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The Real-World Model for Turnaround Stocks

The Detroit Lions may not be a model NFL team, but their recent success makes them an apt exemplar for turnaround candidates.

A Turnaround Street Sign

We do not typically cover football here at Cabot, but given the unexpected defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs at the hands of the lowly Detroit Lions to christen the new NFL season, we thought it appropriate.

After all, what better example of the ability of new leadership to turn around a struggling organization is there than a team that has been largely relegated to laughing-stock status beating a perennial Super Bowl contender?

The Chiefs were the reigning Super Bowl Champions (unveiling their massive victory banner just before gametime), have played in three of the last four Super Bowls (winning two), and are led by one of the best quarterbacks in the game’s history (Patrick Mahomes). Their record over the past four years: 52 wins, 14 losses, for a nearly 80% win rate.

The Lions, on the other hand, have never played in a Super Bowl. This, despite the 10-season boost by Barry Sanders (1989-1998), perhaps the greatest running back in the history of the game, and being previously led by exceptional quarterback Matt Stafford who departed in 2021 to lead the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl victory that season. The Detroit Lions’ record over the past four years: a sad 20-44-2, which includes the miserable 3-13 season in 2021.

What turned around the Lions’ pathetic fortunes? New leadership. A bit of history helps tell the story: William Clay Ford, Sr., grandson of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford, took control of the team in 1963. Ford’s priorities were not on-the-field performance, and the team’s record under his ownership clearly reflects this. Upon his passing in 2014, his wife Martha Ford (88 years old at the time) took control. Like all complete overhauls, external evidence was murky at best. Decades of failed leadership and processes took years to unwind as the organization’s priority shifted to building a game-winning program.

In 2020, the turnaround accelerated when control of the team passed to Sheila Ford Hamp, daughter of William Clay Ford, Sr. and Martha Ford. Under Hamp, major personnel changes reflected both the lessons learned since 2014 and a new sense of urgency and enthusiasm. Hamp hired Dan Campbell as head coach and Brad Holmes as general manager, while the talented but hidden asset Jared Goff was lifted into the quarterback spot. The team hired legendary linebacker and Lions veteran Chris Spielman as special assistant to Hamp for his counsel in on-field and off-field football matters, his winning mindset and his passion for the game.

After decades of miserable on-field performance, the Lions turned a 1-5 start in the 2022 season into a very respectable 9-8 full-season record.

Where the Lions finish the 2023 season is unknown. But the leadership change which prompted a complete overhaul of the organization’s priorities, processes and culture has made a previously hapless loser team into a serious contender.

Investors in public company turnarounds look for the same changes: a severely out-of-favor stock of an organization with fixable problems under new leadership focused on winning. Not all turnarounds succeed, and the biggest successes often take longer than most investors are willing to wait for. Interim doubts and long-running (and warranted) skepticism keep sentiment (and stock prices) subdued until the turnaround becomes obvious. But that is where the best rewards are. Just ask Detroit Lions fans.

Currently, the Cabot Turnaround Letter has 33 Buy-rated turnaround stocks on its recommended list. Check out our advisories for more information about how our advisories can help you find attractive turnaround stocks.

Bruce Kaser has more than 25 years of value investing experience in managing institutional portfolios, mutual funds and private client accounts. He has led two successful investment platform turnarounds, co-founded an investment management firm, and was principal of a $3 billion (AUM) employee-owned investment management company.