Sunday, November 14, 2010

Electronic Arts: John Riccitiello's Reign of Pain

I usually like CEOs, but some of them rub me the wrong way. One CEO in particular–Electronic Arts’ CEO John Riccitiello–is particularly disappointing to me. Why? EA has the potential to be a great company, if not the coolest company in the Bay Area. In addition to making popular games, it has great employees, a nice enough Board of Directors (who are perhaps too nice), and a wonderful campus. Thus, it's not unreasonable to say that EA has underperformed when it comes to cachet and stature. Such under-performance might be forgiven if the company was rewarding shareholders financially, but that's not the case.

John Riccitiello has served as Electronic Arts' (ERTS) CEO since May 2007. On May 7, 2007, ERTS shares were selling for $50.07. Today, after three years of John Riccitiello's "magic," they sell for around $16.18--almost a 70% decline. In contrast, Activision Blizzard (ATVI) shares sold for $9.785 on May 7, 2007 and recently closed around $11.82/share--a 20% gain. Today, ATVI pays a dividend; ERTS does not. Recently, ATVI's popular game, Call of Duty, broke sales records.

At this year’s annual meeting, when asked to justify his salary in the wake of ERTS’s terrible stock performance, Riccitiello responded that EA’s executive team members had also suffered because the value of their options and shares had declined. According to Yahoo Finance, Riccitiello owns over 150,000 shares. If these shares are a fraction of his overall net worth, his financial position seems different from a middle class shareholder who uses his/her disposable income to invest in a company while hoping it won’t be run into the ground.

Even if Riccitiello has lost money as a result of EA's stock performance, he may have made up his stock losses elsewhere. Another website raised questions about possible ethical violations--see interview (2007):

VB: I never heard what you have said to those people who say there was too much conflict of interest for you on the BioWare/Pandemic deal, since EA was buying a company from your former firm and you made a lot of money on it. What is your answer?

JR: No comment. It’s not a conflict of interest.

Personally, I have no opinion or information about possible ethical violations relating to John Riccitiello. I just find it interesting that others have raised questions about possible self-dealing at EA. In any case, at the annual meeting, Riccitiello gave no real apology for EA’s poor stock performance and seemed to exhibit no remorse. He also had the audacity to say his company’s stock performance should not be compared against Activision or Chinese-based gaming companies, because EA was a different kind of company. (Yahoo Finance lists Activision as one of EA’s competitors.)

There have been rumors that Disney (DIS) might want to take over EA. I asked Riccitiello what he thought about Disney. He responded that his kids liked the park and then smirked, perhaps thinking my question was irrelevant. (I made my question deliberately vague to gauge his response.) His failure to immediately link Disney to a potential buyout makes me think Disney has not approached EA about a buyout.

After the meeting, I tried to approach Riccitiello to thank him for answering my questions, but a beefy, unsmiling man put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me, telling me in a stern voice that Riccitiello had someplace else to be. The beefy man turned out to be a security guard in civilian attire. (Before I could say anything, someone came up to him and must have told him to back off, because he immediately turned away.) Get this: Riccitiello or EA was so concerned about security at this year's meeting, they had several plainclothes security guards attend. Now, these weren't the guys most companies clearly post at the door or who are dressed in black, which usually identifies them as security personnel. These guys were trying to be incognito, emphasis on "trying."

Even though EA attempted to hide the presence of its plainclothes security guards, I was able to identify some of them before the meeting. First, the security people I identified never signed in. They just went to the shareholder table and picked up a name tag. No attempt was made to show shareholder papers or ownership. Second, they immediately demonstrated through their body language that they were very familiar with the employees manning the EA shareholder table. Third, some of the guards sat down at a table instead of walking around and acting like they didn't spend every single day at the company. Later, I wondered how concerned EA really was about Riccitiello's safety, because EA's inability to mask the identities of all their security personnel bordered on incompetence. If you're going to go through the trouble of passing off security personnel as shareholders, at least don't make it look so obvious. I don't expect James Bond, but I also don't expect Mr. Magoo.

I will say this: EA had the courtesy to play a video this year highlighting their various games, and they provided a complimentary game to shareholders who attended. Last year, EA didn't show its usually fantastic annual video, which basically sanitized its normally fun meeting. (Under the previous CEO, some executives demonstrated video games for shareholders. One year, an EA executive played a cool skateboarding videogame at the annual meeting.) After I complained to the Board of Directors that EA was missing out on an opportunity for free publicity, EA reinstated the video.

At the end of the day, I still don't understand how John Riccitiello continues to keep his job. What other CEO has been able to stay employed when a competitor's stock price goes up 20% while his own company's stock price declines by around 80%?

Disclosure: I own only one share of ERTS. I don't plan on buying any more shares as long as John Riccitiello has any substantial authority at Electronic Arts. It's possible that if EA doesn't get a new CEO and the stock continues to decline, the company might go private at some point.

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