Fighting the flab
Corporate headquarters have put on weight, and need to slim down again
“ONE of the most extraordinary corporate centres in America.”
This is how Trian Partners, a disgruntled shareholder of PepsiCo, described the headquarters of the snacks-to-soft-drinks company in a recent letter to its board.
Set amid lakes and fountains in 100 acres of wealthy Westchester County, New York, PepsiCo's HQ features seven interconnected three-storey office buildings designed in the 1960s by Edward Durell Stone, a pioneering American modernist architect.
Its crown jewel is the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens, named after a former chief executive, which has works by artists such as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin.
百事总部最吸引人的景观就是以其前总经理Donald M. Kendall名字命名，由Alexander Calder、Henry Moore 和Auguste Rodin三位艺术家共同建造的雕塑花园。
Mr Kendall reportedly intended the garden to reflect his vision for the company by creating an atmosphere of “stability, creativity and experimentation”.
Two years ago PepsiCo began a 243m upgrade of the complex to make space for more staff and “create a more collaborative and innovative work environment”.
Trian, run by Nelson Peltz, a veteran activist investor, thinks shareholders would be better served by selling it and shedding many of its 1,100 workers, as part of a broader cost-cutting and productivity-boosting strategy that would see PepsiCo split in two.
The raiders of the 1980s, who made fortunes by seizing and shaping up flabby conglomerates, were supposed to have put an end to corporate extravagance and administrative bloat.
But PepsiCo is not alone in now being accused of these.
A recent report by Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, reckoned that Coca-Cola, which is spending 100m on upgrading its home in Atlanta, has overheads that are 30% of sales, almost as high as PepsiCo's 32%.
调研公司Sanford C. Bernstein最近的一份报告指出，可口可乐公司正花费1亿美元升级其在亚特兰大的总部，可口可乐公司的经常性开支占其营业额的30%，百事的则为32%。
Activist investors such as Trian, which also has its guns trained on DuPont, a chemicals firm, may find inspiration in other examples highlighted by Bernstein.
Procter & Gamble's overheads ratio is far higher than that of its consumer-goods archrival, Unilever; so is Estee Lauder's compared with that of L'Oreal, another big cosmetics firm.
日用消费品公司Procter & Gamble's的经常性开支比率比其主要竞争对手Unilever要高出一大截；化妆品行业大公司Estee Lauder同L'Oreal也形成了这样鲜明的对比。
It is hard to think of many big companies that could not benefit from taking a fresh look at their overheads.
One, perhaps, is Mars, a family-run confectioner with a tiny, frugal HQ in suburban Virginia.
Another is Berkshire Hathaway.
In this year's letter to shareholders, sent last month, the conglomerate's boss, Warren Buffett, broke a long-standing “no pictures” policy to show off his head-office team, just 24 strong.
Mr Buffett's last big acquisition, of Heinz, was made in partnership with 3G, a Brazilian private-equity firm whose boss, Jorge Paulo Lemann, has a passion for cost-saving.
巴菲特上一笔大宗收购，就是与巴西的私募股权公司3G资本合伙收购亨氏食品。3G的老板Jorge Paulo Lemann很热衷于消减成本。
Heinz had already undergone a round of cuts under pressure from Mr Peltz.
But 3G found plenty more to trim, as it applied its “zero-based budgeting” approach, in which all spending must be justified from first principles each year.
Swathes of managerial jobs were axed, as was the company's “aviation department”, which ran its corporate planes.
Mr Buffett is impressed: hitherto he has mostly bought well-run firms that he could largely leave alone, but now he wants to do more deals like the Heinz one.
Of course there are many reasons, other than differing levels of bloat, why businesses vary greatly in which functions are performed centrally, and in how many people and other resources are needed at head office.
But there is evidence that companies have piled on the pounds in recent years.
A study by Sven Kunisch, a management professor at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, and others looked at the head offices of 761 big companies in Europe and America between 2007 and 2010.
By the end of the period, a quarter of them had more than 600 staff at HQ, whereas another quarter had fewer than 63.
Two-thirds of the firms said they had made significant changes during the period, generally strengthening centralised control over their divisions.
Some 44% of the firms had increased the headcount at HQ, whereas only 28% trimmed.
Of the 21 countries in which the head offices were located, only ones based in Denmark and Greece reduced staff numbers on average.
All this at a time, in the wake of the financial crisis, when companies were striving to protect their profit margins by cutting jobs elsewhere in the workforce.
All aboard the mother ship
What might explain the return of head-office bloat?
The crusade for leaner, more focused companies, which began in the 1980s, ran out of steam after the turn of the century.
And three other issues moved up bosses' agendas, each seemingly justifying extra staff at HQ: globalisation meant that the mother ship had more far-flung operations to oversee; new digital technology made it easier, in theory, to centralise control and oversight; and, starting with America's Sarbanes-Oxley act in 2002, deregulation gave way to a growing regulatory burden, bringing with it a bigger head-office compliance operation.
Various events, from the September 11th 2001 terror attacks to the financial crisis, may have made bosses view the world as an increasingly complicated and uncertain place.
It would not be surprising if many of them responded in the same way as Jeffrey Immelt, the boss of GE: in his latest annual letter to shareholders, he confessed that “We attempted to manage volatility through layers and reviewers.
Like many companies we were guilty of countering complexity with complexity...more inspectors, multiple reviewers.”
The result was a “higher cost structure, an artificial sense of risk management, and we were insulating our people from the heat of the market.” Mr Immelt has now decided to reverse course.
GE has launched a new simplification strategy, with a goal of cutting overheads to 12% of sales from 16%, including a 45% reduction in the cost of the corporate headquarters, by 2016.
Other bosses would be wise to do the same, or expect to have Mr Peltz and his fellow activists on their case.
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