Monday, December 7, 2009

A situation to watch, Part II

Kona Grill: Hail the brave newcomer
Not so long ago, fans of professional wrestling could get their oohs and aahs from the conference calls of Kona, a small casual dining chain known for its sushi. You couldn't stage the sort of hostility that crackled between investors and management.

Here’s a snippet that’ll probably make it to the Kona Grill: Grill This boxed set, which the home office should consider marketing as a gift option this season. It starts with the preamble to a question that portfolio manager Thomas Lynch really, really wanted Kona CEO Marcus Jundt to answer, and goes downhill from there:

Marcus, I’ve noticed on previous calls and on this call that you’ve been a little bit reticent about answering questions. So as I go forward, I’d like to give you the opportunity to show shareholders that you’re accountable and you really know how to operate this business… What changes are you going to make? Who is personally accountable? And specifically in management, what changes will you make?...Can you address that?

Jundt, it immediately became apparent, was no Dale Carnegie disciple. “I’ll address the question in the manner in which I want to address it,” he shot back.

Lynch followed with questions about an agreement to sell a big chunk of stock to Jundt’s father at a price of just $1.19 per share.

Other investors joined in with questions about high turnover on Kona’s board, and what criteria was used to find directors.

The April call clearly did not go well for Jundt and his fellow execs.In the background, you can almost hear a mob forming, anoose in hand.

Stunningly, Jundt resigned a few months later, followed by his interim replacement several months after that.

And who’s ridden into the chain to revive its fortunes? One of the sector’s whitest hats, Mark Buehler. He was a standout marketer at Applebee’s, and was later hired to clean up Tony Roma’s and Lone Star. He’s earned his spurs and six-shooter.

Now he’ll be polishing up the badge and striving to right Kona as the new CEO and president.

There's no confirmation that shareholders bypassed a headhunter and actually summoned Buehler with the Bat Signal. But I’m betting Liam Neeson plays him in the movie.

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