FedEx Jolts Wall Street With Surprise Exit of CEO's Deputy

(Bloomberg) -- FedEx Corp. threw Wall Street for a loop, announcing the resignation of Fred Smith’s top deputy just weeks after he joined the company’s board.

Raj Subramaniam will take over as president and chief operating officer March 1, replacing David Bronczek, the shipping giant said in a statement Thursday. Bronczek, 64, made a “personal decision’’ to retire, the company said. He had been with FedEx since 1976, serving in several key executive roles.

The sudden departure -- and a subdued sendoff from Smith -- immediately made waves on Wall Street. Bronczek had just been named to the board Jan. 28, a month after Subramaniam, 52, was promoted to lead FedEx Express, the company’s largest business unit. The latest change vaults Subramaniam to the front of the line as heir apparent to Smith, 74, as FedEx contends with a slowdown in international markets and a lagging stock price.

“Something must have surfaced in the last two weeks to bring about this change. There’s no other way it could happen,” said Satish Jindel, founder of SJ Consulting Group. “It just doesn’t seem normal. You don’t appoint someone to the board and then in two weeks you say he’s retiring.”

The company declined to elaborate on the reasons for Bronczek’s departure.

The shares fell 3.1 percent to $178.14 at 1:22 p.m. Friday in New York. FedEx fell 24 percent over the 12 months through Thursday, compared with a 4.9 percent gain for rival United Parcel Service Inc.

Management Changes

“We recognize Dave for his years of service to FedEx. FedEx has a deep bench of talent, and I am confident that the transition will be seamless,” Smith said in the statement. “Raj has significant experience in many areas of our portfolio, which will be vital as he steps into this position.’’

Bronczek’s decision to retire didn’t involve any disagreement with FedEx on any matter relating to operations, policies or practices, the company said in a regulatory filing. He will leave Feb. 28 under a deal that includes a five-year agreement not to work for UPS, Amazon.com Inc., the U.S. Postal Service or Deutsche Post AG’s DHL unit. FedEx will pay Bronczek $2.5 million in cash by the end of March.

He also is stepping down from the board of International Paper Co., which said that his decision wasn’t related to a disagreement with the company.

Another FedEx veteran, David Cunningham, exited in December. Shortly after he resigned, the company startled analysts by cutting its outlook and announcing an employee buyout program. FedEx also said it would lower spending plans as it scaled back overseas to match softening demand.

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says

“Increasing concern about FedEx’s integration of TNT, management departures and greater competition from Amazon.com is fundamentally unjustified, as we see it. Any read-through concerns from XPO’s large customer loss (we think it’s Amazon) are misplaced, and the new COO should be next in-line to be an effective CEO.”
-- Lee Klaskow, global transportation analyst
Click here to read the research.

That weakness was linked to difficulties in Europe and with the integration of TNT Express, a Dutch courier that FedEx acquired in 2016 for $4.8 billion. Both Bronczek and Cunningham were involved in meshing the operations, an effort that was disrupted by a cyberattack at TNT that spurred customers to leave.

“My sense is the integration is not going well,” said Kevin Sterling, a Seaport Global Holdings analyst. Europe has generally been weak for shipping companies recently, he said. “I think it’s been harder than they would have bargained for.”

Two major executive shakeups in just a few months is unusual for FedEx, said Loop Capital analyst Rick Paterson. FedEx has a reputation of steady management under Smith, with executives accumulating decades of experience as they ascend the ranks.

“We’ve had some announcements come quickly, more than what we would expect from FedEx in the past,” Paterson said. “But when you look at them in isolation, they were logical.”

Trip Miller, a managing partner at FedEx investor Gullane Capital Partners, said he’d like the company to elaborate on what’s behind the latest changes.

“It does make me scratch my head a little bit and go, ‘Two key leaders leave in a roughly three-month period. What’s going on?”’ Miller said.

Bulging Portfolio

Subramaniam had a quarter-century of experience at FedEx when he was promoted in December to lead the Express air-cargo unit. He previously served as chief marketing and communications officer and held several positions in marketing.

While he has participated in conference calls with analysts since 2017, he isn’t as well known as other FedEx executives. And Subramaniam will have a full plate with the latest promotion. He will continue to serve as president and CEO of FedEx Express and share those titles at FedEx Services.

Despite developing a strong reputation in the company and gaining Smith’s confidence, that bulging portfolio might be too much for someone who hasn’t yet run a large operating unit, said consultant Jindel.

“He was going to become head of FedEx Express, a global operation, and he got that just at the end of December. And within six weeks, he’s head of that and head of all FedEx Corp.,” Jindel said. “It’s just not enough time for him to absorb. It just shows it was not planned.” It is likely that FedEx will name someone this year to take over the Express unit, he said.

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