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Friday, May 24, 2013
by Kevin Coupe
Let's hear it for Yuichiro Miura, who yesterday at the age of 80 became the oldest man in history to climb Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain.
Miura and a nine-person team that included his 43-year-old son followed the same route taken by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norway six decades ago when they became the first people to climb Everest.
This is the third time that Miura has climbed Everest. The first time was when he was 70 years old, and the second when he was 75.
Making the feat even more remarkable, ABC News reports, is that Miura "has had four heart surgeries to treat recurring arrhythmia, including one just two months before he set out on his latest journey. In 2009, a skiing accident left him with a broken pelvis and fractured thigh."
Reached by phone on the summit - which somehow in itself is remarkable, Miura said, "This is the best feeling in the world. I never imagined I would become the oldest man to get here, at 80. There's no greater feeling in life, but I've never felt this tired either."
And I was feeling tired just getting up to do MNB this morning. But now I'm feeling a little sheepish about that, and about the fact that sometimes I let my two knee surgeries dissuade me from going jogging.
ABC also reports, by the way, that "a few weeks into the climbing season at Everest this year, several records have already been set. Last weekend, Raha Moharrak became the first Saudi Arabian woman to reach the summit, while 30-year-old Sudarshan Gautam, a Canadian born in Nepal, became the first double amputee to conquer the summit."
A lot of us think, from time to time, that we have things tough. But I would argue that few of us have it as tough as an 80 year old man or a double amputee trying to climb Mount Everest.
Maybe the rest of us should just shut up and get to work.
Reuters reports that seventeen retailers have sued Visa and MasterCard over the transaction fees charged by the two card companies, yet more evidence that a proposed settlement seems to have diminishing support. While the settlement was tentatively approved by a federal judge last November, with a final decision expected in September, it has come under fire from trade associations such as the National Grocers Association (NGA) and the National Retail Federation (NRF) and retailers that contend it will not only not fix a broken system that allows the card companies to exploit retailers and consumers, but also prevents them from ever again suing the card companies and banks.
The move, according to the story, comes "before a May 28 deadline for the millions of merchants affected by the $7.2 billion settlement to decide whether to forego receiving damages under the pact and pursue their own legal action ... The lawsuit seeks compensatory and triple damages, as well as other remedies."
Among the retailers filing the suit: Macy's, Target, JC Penney and Kohl's.
Walmart is not listed among the companies involved in the suit, despite the fact that earlier this week, it was one of 19 companies saying that they would opt out of the settlement.
Another nail in the coffin of a proposed settlement that looks utterly useless at this point.
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The New York Times reports that Robert A. McDonald, CEO of Procter & Gamble, has retired unexpectedly, and is being replaced by A.G. Lafley, the man who he succeeded in 2009. McDonald had worked at P&G for 33 years.
According to the story, "Procter & Gamble had been under pressure from the prominent hedge fund manager William A. Ackman, who has criticized Mr. McDonald for the company’s poor stock performance," as well as for "bloat, inefficiency and excessive marketing expenses ... Mr. Ackman is known for publicly challenging management teams, having agitated for change at the likes of J. C. Penney and Fortune Brands."
P&G said there were no health or personal reasons behind the sudden retirement, and that McDonald was not forced by the board to resign.
Once learning of McDonald's decision several days ago, the board reportedly approached Lafley, who has been named both chairman and CEO of the company. He last held those jobs from 2000-2009.
This comment is not to be seen as any sort of criticism of Lafley, but...
What is the message to the folks at P&G when the board seems to feel that the bench strength is not strong enough to provide a new CEO, and that it has to go back to the last guy?
This is different from the state of affairs at JC Penney, where they brought back a guy who was let go because things weren't working.
But I'm just curious. Shouldn't every company the size of P&G have a succession plan to deal with just such an occurrence?
Dow Jones reports this morning that "Cerberus Capital Management LP is eyeing about a half-dozen grocery chains for potential bids, as the buyout shop weighs whether to further expand its grocery business three months after acquiring several chains from Supervalu Inc.(SVU), according to a person familiar with the matter ... The grocery business has long been profitable for Cerberus, and the firm sees adding stores as a way to cut costs through additional scale while creating more turnaround opportunities, one of the people said."
Among the companies said to be in the Cerberus crosshairs: Harris Teeter Supermarkets, which has been exploring a possible sale.
Harris Teeter would be a different sort of acquisition for Cerberus; it is a little more up-market than the stores in which it has traditionally invested. And I suspect there will be some competition for Harris Teeter.
But this certainly would be an interesting move for both companies, coming at a time when M&A activity seems to be picking up.
