Quarterly earnings conference calls are usually pretty dull. Analysts ask executives arcane questions about tax rates and working capital, and sometimes prod CEOs for “color” on how things look for the future.
This year, more than before, that color has been blue.
According to a search of transcripts via Sentieo, a data provider, 2017 was one of the sweariest years for earnings calls on record.
Fearing corruption of young investors’ minds, transcribers often redact profanity, so a search for “(expletive)” gives a rough count of all the bad words that execs let slip during calls. Listening to the flagged calls, some of the purported profanities include PG-rated fare like “hell,” “damn,” and “BS.” Still, analysts were party to plenty of s-words and f-bombs over the course of the year.
Take, for example, luggage-maker Samsonite, whose CEO Ramesh Tainwala had choice words for his predecessor on a March call:
“Coming to [advertising and promotional] spend, quite honestly, well I’m surprised. I met the previous CEO of the company, I said what the fuck, you know—sorry, my language is not so polite.”
Or consider Alain Bédard, boss of Canadian logistics group TFI International, who candidly explained his company’s struggle with its debt-to-earnings ratio on an October call:
“So, if you look at right now, we’re at, I don’t know, 2.8 times or something like that and because our debt went down but also our EBITDA went to the shit, right?”
John Legere of telecom operator T-Mobile US, by contrast, was more bullish about his company’s prospects in new markets, using vivid language to describe the competitive landscape on a call earlier this month:
“Do you think… the cable TV companies are sitting there today saying, oh, this is nothing to worry about, we don’t take these guys too seriously? Or do you think they’re shitting themselves that the same group that was unafraid of AT&T and Verizon is now coming after the cable players?”
What does this outbreak of professional potty-mouth mean? Earnings have been strong this year (pdf), and markets buoyant, so it’s not as if CEOs are letting loose out of widespread frustration. Several studies suggest that profanity in a work setting can enhance a manager’s credibility and make them more relatable to workers. So, either we are witnessing CEOs reveal their true feelings or, perhaps, the rise of corporate cursing simply reflects the coarseness of public life these days.
In July, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon infamously took a broad swipe at the state of US politics:
“It’s almost an embarrassment being an American citizen traveling around the world and listening to the stupid shit we have to deal with in this country.”
Extended metaphors for how a company devises its strategy are also ripe ground for vulgarity. Take this aside from Seagate CEO Steve Luczo on a July conference call, describing how the data storage group works:
“As I said to someone the other day, running a disc drive company is a little bit like driving in stop-and-go traffic. Sometimes you’re going 15 miles an hour and sometimes you’re going 85 miles an hour. But you usually get to your destination on time and no one’s hurt. But it’s stressful as shit for the driver and oftentimes for the passengers too. So I think we have a younger driver with better reaction times now.”
Restoration Hardware’s Gary Friedman in November described how the retailer he runs wouldn’t work:
“Funny is not a brand attribute. We don’t want to be the store people wake in the morning on a weekend and go, ‘Hey, honey, we’re going to go shopping today. Let’s go to that really funny store called Restoration Hardware, because you’re going to find really random shit like a Santa Claus whose head pops up and waters the lawn.’”
Some CEOs make profanity part of their personal brand, like Legere of T-Mobile and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. The boss of the low-cost airline described as “bullshit” the media coverage his company gets (October) and the promotional material put out by competitors (February). After the airline’s September scheduling snafu, O’Leary also admitted “We fucked up here, and we have to fix it.”
The most eye-catching cussing of 2017 came from Jim Hagedorn, CEO of fertilizer group Scotts Miracle-Gro, whose mouth has gotten him into trouble in the past. “I usually use a lot of foul language,” he admitted on a February call, going on to note that “acquiring shit is fun” and urging analysts to “shut the fuck up” about how the company performs against its earnings guidance. Hagedorn’s best turn of phrase, though, came during a call in May, in response to a convoluted multi-part question from a bank analyst:
“Yo, dude. How many questions can you ask as part of one question? But can somebody better write that shit down, so like we can remember all that stuff that you goddam said.”
The most telling slip of the tongue this year, however, was by Bart Schuldman, CEO of tech group TransAct Technologies. In November, he cursed the conference call itself, channeling the frustration of millions of office workers the world over:
Mitchell Sacks, Grand Slam Asset Management
“Can you hear us?”
Bart Shuldman, TransAct Technologies
“Hang up, dial-in?”
“Okay. I’m on my cell phone. Can everybody hear me? I’m on a cell phone. Mitch?”
“We can hear you.”
“Okay. Hey Mitch, are you still on? Operator?”
“He is no longer in queue.”
“I’m going to shoot this fucking system.”