales ramp up starts in August," says Getz. "Sales get rolling in September, and on October 1st a list switch goes on. We're going just gangbusters peaking just a few days before Halloween."

By November,'s satisfied customers have moved on with their lives. Aside from the few who desperately need a Santa suit, chances are most have forgotten entirely about the site.

The best way to build a known-brand destination site is with year-round consistency. Getz's problem is that, aside from highly targeted keyword buys on search engines (such as "Easter Bunny Costume" every spring), he couldn't justify paying for year-round advertising and PR campaigns to keep the general brand top of mind with consumers and affiliates.

Instead, they had to find a way to create such a high-impact presence during their big two-and-a-half-month selling season that sales would consistently grow year after year after year. How do you do that?

CAMPAIGN The team concentrated their efforts on five specific tactics, each of which they projected would be responsible for at least 10%-20% of the revenue pie.
-> Tactic A. Strong Affiliate Relations offers a slightly lower affiliate commission than competitors, and just like consumers, affiliates are in danger of forgetting about the site during the slow season. Plus, management set "extremely tight" rules about the types of email marketing affiliates could use, which cut the potential pool even further.
The marketing team had to work extra hard to compete for affiliates' investment and attention:
o No commission chargebacks, ever.
Affiliates get to keep their entire commissions, even when customers request refunds. Getz notes he's only able to make this offer because costumes don't attract high fraud; the site uses a great fraud detection system to stop problem orders before they go through (and are commissionable), and lowered bookkeeping and admin expenses make up for extra commissions.
o Contests with exciting prizes
Although Getz acknowledges that what affiliates really want is "money," every June announces its new line-up of affiliate prizes. Depending on your commissionable sales, you can win anything from a t-shirt to a Mini Cooper car.
"It's absolutely worth the investment for us because it's one more reason to contact affiliates." More contacts equals more relationship building. And even in this day and age of virtual business, personal relationships make a huge difference.
o Allowing all types of search marketing
According to MarketingSherpa's 2005 Affiliate Marketing Report (link below), 51.1% of merchants restrict search marketing for affiliates due to fears of PPC arbitrage, optimization competition, and/or brand diffusion.
However, many affiliates -- especially the individuals and mom 'n pops (versus the big rewards and loyalty sites) -- rely on search. In fact, 49% of surveyed affiliates told us they would not work with merchants who banned paid search.
Getz authorized his team to keep affiliates happy by allowing them to use any and all search marketing tactics, even including bidding on brand and trademark terms. Getz's in-house search marketing team focuses their efforts on mop-up activities, handling obscure and less profitable terms overlooked by affiliates.
"We drop out and let affiliates make the money. It's easier for us to manage when affiliates don't go after the words we do."
Getz justifies this radical departure from accepted wisdom, "I'd rather have my marketing people sitting down with new relationships than sitting all day bidding on keywords. And to be honest, I don't think an agency would cost less than our affiliates cost. These are small entrepreneurs making adjustments every day all day long. They're working hard because it's their money on the line. I think they can beat any agency out there."

-> Tactic B. Portal & Search Engine Deals
"Our portal relationship with MSN is massive," notes Getz. However, MSN and other portal deals are "outrageously expensive. It's a big, big risk, but we believed our business is a category killer. We have 10,000 products -- more than any competitor -- very high conversion rates, and very high retention rates. We can compete against Amazon in our space."
The team negotiates hard to get the most for their money, including requiring in-person meetings with portal reps who they spend a million or more with per year. "You must meet with higher-level people, go out to dinner with them, schmooze them. Show them there's two sides. We bring as much value to the table as they do. If your customers come to MSN in October and you're not featuring the world's largest costume retailer, they're going to go to your competitor."
Along with relentless a/b split testing of all creative, especially text-link wording and horizontal vs vertical banners, the team split overall online ad tactics depending on the nature of the deal.
o If it's a CPM or flat rate deal, they go for high clicks. So they might use terms such as "sexy costumes."
o If it's a CPC deal, they go for high conversions. So copy would focus more on factual information targeting serious costume shoppers. They also use dayparting to moderate bids and exposure depending on the time of day and day of week. "We adjust CPCs and raise bids automatically during higher converting times."

-> Tactic C. Public Relations Stunts
"We've done some crazy stunts," says Getz. "One October I dressed up in a different costume every day and customers could vote to choose the next costume I wore."
The team hired a PR firm the first year to get the ball rolling. Then they took PR in-house. "It's myself, a couple of interns, and a marketing director," says Getz. He selects staffers to appear on TV and radio spots based on their ability to convey a passion for costumes. "It's not that I'm not passionate, but I'm not that exciting when it comes across talking in interviews."
The PR team have created a list of more than 4,000 media contacts, but they never ever send out a generic mass release to the list. Each media outlet is treated differently. And competing media outlets, such as major morning news shows, are offered different exclusive features.
These pitches usually start with a call (and sometimes costume mailings) to show schedulers in August for spots in October.

-> Tactic D. Past Customer Reactivation Programs
Although Getz's team tested direct postal mail and email campaigns to third party lists in the past, they've pulled back to what's guaranteed to work -- email and catalogs to former customers.
The team has tested segmenting the customer file by type of past purchase and sending catalogs with varying covers. For example, someone who bought only kids' costumes might see a photo of a child on the cover.
They've also tested alternating the personalized cover offer based on when the customer purchased in the holiday sales cycle the past year. The goal is to get customers to purchase earlier so there's less chance of a competitor snagging that costume sale during peak season.
Past customers who opted-in during the check-out process also received about a dozen emails per year. The majority of these efforts arrived during the top sales season. Off-season names only received a little email (just enough to clean the list of hard bounces and unsubs.) hoped this would their more profitable on-season messages get past filters (ISPs will slam down their gate if you have too many bad addresses per thousand names.) Also, you can't accurately forecast response if you don't know what percent of your names are still live accounts.