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• Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Walmart "is turning up the pressure to keep its shelves adequately stocked by proposing to tie executive compensation to the issue -- and has asked an outside auditor (Acosta) to alert workers which items to focus on by plastering U.S. stores with neon green dots ... The effort Wal-Mart is expending to fix its stocking issues is notable for a chain that became the world’s largest retailer in part by gaining mastery over its supply chain and logistics."
• The Los Angeles Times reports that two activist groups have filed complaints against Walmart with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), "accusing the retail behemoth and its suppliers of poor labor practices.
"In more than 30 allegations of unfair labor practices filed with the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday and Thursday, the Our Walmart advocacy organization accused the chain of trying to silence protesting workers. The complaints claim that the company retaliated against, disciplined, intimidated, surveilled and sometimes terminated employees in six states, including California, after the workers voiced opposition to various Wal-Mart activities."
That wasn't all. The Times also reports that "separately, the Warehouse Workers United group Thursday accused a warehouse that stores suitcases from Wal-Mart’s Protégé brand of mistreating employees. In a complaint to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the group alleged that workers at Olivet International’s Mira Loma facility encountered leaks in forklift propane tanks, blocked fire exits and other violations."
Walmart has not yet responded to the charges and allegations.
Regarding the green dot program ... since when does Walmart lack the internal functionality to make such an initiative happen on its own? I thought this was supposed to be Walmart's wheelhouse ... and the fact that an outside company needs to be brought in to identify where out-of-stocks are hurting Walmart strikes me as potentially yet another black mark on current leadership.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that California consumer protection laws allow customers to sue retailers for false advertising if they believe that ads misstate the markdowns on specific items.
According to the story, the suit revives a potential class action suit against Kohl's, which stands accused of inaccurately representing certain items as being marked down when they were not.
"Price advertisements matter," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for a three-judge panel. "When a consumer purchases merchandise on the basis of false price information and when the consumer alleges that he would not have made the purchase but for the misrepresentation, he has standing to sue."
Didn't we just have this conversation, in another context, the other day when talking about JC Penney?
The fact is that price transparency is all over the internet - just look at almost any product page on Amazon - and customers are going to react negatively if they think they are being played. Or lied to.
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Advertising Age reports that in this year's rankings of the 100 most valuable global brands, one notable shift was the passing of Walmart by Amazon.com, though the story suggests that the change could be temporary.
"Amazon, with a brand value of $45.7 billion, saw its value grow by 34%, while Walmart grew by 5% to $36.2 billion. Amazon's operational swiftness accounts for a good part of its financial success, namely, the retailer's ability to quickly adapt to market and pricing fluctuations and normalize goods to real market value.
"Additionally, Amazon has been making the move to in-store selling, with a push in the UK and US to sell merchandise within highly trafficked convenience stores.
"Walmart's second place performance comes on the heels of a slowdown in the Chinese market, a major area of focus for Walmart. Despite this, the retailer is poised to gain in brand value over the next few years. With the major advantage over Amazon of owning its brick and mortar stores, the retailer is making great strides in becoming an in-store, online and mobile heavyweight."
The assumption in the story is that an omni-channel presence is the greatest advantage, because it is agnostic about how customers want to shop. I think this is generally true, but I'm not positive that owning bricks-and-mortar stores is always an advantage ... it depends on whether that retailer is able to escape the shackles of tradition and legacy systems and truly be nimble.
That's a big assumption.
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Bloomberg Businessweek has a fabulous cover story this week about Google X, the secretive research lab run by the company that takes a long-view perspective on the products and services that may sustain the company in coming decades.
"As the polymath engineers and scientists who work there are fond of saying, Google X is the search giant’s factory for moonshots, those million-to-one scientific bets that require generous amounts of capital, massive leaps of faith, and a willingness to break things. Google X (the official spelling is Google [x]) is home to the self-driving car initiative and the Internet-connected eyeglasses, Google Glass, among other improbable projects.
"The biggest moonshot of all may be the skunk works itself: With X, Google has created a laboratory whose mandate is to come up with technologies that sound more like plot contrivances from Star Trek than products that might satisfy the short-term demands of Google’s shareholders ... Since its creation in 2010, Google has kept X largely hidden from view. Over the past month, Bloomberg Businessweek spoke to many of X’s managers and project leaders, who work with abundant resources and few of the constraints that smothered similar corporate research efforts in the past."
The goal? "Anything which is a huge problem for humanity we’ll sign up for, if we can find a way to fix it," one insider says.
The entire story can - and should - be read here.
