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The Captain of Everything

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Plaque on Brandon family home, Ann Arbor Michigan c. 2012

Behold the magical business acumen of David “Dave” Brandon, who has now failed abjectly in three very high-profile jobs: CEO of Domino’s Pizza, athletic director at the University of Michigan, and CEO of the late Toys R Us.

The least obvious of these disasters on its face was his tenure at Domino’s, where the former Bain executive as brought in to take the company public.  He did so in August of 2004, and the stock sold at initial price of $13.40 per share.  Bain made mega-bucks on the deal eventually, although the company’s stock price languished under Brandon’s management: by the time he left for the Michigan AD job at the end of 2009, it was selling at $8.38 per share.

After Diamond Dave left, the stock price went through the roof in fairly short order, increasing by a factor of ten by 2014.  It is currently selling at a nifty 2,607% higher than when Brandon left.

Brandon’s stay in Ann Arbor (he was formerly a regent of the university, and got the job because he was chummy with then-president Mary Sue Coleman) was a truly spectacular disaster.  The Michigan AD basically has a license to print money, but Brandon’s motto when he came in was — I’m not making this up — “If it ain’t broke, break it!”

Five years later, that mission was accomplished.  Brandon completely botched the firing of one football coach and the hiring of another, bringing in the massively under-qualified Brady Hoke after being impressed in a one on one interview by Hoke’s “fire” and “passion” and “love for the job” (as opposed to more nebulous critieria, like his won-loss record as a football coach etc.).

Hoke started off OK but soon was predictably terrible: a situation that Brandon decided to address by forcing Hoke to fire his offensive coordinator, and then sitting in on Sunday film sessions with the coaching staff, to “help” them.  (Brandon was a 473rd-sting string defensive lineman at Michigan 45 years earlier).  Both of these moves were shall we say “disruptive,” and also quite crazy from a standard AD management practice standpoint, which is based on the idea that coaches are supposed to do the coaching, as opposed to paradigm-shattering administrators.

Brandon also did countless numbers of cheesy things, like contracting with Chobani Yogurt to offer an inspirational message about Michigan football every week, and flying a skywriting plane to trace the message “Go Blue” within sight of Michigan State’s stadium during a Spartan contest.  He also ran onto the field with football team out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel just before kickoff,  leaping up with the players to perform the quasi-sacred act of touching the MGOBLUE banner, he helped cut down the nets when Michigan’s basketball team won its NCAA regional final to advance to the Final Four in 2013, and much much MUCH more.

What finally sent Brandon’s superiors over the edge is that it turned out he sent at least hundreds and perhaps thousands(!) of obnoxious and incredibly inappropriate emails to fans who contacted him with complaints, telling his unhappy customers they “only had 5% of the information,” that they “quit drinking and go to bed,” that they “find another team to support,” etc etc etc. (This also isn’t exactly Management 101, but again, Brandon was and is a disruptive paradigm breaker, synergizing leveraged modalities in a fluid dynamic environment . . . OK I can’t do it any more.  The link in this paragraph has to be read to be believed.  Bless you Brian Cook, for all of eternity.)

In short, Dave Brandon was so insufferable in so many ways that a thousand UM students actually marched on the President’s house in October of 2014, demanding that he be fired.  Shortly afterwards, he was, with of course a giant severance package to go along with the million dollars per year he was getting from his job (His contract also gave him and his wife free use of new cars, with — this was my favorite touch — both the registration fees and REGULAR OIL CHANGES paid for by the university).

All these emoluments were bestowed on someone who was certainly worth tens of millions at a minimum already from his Domino’s stint — but perhaps the central principle of the new gilded age is that really rich people should never have to actually use their own money to pay for anything.  (Was this a principle of the original gilded age I wonder? I sort of doubt it. Surely Gould and Rockefeller and Morgan etc. actually LIKED throwing their very own money around, as opposed to other peoples.’  But I’m guessing).

