Good news: Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) CEO Reed Hastings is starting to rank high on many year-end lists lately.
Bad news: We're talking about Worst CEO of 2011 lists.
Our own Sean Williams pegs Hastings as the third most horrendous corporate helmsman this year. The only people who beat out Netflix's CEO are MF Global's Jon "I simply do not know where the money is" Corzine and KV Pharmaceutical's (NYSE: KV-A ) Greg Divis.
If you think that Netflix charging $7.99 a month for a streaming service that it used to include at no additional cost to unlimited DVD subscribers this summer was greedy, Divis priced an FDA-approved pre-term-birth drug at $1,500 a treatment, when the previous option was priced closer to $20 per dose.
Appearing in a Daily Ticker segment yesterday, Hastings topped the list of Dartmouth professor Syd Finkelstein. The other two companies whose leaders round out Finkelstein's naughty list are Hewlett-Packard's (NYSE: HPQ ) short-lived CEO Leo Apotheker and the co-CEOs running Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) .
Hastings also topped a poll by TheStreet.com earlier this month for the Worst Tech CEO honors, though I'm not sure if the sample size of 200 voters can be deemed all that scientific.
You're going to see more of these lists creep up in the coming days. Hastings is going to be a staple.
You used to love Hastings
Everyone points to Hastings' decision to begin charging for streams as his biggest mistake, effectively introducing a rate hike of as much as 60% to some dual-plan subscribers. However, analysts and investors initially cheered the July 12 announcement. The stock actually went on to hit a new all-time high of $304.79 the very next day. If Hastings is a bad CEO because of that call, then we may as well anchor him to Mr. Market.
I can proudly say that I was one of the few cautionary voices during that week's euphoria, just as now I find myself one of the few coming to Hastings' defense.
There are certainly plenty of things that Hastings has done wrong this year. The Qwikster decision was laughable, but at least he had the humility and gumption to reverse that call a few weeks later, before its official launch.
Last month's move to line up financing by selling $400 million in convertible notes and stock at battered prices is a crying shame in light of share repurchases completed earlier this year at dramatically higher prices. Of course! However, let's revisit the market's initial reaction to the "rate hike" in July. No one could fathom things getting this ugly this quickly.
When bad CEOs go good
Don't get me wrong. I think Hastings did some pretty stupid things. I think he's not doing himself any favors by avoiding obvious catalysts:
- Where are the video game rentals that were supposed to be a part of Qwikster? Gamefly, Coinstar's (Nasdaq: CSTR ) Redbox, and DISH Network's (Nasdaq: DISH ) Blockbuster are all over this. Netflix has the regional distribution centers. It streams on all three gaming consoles. Come on! Keep existing DVD customers close and win over a new audience by appealing to this big market.
- Play nice with the movie studios by offering pay-per-stream rentals of first-run films. Blockbuster does this, and it would eliminate the shortcomings of the unlimited streaming catalog that will always be lacking when it comes to fresh content. More important, it will revise projections of average revenue per user higher.
- Consider streaming discounts for the larger unlimited DVD plans. Every company with more than one service loves to push the bundling value proposition, and this would get members to consider upgrading to larger plans instead of scaling back the way most of us -- me included -- did in response.
It's still not too late, Hastings. This isn't RIM, where there's little it can do to stop the gradual fade of BlackBerry users. This isn't a biotech, where the only feasible pricing strategy is outrageous. Netflix can bounce back in 2012.
In fact, depending on how far back you go, Netflix hasn't been a loser to long-term investors. Those who bought in at the beginning of last year are sitting on a 31% gain. Those who bought at the start of 2009 are riding a market-thumping 158% return.
If we're tagging Hastings as the worst CEO because of the stock's fall since its summertime peak, then we may as well also name him best CEO for the 74% gain it was showing year to date at its peak. Think about that. Everyone's coming down on him because of the ridiculous levels of capital appreciation that came before the tumble.
He's bad to shareholders only because he was so good to investors.
All we are saying is give Reed a chance.
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