Big corporations can be unhappy places these days. The new president is very publicly smacking them down--about the cost of Air Force One, about drug prices, about the car plants they have in Mexico. Activist investors harangue Fortune 500 CEOs about boosting returns even as the bosses struggle to increase sales. If the big companies seem bereft of breakthrough ideas, perhaps it's because they are. Meanwhile, the Millennials they so crave as customers are hardly excited about working for them.
Fortunately for corporate America, where there has been zero job growth, where products are often out of touch, where mindsets are sclerotic, there is one force that could save them: entrepreneurship--or, more specifically, the entrepreneurs whose companies they buy. American giants have begun to recognize that the well of innovation is still gushing among the Inc. 5000. And they are thirsting for it.
There's a new, and favorable, twist in the tale for entrepreneurs, too. In the past, when a big company bought a small one, the founder got a big payday, but had to accept giving up control of a business built on years of love and grueling work, and that the acquirer, once in control, might have a slightly different plan for its new toy. Cultures clashed, cherished employees left, and all the excitement that went into creating the merger vanished. Even worse was the "acquihire," in which a company got taken out primarily for its talent--without even a pretense of synergy.
In the trend that's emerging, the founders of prominent startups are finding ways to sell their cake and have it, too. They can run their brands on their own terms inside larger corporations while at the same time providing spark and nimbleness to the parent company. "We needed some sort of outside catalyst to get our digital effort going at the speed I wanted it to," says John Schlifske, CEO of Northwestern Mutual, which bought fintech startup LearnVest. "I didn't feel we had the right speed and agility."
We're now at the point when entrepreneurship doesn't have to end with a purchase. Even better, entrepreneurs like Alexa von Tobel at LearnVest and Marla Malcolm Beck at Bluemercury get to operate with resources they couldn't imagine having as startups. Whether it's Northwestern Mutual jump-starting its online financial planning, or Under Armour building a connected fitness initiative with a startup such as MyFitnessPal, this is how the smart 21st-century acquisition gets done. "At some point, established companies have to adopt some startup thinking," says Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. "It's not that startup thinking is the best thing ever. But it forces you to look at the world as a changing place."
Macy's • Bluemercury
Aligning with an old-line retailer is a smart move
On a recent trip to Africa from her home near Washington, D.C., Bluemercury co-founder and CEO Marla Malcolm Beck discovered a novel way to make the 17-hour flight more bearable: She watched all the film trailers in languages she couldn't understand. Another pastime: studying university syllabuses. "You can see where things are moving based on the newer topics being taught," she explains. She doesn't merely observe, though. In 2015, after noticing the success of the iPhone and Apple's nearly all-white stores, she redesigned the template for Bluemercury, the luxury beauty store and spa she launched in 1999 with now-husband Barry. Goodbye, maple and marble; hello, white walls, brushed aluminum, and the company's signature royal blue.
This is an entrepreneur who is unlikely to miss a trend, as she demonstrated in 2014 when her phone started ringing with offers to buy or invest in her business. She and Barry knew this was the time to sell. "That energy starts happening, and people from Fortune 500 companies want to meet with you and see what you're up to," says Beck.
After all, this had happened before, in 2006, when Bluemercury had 12 stores. Then, it ended up with a private equity deal that took the company to 60 stores. This time, the opportunity would be bigger. Bluemercury had options. It could strike another private equity deal, with the goal of taking the company public. Or the Becks could find a strategic partner that would likely buy Bluemercury outright. Reasoning that they wanted to keep scaling their business, and that they could benefit from a partner with greater resources and expertise, the co-founders sold Bluemercury to Macy's in 2015 for $210 million.
"When we looked at the whole landscape, Macy's was so strong in their core retail and omnichannel capabilities," says Beck. That might not seem obvious, given that last summer Macy's announced that it would close about 100 stores and lay off 10,000 people. The shift to online shopping has forced Macy's, like many other retailers, to restructure. But Beck was confident, as she is now, that Macy's, one of the largest online retailers, could accelerate Bluemercury's growth. With help from Macy's, for instance, Bluemercury updated and relaunched its website in nine months--far faster than it could have done on its own. Beck also points to the Macy's West Coast innovation lab, where the retailer is constantly experimenting with new technologies. Plus, she says, "they are an amazing team of operators. They're nice people, and they're incredible at execution."
