Snap's improved earnings can't hide 'a deeper, way bigger issue': Leadership turnover

  • Snap improved on several key metrics in the most recent quarter, stabilizing its user base and engagement numbers while also managing costs better.
  • However, some Wall Street analysts remain concerned about a high level of turnover in the technology company's leadership ranks, including its ongoing search for a permanent CFO.

While Snap posted better-than-expected earnings for the fourth quarter, and investors sent shares higher by 22 percent on Wednesday, there's one big concern that the improved results couldn't ease: the revolving door in the company's C-suite.

"The results are way better than what was expected, the guidance for the first quarter is ahead of where the street's at, so the core metrics actually look pretty good," said Jefferies senior analyst Brent Thill on CNBC's Closing Bell on Tuesday afternoon. "But there's a deeper issue underneath the surface and that's a way bigger issue that needs to be addressed either on the call or going forward."

Thill mentioned the departures of multiple Snap executives, such as former chief financial officer Tim Stone and chief strategy officer Imran Khan as blows to the company.

Stone, a former Amazon veteran who had been at the company less than a year, resigned Jan. 15, citing other opportunities as the reason for his departure. His role is currently being filled on an interim basis by Lara Sweet.

Khan, who was the second highest ranking executive at Snap, resigned in September 2018 after spending three years with the company. The former executives are two of 20 senior-level employees who have left Snap since its IPO less than two years ago.

Co-Founder and CEO of Snap Inc. Evan Spiegel.
Matt Winkelmeyer | Getty Images
Co-Founder and CEO of Snap Inc. Evan Spiegel.

How well the company addressed the questions remains a matter of interpretation.

During the earnings call, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said the company is "really focused on the CFO role and also on the marketing role."

Last year, Snap added two new executives to its roster, including a replacement for Khan in the chief strategy officer role, former Huffington Post CEO Jared Grusd. Jeremi Gorman, the former head of advertising sales for Amazon, became Snap's chief business officer.

Leadership is a key issue for Snap's future

Leadership turnover was not the No. 1 issue for analysts on the earnings call. There are core business challenges that remain, including Snap's competition against Facebook apps. And its list of competitors is growing, according to the company's own filings.

Bank of America's Justin Post wrote after the earnings that the improvement was an important step but still "far from a victory." He added, "Our survey work suggests Snap still has high levels of churn, while we continue to think Instagram and Whataspp will be difficult to displace in international markets even with an improved app."

Leadership didn't come up on the call until the tenth analyst in the queue got a chance to pose a question.

Doug Anmuth, a J.P. Morgan internet analyst, cited management retention as one of the issues for caution over Snap's future. He asked Spiegel about Snap's recruiting and retention efforts given recent departures.

On the continuing CFO search, Spiegel said, "I think as we look forward to CFO roles, a critical role for us, I think we are really fortunate to have Lara in the interim role right now. She knows the company really well, has been with us for a long-time. So that really gives us the flexibility to take our time with the search and really get it right." He added, "I think if we look at this, the development over the leadership team over the last year, it's made a massive difference in the business and also for me personally because now I'm freed up to do the things I really love to do on the product side. So I think the teams really evolved and I think ready for the next stage of growth."

Snap declined to comment to CNBC beyond Spiegel's answers on the call.

Jefferies' Thill wasn't satisfied by the Snap CEO's answer, and he pressed the question about turnover later on the call.

"I just want to go back to the developing team and culture, there have been a lot of changes. I'm just curious if you could comment on what percent of the change you think you're through in the senior team?"

Spiegel replied, "On the senior team, we are really focused on the CFO role and also on the marketing role. So those are the two priorities for me. Most of the changes we made over the past year, year and half as we look sort of forward towards the business scaling, I'm really happy with the way the teams come together and the way they're working together. So those are related to focus areas for us."

While the stock has doubled from its 52-week low, even with the rally on Wednesday Snap shares remain far below its $17 per share IPO offering price, and below its stock market high of $26 on its first day of trading after its March 2017 IPO.

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and director of the center for human resources at The Wharton School, wrote in an email that a revolving door on the leadership level could signal lack of agreement between people in power. However, the skills needed to turn a start-up company into a mid-sized company can be different, and some could simply outgrow their leaders.

In terms of Snap's ability to recruit talent in the highest ranks of its company, Cappelli noted the company could have some advantages over competitors. "I think the benefit for any executive is being able to work on something that is new and emerging and also to be able to put your stamp on something, to show that what you did really mattered," Cappelli wrote.

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Snap .

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