For the past year, NRG has been building its new headquarters at 804 Carnegie Center. With wind turbines, car charging stations, solar panels, and efficient design, the building serves as a statement and a showcase of the company’s focus on green energy technology. For the past several years, NRG had been investing in some of the country’s largest solar farms, and had gotten into the business of installing solar panels on homes, in addition to its portfolio of conventional power plants. (U.S. 1, October 22, 2014, and May 6, 2015.)
But by the time NRG CEO David Crane presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for the sustainable headquarters in November, 2014, there were signs of trouble. In June, 2014, the price of oil fell, driving down the cost of dirty fossil fuels and fueling skepticism about green energy among investors. NRG started a steady decline, falling from a high of $37 to just $9 on December 3, the day Crane stepped down as CEO. Mauricio Gutierrez, executive vice president and COO of the company, will take over as CEO.
Was this downfall an example of the “headquarters curse,” or just of bad timing? Some investors believe that a company building a monumental HQ can be a bad sign for the future. Business history provides some dramatic examples of cash-rich companies spending millions on a shiny new building only to collapse shortly thereafter. For example, in 2001 the New York Times company announced it was leaving its dingy old Times Square headquarters for a newly built skyscraper on Eighth Avenue called the New York Times Building. By the time the edifice opened in 2007, the company’s stock had fallen more than half and its newspaper business was in turmoil.
AOL Time-Warner started building the Time Warner Center near Central Park in 2000, just before the tech bubble burst, sending the company’s stock into free fall.
Some analysts see the new, expensive headquarters building as a sign that a company has too much cash and not enough of an idea what to do with it, and that they signal the transition from a lean mean company into a bloated dinosaur.
Angel investor Dan Conley, who funds high tech startups, would never fund a company that included a grand headquarters in its budget. “We seek CEOs who are hyper frugal and super efficient in how they conserve their precious cash,” he wrote in an E-mail. “We simply don’t encounter egotistical executives who need to build their throne room or architectural assets they simply don’t need.”
It’s up for debate whether the “headquarters curse” is real, or if it’s just an example of confirmation bias — the human tendency to remember events that back up a belief and dismiss events that contradict it. After all, there have been many companies that built large campuses only to see their fortunes continue to rise. Apple built its six-building campus on Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California, in 1993 and from those quarters rose to dominate the tech industry.
But despite Apple’s past success, some are predicting the consumer electronics giant will fall victim to the Curse of the New HQ when it moves into the new circular “Spaceship” shaped headquarters that Steve Jobs ordered constructed. Hedge fund manager Jeff Matthews of Ram Partners told Reuters he thought the Spaceship was being built just as the company’s product cycles may be about to crash to earth. “I’ve been thinking the Apple spaceship is going to get nicknamed the ‘Death Star’ because the project is so big and the timing is so bad,” he said.
There is reason to believe NRG’s downfall had more to do with market forces than with its new office space. Crane was an outspoken advocate of green energy in the power industry and had been buying wind farms, solar power plants, electric vehicle charging companies, and making other “green” investments. He also said he was positioning the company to be a major player in the decentralized power market of the future, predicting that more consumers would generate their own power rather than relying exclusively on the grid. In a March, 2014, letter to shareholders, Crane wrote that he wanted to turn NRG into the Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or Google of the energy industry.
Shareholders apparently did not completely share Crane’s vision of NRG as the next tech titan. “There was a mismatch between what investors wanted us to do with our cash — which was give it back — and what we wanted to do, which was put it in growth businesses,” Crane told the Wall Street Journal in an interview shortly before his departure.
NRG Energy Inc. (NRG), 211 Carnegie Center, Princeton 08540-6213; 609-524-4500; fax, 609-524-4501. Mauricio Gutierrez, president and CEO. www.nrgenergy.com.