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CEO Daily: Thursday, 9th March

March 9, 2017, 12:02 PM UTC

Good morning.

This morning, Fortune releases its 20th annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, compiled each year using a rigorous methodology administered by Great Place to Work. This is our most popular list every year, and it is increasingly becoming our most important, as companies come to recognize that their human capital is their most valuable asset. While a number of different measurements go into this ranking, the most important come from an anonymous employee survey that measures the credibility of the company’s leaders, as well as the respect and fairness with which employees are treated.

Number one on the list, for the sixth year in a row, is Google, famous for its perks but also for its wildly ambitious efforts to address big problems. Number two is a very different company, Wegmans Food Markets, which has managed to keep a family feel among its almost 47,000 employees. Wegmans is one of the companies that has made the list every year since it started. Others with that honor include SAS, Publix, REI, Marriott, TDIndusries, W.L. Gore, Whole Foods, Goldman Sachs, Cisco, Four Seasons and Nordstrom. You can read the full list here.

Among the newcomers this year is AT&T, which deserves a special shout-out for taking on what may be the most ambitious program for retraining workers in the history of American business. The company is in the midst of a massive technology change, from traditional telephone switching technology to software-defined networking, and has embarked on a program to retrain 100,000 employees by 2020. The company has worked with the Georgia Institute of Technology to create an fully online master’s program in computer science. Employees are given a choice: they can devote the effort and time (much of it not during work hours) to retrain themselves, or they can accept the fact that their current job will eventually disappear. The AT&T experiment is being closely watched as a model for other companies in the midst of rapid technological transformation. Fortune’s Aaron Pressman will take a closer look at the program in the new issue of the magazine.

More news below. And a correction that many of you noted from yesterday: in talking about President Trump’s infrastructure program, I mistakenly called it a “billion” dollar program, which of course is peanuts in the federal budget. It is actually $1 trillion. Apologies for the forgotten zeroes.


Alan Murray

Top News

Akzo Knocks Back $22 Billion Bid From PPG

Paint and coatings specialist PPG Industries took a leaf out of Praxair’s book, proposing a $42 billion merger with European peer Akzo Nobel. Dutch-based Akzo said Thursday it had rejected an 21 billion euro offer from PPG, two-thirds of it in cash, one-third in shares, and would instead review its strategic options independently. A spin-off or float of its chemicals business was promised. Akzo’s shares, which have gone sideways in the last 18 months, rose by 14% in early trading.  Fortune

GE Sells Water Business to Suez

Another piece of transatlantic M&A: French-based Suez has agreed to buy the industrial water treatment business of General Electric for 3.2 billion euros. Suez is a company that traditionally specializes in water supplies to municipalities, and the deal will give it access to higher-paying industrial customers in sectors from food and drink to pharmaceuticals and micro-electronics. While nobody is talking about it in such terms, it’s tempting to see the wave of transatlantic M&A activity, at least in part, as a Plan B for securing market access, now that the U.S. and EU have effectively given up on further liberalizing trade. Reuters

Marchionne Sells Fiat Chrysler Again

Continuing on the same theme, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne predicted that Volkswagen would soon be knocking on his door in an effort to defend itself against competition from a beefed-up Peugeot-Opel. Fiat’s bankers could have retired long ago if the company had been sold as often as Marchionne talked about it, but Renault’s Carlos Ghosn also predicted more consolidation at the Geneva Auto Show on Wednesday. It seems carmakers are still wedded to the notion that scale is the only way to make money—a notion that GM’s exit from Europe appeared to challenge. Bloomberg

Shell Joins Retreat From Oil Sands

Royal Dutch Shell joined the retreat from Canada’s oil sands, in its latest move to cut debt and concentrate on lower-cost projects in the wake of its merger with BG Group. It will sell its existing and undeveloped oil sands assets to Canadian Natural Resources in return for $5.4 billion in cash and a 9% stake in CNR worth $3.1 billion. A related portfolio adjustment, buying Marathon Oil out of the Athabasca Oil Sands Project, cuts the net proceeds to $7.25 billion. Exxon, ConocoPhillips, and Statoil have all already written down their investments in an alternative form of oil that, while plentiful, is uneconomic in a world where crude prices are stuck in a range between $50-$60 a barrel.  Crude prices fell out of that range for the first time since November yesterday on evidence of an ongoing glut in the U.S.  Reuters

Around the Water Cooler

ECB to Wrestle With Justifying QE Extension

While the Federal Reserve prepares to raise interest rates later this month, the European Central Bank will huddle today to find new ways to justify its promise to fling money into the markets until at least the end of the year. Growth and inflation have rebounded strongly in the Eurozone recently (despite a sharp drop in German orders announced earlier this week). President Mario Draghi is likely to stress that the uptick in inflation is due largely to one-off effects from rising oil prices, and that the Eurozone economy still needs an extraordinary degree of support from the ECB, absent more growth-friendly policies in Eurozone capitals. Reuters

Uber Comes Home in Conciliatory Mood

Uber is bringing its self-driving cars back to California, after an argument with state regulators at the end of last year forced it to decamp to Arizona. Uber had initially argued that its cars didn’t fall under state regulations, but has now relented. Separately, it has also agreed to ban the secret “Greyball” software tool that allowed it to spy on officials who were trying to catch Uber drivers operating illegally. The two actions are consistent with the more conciliatory and responsible corporate identity that CEO Travis Kalanick has recently signaled he wants to embrace. In (loosely) related news, Didi Chuxing, the company that bested Uber in China, is setting up shop in Silicon Valley, opening a research and development center that will focus on AI and cyber security. Fortune

Google Pumps up Its Cloud

Alphabet held a large-scale event in San Francisco to promote its ambitions in the fast-growing area of Cloud hosting services, where it is fighting for market share with rivals such as Amazon and Microsoft. Bolstered by endorsements from SAP (now putting its HANA solutions on Google Cloud) and ‘managed service’ provider Rackspace, the company did its best to convince the 10,000 developers and current and potential customers that it was committed to the project for the long term (some have reportedly been concerned by Google’s readiness to discontinue under-performing projects). Eric Schmidt made the point that it has already sunk $30 billion into Google Cloud, which seems a decent enough show of conviction. Fortune

Starbucks and The Perils of Taking Sides

Starbucks’ trumpeting of its decision to hire 10,000 refugees in an overt show of defiance to President Trump’s first, ill-fated attempt at limiting immigration is backfiring, according to analysts. YouGov Brandindex calculates that consumer perception levels (a self-defined metric that may not correspond to your perceptions) have fallen by two-thirds since late January, although they are still, on balance positive. YouGov said there’s reason to believe it will hurt the company’s bottom line—a point taken on board by Credit Suisse analysts, who reiterated their “Hold” rating. Fortune

Summaries by Geoffrey Smith;