Investors seem to be taking in stride the news that Best Buy’s board is investigating allegations that CEO Corie Barry may have had an inappropriate relationship with a former colleague.
While the company’s shares dipped slightly after the inquiry came to light late last week, they rebounded earlier this week and continue to trade near record highs. That the stock has remained fairly steady is a testament to the strength of Best Buy’s business following an impressive turnaround as well as the many unknowns still circulating around the allegations.
The board has selected an outside law firm to conduct a review after an anonymous letter it received last month accused Barry of having an affair with a colleague who left the company last year. The claim has not yet been substantiated and, if true, it’s not yet clear if any company policies were broken.
Whenever there is leadership uncertainty, it usually weighs down the stock, said R.J. Hottovy, an analyst with Morningstar.
“But I think this is a case where we have to wait and see until the board’s investigation is complete,” he said.
Best Buy has not commented beyond its initial statement saying that it takes allegations of misconduct seriously. Barry has said in a statement that the board has her “full cooperation and support” in the inquiry and she looks forward to it being resolved soon.
It doesn’t hurt that the company is facing the inquiry when it is on solid financial footing, with 11 consecutive quarters of consecutive sales growth.
The context was much different eight years ago, when then-Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn abruptly resigned over a relationship with a female employee that violated company policy. Best Buy’s founder and then-board chairman Richard Schulze also stepped down when it was revealed he had been aware of the allegations but did not report them to the board.
The current investigation is not expected to be as dramatic or as disruptive, Evercore ISI analyst Greg Melich said in a research note earlier this week.
In the earlier situation, in addition to the leadership turmoil, Best Buy’s sales had been deteriorating and people were questioning the electronic chain’s strategic direction, he said. Some even predicted the company would succumb to Amazon.
By comparison, today’s “fundamentals and strategy have been strong” at Best Buy, and Barry is cooperating with the board’s review, he said.
But if the probe did result in a leadership change, Melich said other seasoned executives such as Best Buy President Mike Mohan could step up. He also noted that former CEO Hubert Joly, who spearheaded Best Buy’s turnaround and handed over the reins to Barry last year, is still chairman of the board.
Still, Morningstar’s Hottovy noted that Barry has also played a key role in Best Buy’s resurgence and is an architect of its current strategic initiatives the company laid out at an investors’ meeting in September.
“The future of the company without her is something investors would be concerned by,” he said.
There are other significant differences between the current situation and the Dunn case, the latter of which had a “good old boy cloud” around it, said Carol Spieckerman, a retail consultant.
Dunn “became emblematic of a culture of sexism and sort of this perception that men were allowed to run wild in the company,” she said.
In the years since that scandal, many women have taken on prominent roles in Best Buy’s C-suite. Barry quickly moved up through the ranks to become one of the few female CEOs to lead a major retailer and one of 24 female CEOs in the Fortune 500. Women also now make up more than half of Best Buy’s board of directors.
In addition, the colleague Barry is accused of having an affair with was at one point her boss and it allegedly started out earlier in her career, according to the anonymous letter.
“This [allegedly] happened before she ascended to the top slot — that’s another mitigating factor,” Spieckerman said. “So you can’t call it an abuse of power.”
Spieckerman said she is glad that Barry did not proactively resign.
“I don’t think it’s a situation where she needs to fall on the sword,” she said. “It’s appropriate for the company to look at all of the facts and then to make a corporate decision. At the end of the day, any decision has to be made about any violation of corporate policy.”
Neil Saunders, with GlobalData Retail, said this seems to be more of a personal issue. If the investigation clears her, it should blow over, he said.
But if she does have to step down, it shouldn’t be too disruptive to the business over the long term, he said. “Best Buy is bigger than one person.”
Best Buy is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter earnings on Feb. 27. It has forecast sales to rise between 0.5% to 3%.
While the company hasn’t laid out a timeline for the review, analysts said the company likely will want to have this issue wrapped up by then.
“I think they’ll be very keen to get it resolved,” Saunders said. “They don’t want questions about this coming up on the call [with analysts]. They’ll want to get back to the business of running Best Buy.”
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113