The fresh CEO people. Is there a curse at Woolworths on the CEO’s role? Three of the last four CEOs have now gone early with this morning’s shock news that Grant O’Brien is stepping down from the role. His predecessor, Michael Luscombe, went early, and before him, Reg Clairs went early in the late 1990s and was replaced by Roger Corbett, the most successful of the quartet. O’Brien’s departure has been speculated on by some analysts and media in recent months thanks to the weak results from the Masters hardware joint venture and especially the worsening sales performance of the company’s sales and profit powerhouse, the Australian supermarkets and liquor business. That led to the first real profit downgrade for Woolies (the giant won’t make as much money as first thought, but it’s not losing money) for some time. That’s where rival Coles (despite its floundering liquor business) has been growing sales and earnings faster than Woolies for the past few years.

What’s shocking about the move is that it comes only weeks after the CEO revealed a plan to try and boost Woolworths’ core food and liquor business by slashing capital expenditure and costs, including 800 jobs, and use the savings to cut prices and meet the rising tide of competition from Coles and Aldi. O’Brien will stay on until a new CEO is found. And by the way, those 800 jobs are now 1200 losses from the retailer. One of those is Penny Winn, another senior executive, who, strangely, will remain a non-executive director. — Glenn Dyer

Saint Warren saves Australia. The Sainted Warren Buffett appeared and waved his magic balance sheet to turn Australian banks and insurers into diamonds, sparkling in the market yesterday. The deal to take a small stake with Insurance Australian Group turned IAG from an insurer on everyone’s watch list for a nasty 2014-15 profit slide, into a gem that will glitter in coming years — especially if the Blessed One’s Berkshire Hathaway group builds its 3.7% stake to 14.9%. And gee, what an impact that had on market sentiment — suddenly everyone wanted to be in financials in Australia yesterday. Credit Suisse helped by suddenly turning on a dime (investment banks are noted for reversals like that when they discover someone smarter has done a big deal) and rediscovered its appetite for Australia’s big banks, especially ANZ, after going right off them a couple of months ago. Westpac helped yesterday by selling off half its stake in its funds management arm, BT Investment Management, for $700 million of fresh capital to ease the concerns at the RBA and APRA.  — Glenn Dyer

Is nothing sacred: a hack attack in baseball? Computer hacking now seems to be an everyday event for companies, governments and individuals — but sports teams? The New York Times reports the FBI is investigating whether officials of the St Louis Cardinals (this season’s leading baseball team) hacked into the computer system of the Houston Astros (a rival team). The Times claims the hacking was done to get information on player trading talks, potential draft picks and other sensitive matters. The Times says federal prosecutors have uncovered evidence that the Astros’ network was infiltrated from a computer at a home in which some Cardinals officials had stayed. Just who is being investigated isn’t known as yet, but the paper says subpoenas have been issued and the Feds are investigating. The Times reports the hacking was aimed at a player evaluation system developed by the Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, which was formerly a senior executive with the Cardinals. — Glenn Dyer

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Peter Fray
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