Martha Stewart Returns to a Ghost Town

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Martha Stewart has become chairman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (NYSE: MSO), the company she founded. Legal trouble had kept her off the board. Now, after a stint as a director, she has moved into the chairman’s job. She takes over a company that is barely a shell of what it was when the firm was founded. Despite several attempts. MSO has not been turned around, nor will it be.

Wall St. has abandoned MSO shares because consumers have abandoned the firm’s products. Shares trade just over $3, down from more than $18 five years ago. That gives the company a market capitalization of only $207 million. Another sign of investor disinterest is that the stock trades, on average, less that 150,000 shares a day.

Investors lack interest for one simple reason: MSO has lost money four calendar years in a row. Revenue in 2007 was $328 million. Last year, that number fell to $221 million. First-quarter figures continued the trend. Revenue fell to $49.8 million from $52.7 million in the same period a year ago. The company had a net loss of $3.6 million.

MSO has attempted to build its some of its business on a series of partnerships with retailers and other companies that sell goods to consumers. The most recent misstep in this direction was a deal with JCPenney (NYSE: JCP) made in January. JCPenney invested $16.6 million in MSO and set a housewares partnership between the two companies. Macy’s (NYSE: M) challenged the deal because it claims to have an exclusive relationship with Martha Stewart Living. The fight has become less important that the original decision. Macy’s is healthy. JCPenney is a wreck that lost 20% of its sales last quarter. Under new CEO Ron Johnson, JCPenney will be lucky to remain a viable competitor in its range of the department store industry.

It is impossible to say with any conviction what happened to Martha Stewart Omnimedia. Its founder was once an important consumer brand on her own. That period is now nearly five years gone.

Douglas A. McIntyre