Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On the rack at Steak n Shake

Back in feudal times, kings merely boiled alive the serfs who failed to deliver all the wheat that was demanded of them. Today we have the far more gruesome ritual of the quarterly conference call. Expensive suits clearly fail to protect public-company officials from being grilled by disgruntled portfolio managers. And seldom has the sizzle been louder than it was during the recent confab between analysts and the executives of Steak n Shake. When the company’s co-founder dials in to deliver her can of whup ass, you know it’s going to be a tough Q&A session for the folks from headquarters.

Not that they were snapping on the “Applause” sign for the company’s performance. “Unacceptable,” spat acting president Jeffrey Blade. “We remain dissatisfied.” That “we” presumably refers to the whole executive team, though Blade might have been speaking only for himself. In addition to holding the job of interim president, he’s also serving as chief financial officer, chief administrative officer and executive vice president. And, of course, spokesman during conference calls.

At least he’s not responsible for finding a permanent CEO. That task is being shouldered by the interim holder of the title, who’s also filling in as chairman. Here, in full, is an update on the search from that point person, Wayne L. Kelley: “Since beginning the search process back in February, we have seen several well-qualified and enthusiastic candidates and we remain optimistic that this process of obtaining our new CEO will be concluded in the near future.” The decision to hire a new CEO was made in August, by the way. The sort of search that Kelley detailed apparently takes a few months to get rolling.

That wasn’t okay with one of the callers. Sue Aramian is little known outside of Steak n Shake, but she should be hailed as an industry pioneer, along the lines of Jackie Trujillo or Gretchen Mathers. Long before there was a Women’s Foodservice Forum, she was blazing a trail that led to what may well be the first vice-chairmanship in the industry to held by a woman. Aramian quietly oversaw a company called Consolidated Products, known today as The Steak n Shake Co.

“My name is Sue Armanian,” she said during the Q&A portion of the call. “I have been asked many, many times to comment upon the company that I co-founded with E.W. Kelley in 1981. I have refused every request until this statement that I am making to you.”

According to a transcript provided by Seeking Alpha, the online financial-information clearing house, Aramian proceeded to take Blade and another Kelley to task. She cited a “vacuum of leadership” and the “intolerable manner” in which shareholders’ values have dropped.

“You have operated with the same team doing the same thing get the same results,” she asserted, describing the status quo as “undesired.”

Noting that employees have voiced similar concerns to her, she told the officials, “it all stems from lack of good leadership and an understanding and appreciation of the basic concept.”

Blade’s response, quoted here in full: “I don’t believe there was a question in that, so we’ll go on to the next question.”

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