For Macy's, the rationale is similarly compelling: Fifteen years ago, about 90 percent of prestige cosmetics were sold in department stores, says Beck. By 2014, it was 60 percent, and still sinking. "The structure of the industry changed," says Beck. "If their clients were shopping in specialty channels, then they wanted to be part of that." Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren says that the idea of selling prestige cosmetics in a specialized way is hugely appealing. "A lot of our stores aren't going to do enough volume to build a counter and add full-time staff for a particular brand," he says. The Bluemercury model, with sales staff trained to sell multiple brands, solves that problem for Macy's.
The day the deal was announced, Beck did a call with her entire staff, who gave it decidedly mixed reviews. Employees worried about losing Bluemercury's family feel. The Bluemercury sales staff are year-round employees, and well aware that most department store makeup counters are staffed largely by part-timers and seasonal workers. But Lundgren had assured the Becks that Bluemercury would still be independent, as they wanted. "The idea was that they wanted to keep us running in our lane, and we could learn from each other," says Beck. By and large, the employees stayed. Their jobs and hours didn't change, and the Macy's benefits package was more generous than Bluemercury could have afforded on its own. While Macy's shrinks its footprint, Bluemercury is expanding quickly; it added 40 stores in 2016 and plans another 32 this year. That creates more opportunities to promote people.
To hear Beck tell it, she and Bluemercury got exactly what she wanted, and needed, out of the deal. She had been laboring to scale every function of the company. Now, some finance and benefits administration is handled by Macy's. When Bluemercury needs a recruiter, it turns to Macy's. Similarly, Bluemercury was so nimble that it never thought it would use any Macy's marketing resources. That changed after it made a training video with the Macy's production team, which Beck describes as "amazing."
On the back end, there was the Macy's inventory planning system, a must-have for a major department store chain, but Beck's staff wasn't crazy about implementing it. She's glad they did. Profitability improved, because the stores are more likely to have customers' desired items in stock. "Macy's has these powerhouse systems that add huge value," says Beck. Likewise, Beck is now talking to Macy's about using some of its distribution. "At first we were like, 'We're small, we'll handle it ourselves,' " says Beck. "As you grow, you start to be open to other discussions."
As a company in flux in an industry under siege, Macy's needs to mine Bluemercury for every advantage it can get. Bluemercury has team-based compensation for its staff, for instance, which Macy's is watching closely. Bluemercury emphasizes skin care, whereas Macy's is stronger in cosmetics. Bluemercury is also aggressive about giving out samples. Customers who buy online can choose three samples, rather than having Bluemercury or a salesperson decide for them. Macy's is adding that capability. Beck used Facebook Live to launch a new product from her office; all of a sudden, Macy's was talking about using Facebook more.
And through Bluemercury, Macy's can execute small-scale testing of up-and-coming brands--those with 20 to 30 products, say, rather than the hundreds that would earn them a full counter in a department store. Beck points to the British brand Rodial, which sells well at Bluemercury but wouldn't warrant its own counter at Macy's, while Bluemercury's proprietary skin care brand, called M-61, has done well enough to be sold in Macy's. "It's a very high-quality product line," says Lundgren. "We are going to benefit from that, and it's just the beginning."
Although she operates in a glam business, Beck has always been driven by data and numbers. As a high schooler, she did the books for her dad's real estate development business. "I remember searching for pennies to make things balance," she says. Before starting Bluemercury, she worked at McKinsey and then in private equity. She is still running the numbers on customers. If you shop at a Bluemercury in Chicago and then go to a store in New York City, that Big Apple store will know which products you've bought. When Bluemercury launches a product, that brand will often invite the store's top customers to try free samples, and track the amount those customers spend over time. Macy's is counting too. Says Lundgren, "If we could roll out 150 [Bluemercury] stores this year without jeopardizing the quality of the execution, I would do that."
