Martha Stewart Beats Herself Up

The only thing keeping Martha in the doghouse these days is Martha.

I don't have a problem with Martha Stewart. In fact, I think her insider trading scandal was the government trying to make a statement -- and doing so the totally wrong way. But, Martha, you're getting in the way of your own company. Yes, you are the brand, but there is a difference between Martha the person and Martha the brand. It's time for human Martha Stewart to take the long hike and let Martha the brand redecorate a dying business.

Oh, dear
Poor (but rich) Martha Stewart. All she ever wanted to do was show people how a simple arrangement of winter flora can really spruce up your powder room. And you know what? She was good at it. Martha Stewart went from writing for Time magazine to bringing her own company public with television shows, magazines, brand licensing, and more. But then, as we all know, she was thrown in Club Fed for a while after her trading scandal.

In that time, Martha Stewart Omnimedia (NYSE: MSO  ) had a phenomenal run with the Martha Stewart brand. Revenues were up and the business looked to stabilize with Martha incarcerated. Well, then she got out of jail, and the company has since sank from a multibillion-dollar market cap to around $200 million today. The stock price went from a high of nearly $33 per share in 2005 to $3. What happened? Martha got in her own way.

Martha owns 41% of Martha, but controls 87% of the voting power. That's never a good sign (cough, Mark Zuckerberg, cough). In the lean times of the Great Recession, she insisted on keeping costs high while sales were plummeting. The result is a company that tried to sell itself last year with the help of Blackstone. The sale never went through, and the company still limps on.

Martha vs. Martha
The thing is, this is fundamentally a great business. Regardless of her financial woes and the possibility that she's an alien sent here to proclaim the joys of pastels, Martha's brand remains largely untarnished. Her Kmart line, Martha Stewart Essentials, was tremendously successful and garnered a reputation for affordable quality. The company also has licensing arrangements with PetSmart (NYSE: PETM  ) , Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) , and J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP  ) . MSO's association with PetSmart is the one I am most excited about, as PetSmart has proved itself the top dog (oh, brother) of selling high-margin items to people and their pets. Stewart's Home Depot products are well positioned, too, as familiar brand names appeal to do-it-yourselfers looking to repaint the den.

These are beautiful businesses that could thrive if run by the right people -- with Martha safely secured in her 35,000-square-foot mansion in Maine.

Ms. Stewart seems to have a reputation for ousting management when the numbers don't look good, but really it's her stubbornness that keeps the company from being profitable. The weakest business line is the magazine, which is suffering from the epidemic affecting all print publishers. But other than that, Martha Stewart Omnimedia has a business -- if anyone feels like doing something with it.

Only one Martha can survive
I would like to say the business is at a turning point, and good things are on the way for Martha (the brand). But, Martha (the person/ambassador for pastel) recently signed a five-year contract with her company to stay on board and keep tying shoelaces together around the office -- tripping up operations and tripping up shareholders.

In a recent Wall Street Journal Interview, Martha said, "I'm not dying yet." No one wants you to die, Martha. You're like a meaner, scarier Rachael Ray, and we love you. You should continue to blog about your obese donkey. Just stay out of your business and collect the checks. It's the best for you, and it's the best for us.

Martha may not be stepping down any time soon, but when she does, she will retire as one of the wealthiest women around. You too, can retire rich, though you may want to steer clear of MSO if you intend to do so. For some direction on stocks to help you get to those golden years with gold in your pocket, read this free report on retiring rich.

Fool contributor Michael Lewis owns none of the stocks mentioned above. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeyLewy. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of PetSmart and Home Depot. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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