PhillyDeals: From Lehman to Sears posts, CDI's new chief is battle-tested

Scott Freidheim, new chief executive officer at the engineering and placement firm CDI Corp. "We met with 30 candidates," the lead searcher said. "A wide range of backgrounds. But no one quite like Scott."
Scott Freidheim, new chief executive officer at the engineering and placement firm CDI Corp. "We met with 30 candidates," the lead searcher said. "A wide range of backgrounds. But no one quite like Scott." (JEFF FUSCO)
Posted: August 16, 2014

Scott Freidheim, a veteran buyout investor ( Investcorp), brand boss ( Sears), and investment banker/crisis manager ( Lehman Bros.), has agreed to move from London to Philadelphia to run CDI Corp., the engineering and placement firm whose sales top $1 billion a year.

"We met with 30 candidates," said Mike Emmi, the former Systems & Computer Technology Corp. chief executive who served on the search committee. "A wide range of backgrounds. But no one quite like Scott."

Aided by recruiter Gayle Mattson, the selection gang weighed two contrasting CEO models: A strong operating manager who could boost profitability. Or a turnaround-and-acquisition star.

Freidheim, 49, is both, Emmi said.

Will that be enough for CDI investors? Returns on CDI stock, one-sixth of which is held by the family of founder Walter Garrison, have been roughly flat for the last 20 years. Profits and margins haven't recovered to mid-2000s levels.

Can Freidheim raise the needle? "I believe this was a real coup for this company to get someone with his talents," analyst Jeffrey M. Silber, who covers CDI for BMO Capital Markets in New York, told me.

Freidheim's status as Lehman Bros.'s chief administrative officer during the firm's 2008 collapse raised obvious questions: If this guy is so smart, how come his bank blew up?

Emmi dug into that well-documented disaster, and found that Freidheim had spent two months of that fatal autumn of the financial crisis locked up with regulators in Washington.

"Other executives were selling stock," Emmi said. "He never sold a share. Some of the others went into U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and claimed Lehman stock was compensation, they should get paid [after the stock value collapsed]. Scott said, 'No, it was to align us with shareholders, and if they took a bath, we should, too.'

"I thought that said a lot about his character. He did not quit. He showed a great set of values."

Freidheim blames Lehman's collapse not on its shaky products or low capitalization but on the global financial crisis of 2008, and says there was growth even in failure.

"You were dealing with so many issues so quickly that you learned a lot," Freidheim said. "About business, and about yourself, how you handle various situations."

"What he did at Sears was remarkable," Emmi said of Freidheim's next role.

Recruited by a former Lehman client, Sears investor Eddie Lampert, Freidheim was tasked with reviving the ailing Kenmore appliance, Craftsman tool, and Diehard battery lines. Emmi credits Freidheim with "taking Kenmore from third in the industry to first" by negotiating better supplier and product-development deals, boosting sales and  Consumer Reports   ratings.

Freidheim was next recruited - at the Davos World Economic Forum, the yearly bosses' retreat in Switzerland - to build a European business for Investcorp, a private-equity buyout firm that invests oil money from the Arab gulf states. Freidheim saw bargains in volatile bond markets, and closed five deals in two years.

But Freidheim said he missed running a company, heading a team.

"CDI sounds incredibly compelling," Freidheim told me. "They have a 60-year history as an innovator, with core strengths in project management for oil, gas, and chemicals, aerospace and industrial equipment, infrastructure, and government services."

His orders are to leverage that base, buy other companies, and make CDI larger and more profitable - for him and other shareholders.

CDI gave Freidheim a contract emphasizing "large long-term rewards," which means he will be paid a lot more if the stock doubles and triples from its recent $14-to-$15-a-share range, analyst Silber said.


PhillyDeals:

AT LEHMAN BROS. "Other executives were selling stock. He never sold a share. . . . Scott said, 'No, it was to align us with shareholders, and if they took a bath, we should too.'

"I thought that said a lot about his character."

- Mike Emmi, who served on the search committee


PhillyDeals:

AT SEARS "What he did at Sears was remarkable" as Kenmore went "from third in the industry to first." - Mike Emmi


JoeD@phillynews.com

215-854-5194 @PhillyJoeD

www.inquirer.com/phillydeals

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