It happens to every company sooner or later: Wall Street sets a mark for quarterly earnings, and the company misses that goal. Sometimes an earnings stumble is a signal to sell, but digging in the dirt is also a good way to find turnaround candidates while they're getting beaten down. Today, we'll meets consultants in need of advice, the good kind of drug lords on the bad side of town, and a fallen Motown star that needs to get its groove back.

Two countries short of a BRIC move
The first miscreant in today's lineup is worldwide consulting specialist and enterprise-systems builder Unisys (NYSE:UIS). These are tough times for Unisys, and the results reflect it. Revenues dropped 2% year over year to $1.41 billion, and net earnings per diluted share came in at a $0.57 loss. That's much worse than last year's loss of $0.08 net per share or the $0.07-per-share loss expected by Wall Street.

The company is cutting thousands of jobs in Europe and North America while beefing up its presence in Eastern Europe, India, and China in an effort to control costs. Meanwhile, management has to contend with shrinking revenues, the costs associated with the layoffs, and a very tough consulting marketplace that includes hardy competition such as Electronic Data Systems (NYSE:EDS) and a rejuvenated IBM (NYSE:IBM). And management has the temerity to call this a "mixed quarter."

Unisys claims to be taking earnings hits now for the sake of future results. I generally appreciate that sort of attitude, but the claim rings a bit hollow this time. It's true that operations will be cheaper with more personnel based in cheap labor markets like India and Bulgaria, but will the company's customers be happy with the quality of service? I fear that Unisys may be in a downward spiral here if the urge to cut costs ultimately leads to unsatisfied customers and then a mass exodus. Tread lightly, Unisys.

One sleeping pill too many?
Moving right along, there's pharmaceutical powerhouse Novartis (NYSE:NVS) with a bit of egg on its face. The Swiss drug maker reported an 18% sales boost and 4% higher GAAP earnings year over year, but the analyst community wanted more. $0.73 of net earnings per share (or ADR -- Novartis trades one share per depositary receipt) didn't quite meet the $0.79-per share expectation, though the sales number was fine. No American analysts are trying to predict sales figures for this company.

Management points to integration costs related to the acquisition of vaccine maker Chiron during the quarter, though this was considerably offset by strong sales in the U.S. The new Medicare drug program allowed sales in this market to jump up by 20%.

Novartis has a strong drug portfolio and a promising pipeline, not to mention its habit of gathering new drugs through acquisition. It's poised to open a new plant in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, where it will employ about 350 people and make a promising new form of flu vaccine. And the company still has a cash hoard of more than $7 billion if it wants to keep its spending spree going for a while longer. It seems to me that the earnings miss was a temporary one, and the market seems to agree with me. The valuation seems appropriate for now, and Novartis looks like a solid but unspectacular stock.

O, how the mighty have fallen
That brings us to Ford (NYSE:F), the last underperformer on our list this week. It's a company that needs no introduction, and its current troubles are nearly as well-known. Along with fellow Detroit carmaker General Motors (NYSE:GM), Ford has seen Japanese manufacturers cut into its once-dominant market share, while union pressure and troubled parts manufacturers have done nothing to improve the situation.

This quarter, Ford reported a net loss of $0.07 per share, while analysts expected a modest $0.12-per-share profit on average. Even that would have been significantly below the $0.47 gain of last year's comparable quarter. If there's a silver lining to this cloud, it has to be the gross revenue number of $42 billion, 6% above analyst expectations of $39.6 billion.

The company announced a turnaround plan in January, but is now saying that the plan needs to be accelerated. Driven by skyrocketing gas prices, consumers are abandoning Ford's bread-and-butter trucks and SUVs by the thousands, and flocking to more frugal sedans and hybrid vehicles. Alas, Ford isn't particularly strong in those segments. The shift has been a long time coming, but Ford management says that the speed of that movement has caught the company off guard.

Apparently, shedding about 10,000 workers and cutting production capacity by 15% by the end of 2006 isn't quite enough. Part of the problem lies in the difficulty of adjusting to new expectations at the drop of a hat, since it can take years to develop a new car model -- especially a good one that can meet consumer needs. It looks like Ford has been asleep at the wheel for years, and it's only now waking up to find itself uncomfortably close to the edge of the cliff.

When CEO Bill Ford talks about cutting faster and deeper, perhaps he's thinking about job cuts. Perhaps he's considering full-on bankruptcy and the restructuring that follows. It's a process endured by many a formerly great company that couldn't carry the weight of legacy union contracts and unmanageable debt loads -- United Airlines (NASDAQ:UAUA), for example. However, the Ford family seems reluctant to take such drastic steps, and it's also talking down any chance of further alliances with foreign automakers. Simply stripping down Ford's production may bring margins and earnings back on track, but at the cost of massive market share and revenue losses. And so it goes.

It's not every week I get to pick on three well-respected companies trading on the NYSE, but there you go. Some of these underperformers are victims of larger circumstances, while others might have only themselves to blame. It's up to you to decide which down-on-their-luck companies should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and which really are stuck in the mud. Come back next Monday, and we'll take a look at another batch of mishaps and disappointments. It'll be fun and educational. I promise.

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns 0.4 shares in GM but holds no other position in the companies discussed this week. He thinks anthropomorphizing companies and other theoretical constructs may be the next Sudoku craze. The Fool has a disclosure policy, and you can see his current holdings for yourself.