At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a lot of people were palpitating about the decline in stock prices since the start of 2016, the precipitous drop in oil prices, the slowdown in China, war in the Middle East – even the prospects of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in the White House. The stock market tends to overreact to perturbations like these, just as it did to Greek concerns in 2014 and 2015.
For the two dozen CEOs I talked to at Davos, it is "full speed ahead." Not that they aren't concerned about these geopolitical factors. Rather, they have already anticipated this kind of volatility and designed their corporate strategies to adapt rapidly to changing global conditions.
No doubt the slowdown in the global economy is a significant factor, but it certainly does not impact everyone equally. Rather, in Warren Buffett's infamous words, "When the tide goes out, you find out who is swimming naked." In my view, times like these separate the well-run companies from the short-term players that are caught unprepared.
Let's look at contrasts in several industries between companies with the best leaders who have long-term strategies and those who choose to react to short-term events. Here are some of the winners where investors might place long-term bets:
Unilever vs. Procter & Gamble: Since becoming CEO in early 2009, Unilever's Paul Polman has built a diversified strategy to pursue the world's markets with vigor. He's rapidly adapting to changing conditions using the banner of "sustainability," which he sees as Unilever's growth engine in spite of troubled markets. Meanwhile, archrival P&G struggles without a clear strategy. It seems focused mostly on paring back by selling off brands as new CEO David Taylor takes over. In 2015, P&G's stock dropped 15 percent, while Unilever's was up 4 percent.
PepsiCo vs. Coca-Cola: PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi put her strategy in place even earlier than Polman. Soon after being named CEO in late 2006, she declared PepsiCo's strategy of "Performance with Purpose" to focus on healthy foods and beverages. By 2020, PepsiCo plans to reach $30 billion in nutritional product sales, up from $10 billion in 2010. Pepsi's archrival, Coca-Cola, led by CEO Muhtar Kent, elected to double down on sugar-based Coke. Initially, Coke appeared to be winning, but in the last four years, PepsiCo has steadily pulled ahead. Meanwhile, Kent has painted Coke into a strategic corner, appealing to a declining demographic as millennials eschew sugar-based drinks.
Exxon vs. British Petroleum: What will happen to oil companies as oil prices drop from over $100 to under $30 a barrel? Having served on Exxon's board for a decade, I saw first-hand how veteran CEO Rex Tillerson prepares the company for major downturns. Exxon keeps its balance sheet flexible, which gives it the capacity to take advantage of financial stress. Meanwhile, BP's balance sheet never recovered from the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico, and it lacks the cash to take advantage of current investment opportunities.
Delta vs. United Airlines: On the opposite side of the oil price decline, Delta is benefiting from lower fuel costs. It is using savings to invest in the higher-revenue business traveler and to reward its high-frequency travelers. CEO Richard Anderson has figured out the basics of appealing simultaneously to both the value-conscious traveler and the business market while achieving superior operational efficiency and high load factors. Meanwhile, United continues to struggle with both service and efficiency. Since 2012, it has ranked near the bottom in delays, cancellations, and mishandled bags. With newly appointed CEO Oscar Munoz recovering from a heart transplant, United may not be in a position to make necessary changes.
Starbucks vs. McDonalds: The growth that Starbucks has enjoyed since founder Howard Schultz returned as CEO in 2009 is nothing short of phenomenal. Meanwhile at McDonalds, new CEO Steve Easterbrook has made much needed changes and the stock market has hailed his initiatives. Nevertheless, it will be very difficult for McDonalds to return to sustained growth as it is trapped with a declining demographic. McDonald's has yet to shake its reputation of serving unhealthy, highly modified foods, which is limiting its appeal to health-conscious consumers.
Target vs. Wal-Mart: Target's new CEO Brian Cornell has moved rapidly to appeal to the younger generation. Cornell has focused on mothers, babies, families and wellness with an omni-channel strategy that is paying off in rising same-store sales. Wal-Mart is trapped with an old demographic and has yet to attract large numbers of millennials. It has too much space as many consumers shift to online purchases. If anyone can turn around giant Wal-Mart, it is new CEO Doug McMillon, a highly progressive leader who is making all the right moves and deserves a long runway to complete the turnaround.
Medtronic vs. Pfizer: Under CEO Omar Ishrak, Medtronic is on a roll. It has successfully integrated its $50 billion merger with Covidien, and its innovation pipeline is paying off in higher growth. Recently, Medtronic announced an additional $1.5 billion in high tech acquisitions. Recently, Pfizer purchased Allergan for $160 billion – more than five times Allergan's revenues. Unlike Medtronic, Pfizer is financially strained and its pipeline is paltry. Allergan won't help much in that regard as it too has a limited pipeline. Expect Pfizer CEO Ian Reed to reach the limits of financial engineering soon after he realizes the cost savings from consolidation of Allergan.
While I don't expect these sharp comparisons necessarily to manifest themselves in the near-term stock performance, they will become evident over the next 3-5 years. In a challenging market, investors will be well advised to be highly selective in their investments and focus on the quality of leadership. It is in difficult times that leadership makes the largest difference and becomes evident. The winners above have leaders who have proven their capacity to take advantage of the current challenges and come out on top.
Commentary by Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and the former Chairman and CEO of Medtronic and previously served on the board of Novartis. He is author of the book "Discover Your True North" (Wiley: August 17). Follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.
Disclosure: Bill George holds stock in Exxon and Medtronic, but none of the other companies listed above.
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This article was originally posted to CNBC.com on 1/25/16