After these various contretemps Brandon fled the jurisdiction was named CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, which he managed to drive into liquidation within a couple of years.  But not before — you guessed it! — getting huge “performance bonuses” from the board, including one of nearly three million dollars five days before the company filed for bankruptcy, so that Brandon wouldn’t leave.  That’s “wouldn’t,” not “would:”

The U.S. Trustee in the Toys R Us bankruptcy case has filed a strongly worded objection to the company’s plan to pay between $16 million and $32 million to its 17 most highly paid executives.

“It defies logic and wisdom,” the objection by Trustee Judy Robbins states, that Toys R Us is proposing “multi-million dollar bonuses for the senior leadership of a company that began the year with employee layoffs and concludes it in the midst of the holiday season in bankruptcy,”

“Apparently,” Robbins said, “This Christmas, Toys R Us intends to deliver not only ‘children their biggest smiles of the year’ but the insiders, too,” which is a reference to court claims by Toys R Us that its number one goal is to keep children happy.

Robbins noted that five of the top Toys executives also received $8.2 million in retention bonuses five days before the bankruptcy filing in September. Those bonuses included a $2.8 million payment to Chief Executive Dave Brandon “just to stay with the company,” the objection states.

Apparently Toys R Us customers and vendors also only had 5% of the information, as in his farewell message to his soon-to-be unemployed work force, Dave was careful to blame the public at large for the company’s demise:

In his address, Brandon took shots at shoppers and vendors who cut back on their support for the chain in recent months.

“I believe that all of them will live to regret what is happening to our company,” he said.

Let’s wrap up this instructive little tale with a glimpse from a happier time.  Here are excerpts from an interview with Brandon shortly after he took the Michigan AD job (if you read the whole thing you won’t be disappointed):

Athletics hugely influenced me. While growing up, I was usually elected captain of the team in whatever sport I was playing. Eventually, I wanted to be captain of everything because that responsibility felt good to me.

For the most part, I picked my team. As a new leader, you must have people around who you can trust, so I have specific criteria for who will make it and who won’t.

I was a quarterback in high school. When there’s four minutes to go and you’re ahead by three touchdowns, everyone in the huddle is happy, confident, and supportive. But when you’re two touchdowns behind and you step into that huddle, you can look into your teammates’ eyes and see who you want on your team. They’re the ones looking back at you and saying, “We can do this and I will help you.” The others are already thinking about the excuses they’ll make in the locker room about why this didn’t work. You can’t win with those guys.

I have always answered my own email – hundreds a day – and get them all done before I go to bed each day. I refuse to give up on that. It lets people know I’m open, available, and engaged. I think it’s very important for me to stay in touch with my people. I’m like a blind dog in a meat house right now.

I knew I was going to be a bit of a shock to this place. I move fast and my expectations are high. My executive assistant (who came with me from Domino’s) has been very valuable in managing that. People would come to her in the first two weeks and say, “Does he really work that hard?” “Is his office always that clean?” “Does he expect our offices to look like that?” “Is that how he wants all of us to dress for work?” She became my ambassador of information. Yes, he works that hard. Yes, he expects your office to look professional. No, he doesn’t like blue jeans at work. She became this trusted figure that really eased the transition around here with a level of professionalism.

When we got here, the office itself was a mess. The Friday before I started, my wife, my assistant, and I came in after everybody left and worked all weekend. We ripped everything off the walls, painted, cleaned the carpet, emptied cupboards, put new art on the walls, wiped stains off the conference tables… When everyone walked in here on Monday, they couldn’t believe what they saw.

That was the smartest thing we ever did because people immediately understood there was a new sheriff in town and things would be different. It’s amazing how most people respond when you display an attitude like that.

And where will he go next?  I can think of one disruptive organization that seems to be generating very regular openings in its mismanagement class.  And it’s not as if Dave Brandon is unknown to the Biggest Show in Town:

On May 5, 2005, Brandon appeared on the third edition of Donald Trump‘s The Apprentice as part of the finale CEO interview panel.

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