Campbell • Plum
Cooking up new recipes for an old favorite
Neil Grimmer is a fan of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans. Also, he grew up eating Campbell soup. As of three years ago, says Grimmer, that was pretty much the sum total of what he knew about Campbell. So he was surprised when, in 2013, his investment bankers suggested that the famous but struggling soup company from Camden, New Jersey, might be interested in buying his Emeryville, California-based baby-food startup Plum Organics, which he founded in 2007 and had grown to $80 million in sales. "My first reaction was 'That seems strange,' " says Grimmer. "It's almost like odd bedfellows. It never dawned on me that they would be a real buyer."
When Grimmer met with Campbell's CEO Denise Morrison, he was in for another surprise. She seemed to understand, completely, Grimmer's obsession with feeding kids nutritious food. Like other large food companies, Campbell was well aware of consumers' burgeoning preference for healthy foods, and looking for ways to capitalize on the trend rather than be swamped by it. A year earlier, Campbell had spent $1.55 billion for Bolthouse Farms, a purveyor of premium juice drinks. And it made sense to Morrison that, if a deal was to happen, Grimmer didn't want to see the company uprooted from Emeryville. "It's not just about acquiring a brand," says Morrison. "You're also welcoming the people who made the brand what it is."
A week after the deal closed, Grimmer got the endorsement that told him he'd made the right choice. The state of Delaware had sanctioned a new form of incorporation, called a benefit corporation. It allows companies to write values such as sustainability into their articles of incorporation. The day after the close, Grimmer asked Campbell if Plum could become a benefit corp. A week later, it was a done deal. In Grimmer's first meeting with Campbell's staff, he explained benefit corps. "It was a total lovefest," he says. "When I said we had become a public benefit corp and what it meant, that we were putting our values up there with making money, there was a standing ovation."
At an offsite a year after the acquisition, the corporate vibe was equally good, but with some dissonance for Grimmer. Twenty-five percent of the Plum staff had left. Plum had been hiring, so 40 percent of the people at the offsite were new since the acquisition. "I had a lot of people who were very close to me decide, 'I'm going to take this time to transition to do something else,' " says Grimmer. "That was one of the toughest things for me. "
Campbell has gone to school on organic procurement from Plum, and on Plum's organic supply chain. As for Plum, Grimmer says, sales have grown 91 percent since the acquisition--thanks to Campbell's distribution muscle--and the company's compound annual growth rate is three times that of all his competitors combined.
As content as he is with Campbell, Grimmer always intended to start another company, and discussed his ideas with Morrison. Both are interested in the intersection of biology, food, and technology. Their joint interests led to Habit, which recently launched in the San Francisco Bay area. Founded and led by Grimmer, Habit delivers meals customized to individuals based on their unique biological makeup. (You think that might include a soup?) Grimmer envisions that Campbell Fresh, a division built on the Bolthouse Farms acquisition, will be instrumental in scaling the food side of the business. "We're putting three industries together in one company--food, biology, and technology," says Grimmer. "Having a strategic partner in the food space makes this infinitely more viable than if we were going to build it alone." Campbell is the sole investor in Habit, funding a $32 million A round. And yes, Campbell has an option to buy.
Northwestern Mutual • Learnvest
A New Yorker finds an edge in Milwaukee
She's blond and speaks New York City fast, as befits a former trader at Morgan Stanley. He's middle-aged, Midwestern, and trim, chooses his words carefully, and gives every indication of having stayed with his employer for decades--which he has.
In 2015, his company bought hers for a reported $250 million. Now, they practically finish each other's sentences. The only thing that's stopping them, she jokes, is that they text 25 times a day.
She is Alexa von Tobel, the founder of LearnVest, which makes financial planning software. He is Timothy Schaefer, Northwestern Mutual's executive vice president of client and digital experience--is that not a corporate title?--and the person at Northwestern most directly responsible for making the LearnVest acquisition work, which means grafting LearnVest's rocket ship onto a company that has mastered slow and steady. "One of my degrees is in organizational behavior," says Schaefer. "I got to use it in spades on this thing."