-> Tactic E. Year-long Tests to Raise Conversions
Enough shoppers visit off-season for the team to continually test and refine the conversion process. Getz wanted to avoid the all-too-common mistake many eretailers make of launching a major site revamp just in time for the peak season. If your revamps fail, you're in big trouble.
His design team focused their tests on the most critical pages of the conversion process, especially all stages of the shopping cart.
But metrics can only tell you what people are doing, not how they wish your site was different. So Getz's team added an ongoing survey to the home page of the site. (Link to sample survey below.)
To encourage responses, the survey offer is centered above the fold, with a $5 discount incentive, and a note saying "no email registration required." Every week to 10 days, the marketing team changed the questions they asked. However, the one thing they never asked was, "How did you find this site?" Why ask stuff you can find out using your site logs?
Instead they asked questions such as "Are you shopping for children's or adult's costumes?" Then they compared the data to actual sales results to see if there were any disconnects. For example, of 50% of shoppers claimed to be looking for kids' costumes, but only 25% of sales were for kids' costumes, that might indicate inventory or search problems.
RESULTSLast October was ranked as the top four apparel sites in terms of visitors. During one week, only eBay apparel surpassed its traffic. (Getz says triumphantly, "Tell that to the Gaps of the world!") The MSN deal alone drove 9.5 million potential shoppers to that month.
The site's affiliates account for 20-25% of sales off-season and can ramp into the 30s for peak season. Super affiliates (loyalty and rewards sites) didn't blink at the rewards offers, but the site's thousands of smaller affiliates loved them.
Getz notes that you should not mistake an affiliate's small company size for small sales potential. His top selling affiliate for last season was an individual who almost hit the million dollars in sales required to win the Mini Cooper.'s parent company, BUYSEASONS, won a 2004 Commission Junction performance marketing award for "inspiring greatness in others" based on the tactics it used to build affiliate relations.

Creative tests on portals have shown that text-link copywriting tweaks you might consider inconsequential can have profound impact on clicks and click-value. The team has also learned to vary their copy every day on portal pages that get heavy repeat visitors. A line that works well one day may not catch attention when repeat visitors see it for the second day in a row.
PR works better every year as the team build ongoing relations with reporters and mass media schedulers. For example, last year the Today Show did a fashion show, Regis did an exclusive plug for's high-end kids' costumes, and Good Morning America ran news segments on the site's poll of which presidential candidate's Halloween mask was selling the best. (It was Bush's.) Site staff also did a "staggering amount of radio interviews."
Catalog tests have proven that while it's worth segmenting your customer database for a few generic cover variations, it's probably not worth creating zillions of different covers. The team has cut down to two different catalog covers (one for people who spend mostly on kids, the other for people who spend mostly on adults.)

CyberSource - the online credit card processing security service uses to reduce fraud

Commission Junction - the affiliate management service uses for all affiliates

PPC Management - the search marketing bid management tool uses to handle its in-house campaigns

Monday, October 24, 2005

300th Ben Franklin anniversary celebration under wayBy DAN ROBRISH, ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITERPHILADELPHIA (AP) - The celebration of the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's birth is underway, launched by the re-enactment of his arrival in Philadelphia and the December kickoff of a traveling museum exhibit and other events.

"Philly's Got Benergy!" is the tagline for promoting the celebration, which officially started Oct. 9 at an event portraying Franklin's arrival in Philadelphia as a 17-year-old runaway.
The centerpiece of the plans to celebrate the Jan. 17 anniversary is an exhibit running from Dec. 15 to April 30 at the National Constitution Center called "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World."

"He's a founder who still winks at us. He's the most modern and contemporary of all the founders," said Richard Stengel, the Constitution Center's president and chief executive.
Stengel said the exhibit includes a variety of opportunities to learn by doing, including a 25-foot sailboat that visitors can climb aboard to learn how Franklin charted the gulf stream. Besides such hands-on displays, it has more than 250 original Franklin artifacts and more than 40 video animations.

The exhibit will head to museums in St. Louis, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Paris after appearing in Philadelphia. Notable in its absence is Boston, where Franklin was born and raised; Boston's Museum of Science said it could not host the exhibit because it is opening a large "Star Wars" exhibit instead.

Other events featured as part of the yearlong celebration will include an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a specially commissioned piece by the Philadelphia Orchestra and a special performance by the Philadelphia Ballet.

Franklin was born on Jan. 6, 1706. But in 1752, when the old Julian calendar was replaced with the Gregorian calendar by Britain and its colonies, time skipped ahead 11 days - making the old Jan. 6 the new Jan. 17.

The celebration is being led by the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, a consortium including the American Philosophical Society, The Franklin Institute, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania.

More info
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN TERCENTENARY: Go to and click on "Calendar" for a month-by-month listing of events, or call (215) 557-0733. Most events take place in 2006 but some concerts, lectures and exhibits are scheduled for November and December. At, click on "Quick biography" for an overview of Franklin's life and achievements.