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Four years ago, activist fund manager Daniel Loeb released a letter to then Sotheby's CEO William Ruprecht addressing the auction house's weaknesses. Among the highlights were complaints that the firm had weak operating margins, lacked leadership and strategic vision, failed to grasp the central importance of Contemporary and Modern art, was weak in new markets, had "dysfunctional divisions and a fractured culture," all of which culminated in management's "inability to develop a coherent plan for an internet sales strategy."
Loeb's critique of the firm was backed up by a nearly 10% stake in the company's stock and an alliance with another activist investor who was keen to see Sotheby's sell its real estate and fund a major stock buyback, as well as ramping up its financial services division aggressively.
Four years later, the firm has new management which has now settled into running the company with its own team and few impediments to crafting its own strategic vision. Nonetheless, even after installing a new team across all major functions of the enterprise, Sotheby's finds itself facing a aggressive competition from its main rival and another season where its substantial sales are out-matched by its main rival and struggling to contain its costs, two weaknesses that provoked Loeb's particular ire.
With that in mind, it is worth taking a look at the company and its results to see where Sotheby's stands in its transformation against Loeb's critique. But after four years of pulling up the floorboards, unlocking the strongbox to acquire talent and talking about digital strategy, it is clear that Sotheby's has reached the end of the beginning. It's future growth depends more upon old-fashioned execution than it does on re-imagining what an auction house can or should be.
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