LearnVest is a scrappy New York City startup founded in 2007; Northwestern Mutual, based in Milwaukee, might have been a scrappy startup too, 160 years ago when it was founded. Despite the differences in history and culture, the two companies have one important thing in common: They're happy to take on clients with few investable assets as opposed to the high-net-worth types craved by other firms. Most financial planning software, says von Tobel, assumes the client already has money to pay the bills and simply allocates what's left. LearnVest bases its financial advice on a person's cash flow, providing guidance even when there's little to nothing to invest. Schaefer's outlook is similar: "We believe you work with people with potential and help them get where they need to be, financially."
To bring the companies together, the standard choices were for Northwestern either to fully absorb LearnVest or to keep it at arm's length. Neither felt right to von Tobel or Schaefer. Northwestern Mutual envied LearnVest's approach and its ability to test, learn, and change things quickly, but its own culture was understandably more conservative. "Ultimately when you manage a business you have to think about disruption," says Northwestern CEO John Schlifske. "In many ways we're trying to disrupt ourselves. We put the client at the center of everything, and we're willing to let go of the past if the client wants something new."
LearnVest, it realized, could do with some more long-term planning, and had to grow quickly to make the acquisition work. Von Tobel (a onetime Inc. columnist) refers repeatedly to the creation of a third company culture, located somewhere in the psychic space between Milwaukee and New York. For now, some engineering teams have leaders in both New York and Milwaukee; so do teams reporting to von Tobel. Hackathons take place in both locations and sporadic synergy is not unusual. Northwestern has even set up an internal venture pool to fund ideas from employees.
LearnVest's crew has largely stayed put. Von Tobel notes attrition of about 10 percent; even that, she says, is "crushing." Still, no one had to leave; no one even had to leave New York. Since the acquisition, LearnVest has hired 150 people. "On a startup budget, you stretch and reach," says von Tobel, "and now we're like, 'Let's just go out and get the best.' " On its own, LearnVest could deliver 10,000 financial plans annually; now, with Northwestern Mutual's assistance, it's looking at roughly 500,000 financial plans.
Von Tobel says that selling to Northwestern will help fulfill her vision in starting LearnVest, which is why she intends to stick around. "We didn't come together to be done with it," she says. "We came together to change financial planning in America."
Under Armour • MyFitnessPal
Yes, there can be synergy in a buyout. If not, why bother?
When Mike Lee says "we," it's rare that he's referring to the staff of MyFitnessPal, the fitness and nutrition app company he and brother Albert co-founded in 2005. More likely, Lee is referring to colleagues at Under Armour, which bought MyFitnessPal for $475 million in February 2015.
It took a while for Lee to take the money. And when he did, he didn't run. When Under Armour first called, Lee agreed to visit founder Kevin Plank at his Baltimore offices only because he thought he might end up with some kind of partnership. Then Plank started talking about his vision for what he called connected fitness. Plank knew that technology would be playing a bigger role in improving athletic performance, and Under Armour didn't have the technological capability to compete.
Lee got it. "If we were acquired by a company like Google or Apple, we would become one small piece in this giant machine," he says. "At Under Armour, we knew we would matter. We would have the attention of the CEO, we would be a big part of the strategy, and we would make a difference."
Lee had months to get used to the idea of being part of Under Armour, which, with $5 billion in revenue, is hardly small. His staff would have no such luxury. He knew the deal would fail if his employees fled. So his first presentation to them, the day the acquisition was announced, had to cover the basics: No one would be laid off. Everyone would report to the same person as before. The company would not move from its San Francisco home. Then he made the case that, really, the two companies were simpatico: Both Under Armour and MyFitnessPal had pragmatic cultures. Plank was, as Lee puts it, "an entrepreneur's entrepreneur."
A few days later, Plank and his team flew to San Francisco and hosted a celebration for the newly combined companies at the baseball Giants' AT&T Park. "Everybody was going crazy," says Lee. "Our logos were on the billboards." Plank gave a presentation that was similarly well received. "He said how excited he was to be working with us all, how appreciative. They were respectful and thankful of this tiny little company," says Lee. "I mean, they bought us."
