The Insider - Heard On the Street
Regular followers (and if you aren't one, you should be) of our Fresh & Easy Buzz Twitter Feed are aware that for the last couple months we've been reporting there in real time on numerous interesting developments at Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market's corporate headquarters in El Segundo, California - near-daily closed-door meetings in the offices of the CEO and retail operations chief, and the increasing use of interns to staff various positions, for example.
These developments, and two big ones announced to employees at yesterday's weekly staff meeting, are all about Tesco's struggle to stop the financial bleeding at now five-year-old Fresh & Easy, and its attempt to make good on the promise made by CEO Philip Clarke that the United Kingdom-based retailer will break even with Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market by February 2014.
Clarke, a Tesco lifer (he started as a teenager stocking shelves) who became CEO of the global retailer in March 2011, said shortly after assuming the corner office from Terry Leahy that Tesco would break even with Fresh & Easy by February 2013. However, he added a year to his promise earlier this year, after Tesco reported a $249 million fiscal year loss at Fresh & Easy, which was a mere $4 million less than it lost on the grocery chain two years prior.
Yesterday Fresh & Easy issued pink slips to between 40-50 employees at its corporate headquarters in El Segundo. The firings are designed to help Tesco cut its way to break-even with what former CEO Terry Leahy hoped and insisted (he still says it will be a success) would be the global retailer's American dream - Fresh & Easy.
But in the five years since Tesco launched Fresh & Easy it has invested around $2.3 billion and lost about $1.5 billion on the fresh food and grocery chain. The losses continue to the tune of nearly $5 million a week.
Tesco's original plan was to have at least 500-600 Fresh & Easy stores operating by now, on the way to 1,000 units in six to seven years from the November 2007 launch. Five years on there are 199 Fresh & Easy stores in California, Nevada and Arizona.
The firings yesterday were across the board rather than focused primarily on the real estate department as Tesco and Fresh & Easy's public relations representatives told various publications who reported it that way. There is a focus on real estate and construction but employees let go span the departments, from IT and operations to commercial.
Reducing Hours at 33 Stores
In a second attempt at cost-cutting - and this is the first time it's being reported anywhere - Fresh & Easy plans to reduce the store hours at 33 stores beginning soon. At present plans call for opening those stores at 9 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., and closing the poor-performing grocery markets at 8 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. Currently the standard hours for all stores is 8 a.m. (a few units open at 7 a.m.) to 10 p.m.
As part of this move, there will be some store-level firings and reductions in worker-hours at the 33 Fresh & Easy stores. Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, which hires all its store-level non-management workers on a part-time basis, has already been reducing hours of store employees chain-wide as part of its cost-reduction program designed to help it stop the bleeding at the fledgling grocery chain.
I'm also told by sources in positions to know such things that Fresh & Easy plans to cut some store-level jobs in existing units (besides the 33 stores) that have workers who came on board from the nearly 30 Fresh & Easy units that have been closed over the last couple years. Fresh & Easy absorbed these employees from the closed stores, which added to its labor costs.
An additional move - what I call tinkering around the edges in terms of cost-cutting - Fresh & Easy also plans to eliminate the "Kitchen Table" food sampling stations in the few stores where they remain. (The grocery chain started a program to eliminate these stations in 2011 and replace them with mobile carts but still has some stores with the fixed food sampling kiosks.) The "Kitchen Table" fixed-kiosks are staffed full-time by an employee, hence their elimination in stores where they remain.
The headquarters firings have been a long time coming. Why? Not because the workers didn't do their jobs but because, as we've been saying regularly for years in the blog, the Fresh & Easy model and business just doesn't, in its present incarnation and management, have the legs to achieve break-even in any other way but by making massive operational expense cuts -- and that's what Tesco has essentially concluded. Fresh & Easy has also from the beginning been overloaded with senior and middle management for a chain its size.
Meanwhile, moral at Fresh & Easy's corporate office in El Segundo is lower than it's ever been, according to numerous employees who work there, despite whatever spin its CEO and public relations staff may put on it. I know of numerous employees there looking for new jobs. Some have even created a saying, "The interns are taking over," reflecting Fresh & Easy's growing use of the college students and recent graduates throughout the headquarters operation.
Moral is down at store-level as well. For example, I know of a group of top managers who, frustrated by Fresh & Easy senior managements inability to improve the chain's performance, have been meeting to talk about whether or not they have a future at the grocery chain.
Here's what one store manager told me today, in fact: "Having talked to many store managers today, the feelings are not good. Most of the talk is around what we should do. Stick it out or get out now? The consensus was it's time to start seriously looking. A few people are hoping to be bought by someone else."
The firings at corporate headquarters and other changes detailed in my piece are just the beginning at Tesco's Fresh & Easy. More cost-cutting is coming, as are other changes.
The cost-cutting is all about Tesco being able to show some progress in terms of reporting less of a loss (than last half year) for the upcoming fiscal half year. If it achieves that, Tesco can tell the many investment firm analysts who follow it, who will then report it to their investor-clients, that progress is being made. CEO Clarke needs this because it's crunch time - he can't remain credible if he were to change the break-even date for Fresh & Easy once again, say to February 2015 instead of February 2014, for example.
But CEO's are supposed to be big picture, policy guys - that vision thing, as former U.S. President George H.W. Bush liked to call it - not bean counters. Therefore, Philip Clarke should be asking himself one central question, which is: 'What is my vision for Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market in America and how can Tesco achieve it?' But what, in my opinion, Clarke is probably asking himself is this: 'Can I get Fresh & Easy to break-even by February 2014, as I've publicly said I would, and then find a buyer for it?'
[Editor's Note: Fresh & Easy Buzz is an independent Blog, and is not affiliated with Tesco, Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, or any of its competitors. No member of the Fresh & Easy Buzz editorial team has ever or currently works for Tesco or its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain.]