Schulze leaves Best Buy early; next step is unclear

Richard Schulze
Best Buy founder Richard Schulze is stepping down from his board position earlier than originally planned.
MPR File Photo/Tom Weber

Best Buy's founder and board chair, Richard Schulze, is leaving the company earlier than expected.

Schulze was on his way out the door next year following a scandal at the electronics retailer. An investigation found he mishandled allegations of an inappropriate relationship between former chief executive Brian Dunn and a subordinate.

But now Schulze is quitting the company altogether. His exodus is sparking lots of speculation about what he'll do with his massive 20 percent ownership stake in Best Buy.

Analysts were in a tizzy Thursday trying to divine his motivation, but Schulze himself didn't give them much to go on. He offered a terse statement that he was leaving Best Buy to "explore all available options" for his ownership stake.

As investors played out the various possibilities, Best Buy's stock price seesawed up and down.

Some feared that Schulze might decide to dump all his shares on the market, which would likely depress the share price even more.

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"We're talking about a stock that's pretty washed out and at a pretty low valuation," said Matt Arnold, a consumer analyst with Edward Jones.

Arnold said he personally doubts Schulze would sell his shares pell mell, because that could cost Schulze money too.

Even if Schulze does sell and drag down the stock price, any short-term pain would be outweighed by the longer-term benefit of Schulze's departure, Arnold said.

Critics have blamed Schulze's leadership for keeping Best Buy trapped in an outmoded big-box retail model. That model isn't competing well with low-priced online and bricks-and-mortar retailers.

Without Schulze, the company's business model might stand a better chance of getting updated, Arnold said.

"It's probably an easier conversation in the board room to talk about wholesale change instead of tweaks, when the person that created that original vision is gone," he said.

But not everyone's convinced that Schulze really does intend to separate himself from Best Buy. Speculation surfaced Thursday that Schulze, as the biggest single shareholder of Best Buy stock, might use his huge stake in an effort to buy the company and take it private.

"That would be much more aligned with his prevous history, which is to believe he can singlehandedly lead and guide the company to success," said Flora Delaney, a Twin Cities-based retail consultant and a former vice president of merchandising at Best Buy.

Delaney said she believes that Schulze has too much emotional investment in Best Buy for him to just walk away. And Schulze's sense of pride is likely stoked by others at the beleagured retailer.

"There are a lot of people around him or talking to him who remember the good old days, when he was the leader and in charge of the company, that wish for those days -- that if he came back they could return to that previous success," she said.

Schulze could not be reached directly for comment.

Another theory floated is that an investment group could make a bid to take Best Buy private even without Schulze's involvement.

With Schulze signalling he may unload his 20 percent stake, that scenario could gain traction, according to R.J. Hottovy, an analyst with Morningstar.

"Obviously a 20 percent stake would put a pretty big roadblock into any potential buyer coming in and taking the company over," said Hottovy. "The public announcement that he's willing to expore any alternatives ... that roadblock seems to have dissipated here."

But Hottovy added there's a lot of uncertainty at Best Buy as long as the leadership remains up in the air. Long-time board member Hatim Tyabji will take over Schulze's post as board chair. But Best Buy only has a temporary chief executive until a permanent replacement is found for former CEO Brian Dunn. The hiring process will likely take months.

Given how fast things move in the consumer electronics world, Hottovy said Best Buy doesn't have much time to waste to turn its ailing business around.

Best Buy's share price closed down 1 percent at $19.70 on Thursday, after dropping as much as 8.5 percent during the day.