Then began the work of actually integrating the two companies. "You can get a false sense of success in an acquisition when the acquiring company just leaves you alone," says Lee. "That is not what we wanted. If the deal is supposed to have all these synergies and benefits, you can't operate like two companies and expect those to happen." When the deal was announced in February 2015, MyFitnessPal had about 80 million users; now, Lee says, that number is "well over 100 million."
Lee, who has become Under Armour's chief data officer, is still learning about his new colleagues in the connected fitness group. They meet early and often with teams such as product and consumer insights to hatch new ideas and bring them to market.
The combination has already scored. Observing Under Armour's online communities, Lee and his team noticed that more athletes were focused not just on training but on recovering after workouts as well. They recognized that rest was an opportunity, which led to the company's new "recovery sleepwear"--call it inactive wear. These new pajamas feature a print on the inside that's made from a specialty ceramic designed to reflect a particular infrared wavelength back to the wearer, helping muscles recover while inducing sleep and reducing inflammation. It's endorsed by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Says Lee: "There are things we couldn't have done on our own."
Sprint • Brightstar
Bust up the furniture and win
After selling his cell-phone distributor, Brightstar, in 2014, Marcelo Claure became a billionaire. He owns a soccer team, Club Bolívar, in his native Bolivia, and is working with pal David Beckham to bring an MLS team to Miami, his adopted hometown. Jennifer Lopez sang at his 40th-birthday party. He has five kids. So what is he doing in Kansas City trying to turn around Sprint? --As told to K.W.
Entrepreneurs are good for two things: starting businesses and turning them around. As an entrepreneur, you learn never to take no for an answer, and a turnaround is similar. People tell you it's been done before and it's never going to work. It is the exact same no you hear as a startup. I've told all my team that there are easier jobs. The satisfaction needs to come from winning. And by the way, if we are successful, you will make money. Otherwise, you will not make money. When [SoftBank CEO] Masayoshi Son bought Sprint, he had already invested in Brightstar. He asked us to combine the procurement of Brightstar and Sprint. In less than eight weeks, we were able to save about $400 million. Because of that, Masa asked me to join Sprint's board. Brightstar was also serving Verizon, Apple, and T-Mobile. That started to cause a few problems in the industry. When the government called us and kindly let us know there was no way they would approve the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, Masa pulled me aside and said hey, I want to make you CEO of Sprint.
On day one, it was quite awkward. A 44-year-old Hispanic lands in Kansas City, Missouri. When I came to Sprint, all I saw at first were the TV crews waiting for me outside. It bothers me that I was the only Hispanic CEO of a Fortune 500 company. If I can do this, maybe I will open the doors for other Hispanic CEOs.
Sprint had the culture of a company that was losing. People arrived right on time, and they left right on time, too. The parking lot had traffic jams at 5 p.m. with people trying to get out. Sales meetings were monthly. There were lots of silos and no one talked to one another. My office, I swear, was bigger than my house.
This was probably the largest opportunity I was going to have in my life: to run a 118-year-old company [Sprint began life as the Brown Telephone Co. in 1899] with 60,000 employees and a brand name everyone knows. I told the employees I had never lost in my life and this was not going to be the first time. Either with them or without them, I was going to turn this company around.
We started daily sales and marketing meetings. I moved all the executives to one floor where we could all see one another. I got rid of offices and put everyone in cubes. The fact that people could talk to one another was a big shock. I had staff meetings every week. It was all new to me, and my first meeting went from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. A few people fell asleep. I figured those people would not last. Maybe three of the original 20 members of the management team are with us today.
I started the Getting Better Every Day email, asking people how to make Sprint a better place. The first day I got four or five hundred emails. I wrote everyone back. Then we created a second email called Stupid Rules, asking people what rules we should get rid of. We got a few hundred more suggestions. Why should sales people have to wear dress shoes, which are uncomfortable, when they are on their feet for 12 hours?
At least half of this is cultural. We are halfway through a turnaround, but we are a different company than we were before. We are winning customers. We are back to generating operating income after seven years. We have free cash flow for the first time in 13 years.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the corporate type of Plum Organic. Plum is a benefit corp.