Sunday, July 17, 2005

Costco: The Anti-Wal-Mart and the Anti-Wall Street

Steven Greenhouse, the NY Times' labor reporter, seems to be touching on all of the hot labor issues lately. Last week the plight of janitors, yesterday the OSHA impersonators in North Carolina and today, Costco: The Anti-Wal-Mart. Maybe some other newspapers should take note that people might actually want to read about real life in this country, rather than Michael Jackson or the latest missing blond.

So, Wal-Mart (and its budget division, Sam's Club), with its low wages and lousy benefits are the wave of the future, huh? The only way to keep prices low enough for what the customers demand is to pay workers as little as possible? Not necessarily. Turns out that Costco and its CEO, Jim Sinegal, have found a way to treat its employees well and keep prices low, much to Wall Street's dismay. Greenhouse writes that not everone is happy with Costco's business strategy.
Some Wall Street analysts assert that Mr. Sinegal is overly generous not only to Costco's customers but to its workers as well.

Costco's average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam's Club. And Costco's health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco "it's better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder."

Mr. Sinegal begs to differ. He rejects Wall Street's assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street's profit demands.

Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, he said. And Costco's customers, who are more affluent than other warehouse store shoppers, stay loyal because they like that low prices do not come at the workers' expense. "This is not altruistic," he said. "This is good business."
Turns out Wall St. doesn't always know best:

Mr. Sinegal, whose father was a coal miner and steelworker, gave a simple explanation. "On Wall Street, they're in the business of making money between now and next Thursday," he said. "I don't say that with any bitterness, but we can't take that view. We want to build a company that will still be here 50 and 60 years from now."

If shareholders mind Mr. Sinegal's philosophy, it is not obvious: Costco's stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart's has slipped 5 percent. Costco shares sell for almost 23 times expected earnings; at Wal-Mart the multiple is about 19. Mr. Dreher said Costco's share price was so high because so many people love the company. "It's a cult stock," he said.

Emme Kozloff, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, faulted Mr. Sinegal as being too generous to employees, noting that when analysts complained that Costco's workers were paying just 4 percent toward their health costs, he raised that percentage only to 8 percent, when the retail average is 25 percent.

"He has been too benevolent," she said. "He's right that a happy employee is a productive long-term employee, but he could force employees to pick up a little more of the burden."

Mr. Sinegal says he pays attention to analysts' advice because it enforces a healthy discipline, but he has largely shunned Wall Street pressure to be less generous to his workers.

And how'd Sinegal graduate from CEO school?

Despite Costco's impressive record, Mr. Sinegal's salary is just $350,000, although he also received a $200,000 bonus last year. That puts him at less than 10 percent of many other chief executives, though Costco ranks 29th in revenue among all American companies.

"I've been very well rewarded," said Mr. Sinegal, who is worth more than $150 million thanks to his Costco stock holdings. "I just think that if you're going to try to run an organization that's very cost-conscious, then you can't have those disparities. Having an individual who is making 100 or 200 or 300 times more than the average person working on the floor is wrong."
And this is really crazy:

This knack for seeing things in a new way also explains Costco's approach to retaining employees as well as shoppers. Besides paying considerably more than competitors, for example, Costco contributes generously to its workers' 401(k) plans, starting with 3 percent of salary the second year and rising to 9 percent after 25 years.

ITS insurance plans absorb most dental expenses, and part-time workers are eligible for health insurance after just six months on the job, compared with two years at Wal-Mart. Eighty-five percent of Costco's workers have health insurance, compared with less than half at Wal-Mart and Target.

Costco also has not shut out unions, as some of its rivals have. The Teamsters union, for example, represents 14,000 of Costco's 113,000 employees. "They gave us the best agreement of any retailer in the country," said Rome Aloise, the union's chief negotiator with Costco. The contract guarantees employees at least 25 hours of work a week, he said, and requires that at least half of a store's workers be full time.

Workers seem enthusiastic. Beth Wagner, 36, used to manage a Rite Aid drugstore, where she made $24,000 a year and paid nearly $4,000 a year for health coverage. She quit five years ago to work at Costco, taking a cut in pay. She started at $10.50 an hour - $22,000 a year - but now makes $18 an hour as a receiving clerk. With annual bonuses, her income is about $40,000.

"I want to retire here," she said. "I love it here."

"Overly generous to workers," "too benevolent," high salaries, generous 401(k) and health benefits, low CEO pay? They ought to drum this guy out of the CEO club.

More on the Wal-Mart - Costco difference here.