To me, it is the audaciousness of the vision that is most appealing ... the notion that people are encouraged to break things and fail as they chase ideas that could have enormous impact down the road. Not every company has Google's kind of vision, or the kind of money needed to embrace that kind of strategy, but more companies, I believe, need to be focused on the long term ... in part because change happens so fast these days that what we think will be long-term evolution can turn into short-term revolution. If you're only looking at yesterday and today, you run the risk of being unprepared for tomorrow, which can lead to irrelevance.
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Reuters reports that PepsiCo "is tweaking its drink-pricing strategy in some parts of the United States, as it aims to wean consumers off the habit of buying soda only when it is on sale.
The strategy, which PepsiCo refers to as 'hybrid everyday value,' involves narrowing the gap between soda prices on holidays and regular days. It aims to lessen the discounts on holidays, when a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans can cost as little as $2.50 to $3, and lower prices throughout the rest of the year, when the same package can cost as much as $5.99."
"This is a very important idea," says Al Carey, CEO of PepsiCo Americas Beverages. "We are way too dependent on deep discounting 12- and 24-packs of our drinks during the holidays ... We have trained the consumer to wait until the price goes down and then go fill up your garage and then don't buy it again for a very long time until the price goes down."
• Tops Friendly Markets announced that it has completed the acquisition of four Big M supermarkets located in Boonville, Watertown, Sandy Creek and Adams, NY. This company said that the "acquisition expands Tops’ footprint further into areas of northern and central New York State and follows Tops’ previous acquisition of three Big M supermarkets located in Elbridge, Mexico, and Jordan, NY earlier this year."
• Campbell Soup Co. announced it has entered into an agreement to acquire Plum Organics, which it describes as "a leading provider of premium, organic foods and snacks that serve the nutritional needs of babies, toddlers and children," and the "No. 2 brand of organic baby food in the U.S. and is currently the No. 4 baby food brand overall."
Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.
Denise Morrison, Campbell’s president/CEO, says that "the acquisition will help deliver on our dual mandate to strengthen our core businesses and to expand into faster-growing categories and adjacencies. It represents another step toward our long-term goal of shifting Campbell’s center of gravity."
• The San Francisco Business Times reports that Del Monte Foods is acquiring Natural Balance Pet Foods, the super premium pet food company co-founded in 1989 by actor Dick Van Patten ("Eight is Enough"). Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
• IGA announced that it has joined forces with Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) in its third annual IGA Exclusive Brand donation initiative. During this national campaign—running in participating IGA stores from Memorial Day Weekend (May 27) through Labor Day weekend (Sept. 3)— a number of WWP co-branded IGA Exclusive Brand products will be available for purchase in participating IGA stores. By fall of this year, IGA plans to donate up to $200,000 to WWP.
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• John Hackett, a 50-year veteran of The Kroger Co., has announced his retirement. Hackett started as a clerk in an Ohio store in 1963, and retires as president of the company's mid-South division.
• Unified Grocers announced yesterday that Bob Garibaldi, general manager- sales for Northern California, has been promoted to the role of vice president- sales for Northern California and International.
• Balance Innovations has named Steve Rempel, the former group vice president of application development for Safeway, Inc., to be its new president/CEO.
Monday, May 27, is Memorial Day here in the US ... the unofficial beginning of summer, replete with barbecues, baseball games, and parades that recognize the sacrifices made by America's armed forces. As it is a federal holiday, MNB will be taking the day off ... but we'll be back on Tuesday. Promise.
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And KC commented: "Clearly, Walmart believes that it can use a made-in-America program to clear up some supply issues without raising its prices, which marks a real sea change in how the company works. And, at a time when the company has taken some hits because of issues like foreign bribery, a made-in-America initiative also can have a positive PR impact"
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Steve Forrest, the character actor who performed in films as varied as The Longest Day, Flaming Star (with Elvis Presley), Mommie Dearest and North Dallas Forty, but probably made the biggest imprint on the public consciousness with his role as Lt. Dan "Hondo" Harrelson in the TV series "SWAT," has died. He was 87.
Got a number of emails responding to yesterday's broadside against Restoration hardware for sending out seven pounds of 'Source Books" to pretty much everybody on its mailing list, a move that seemed not to differentiate between people who might want them and those who would not.
MNB user Lisa Malmarowski wrote:
I felt the same way about a year ago. I found out how to stop them, via the Internet, and did so. So, no more dead trees clogging my mailbox. I used to really like Restoration Hardware too - but they've changed and not for the better.
I don't hear anything from them, though. I don't see ads and the store in the mall closest to my home just closed. Hmmm…. How's that poundage of paper working out for them?
From MNB user Brian Blank:
I wasn’t sure that Restoration Hardware was still in business. Despite living in a desirable zip code and being on every other catalog's mailing list, we did not receive our seven pounds of recycling—er, “source books”, so I might never had known.
They disappeared from The “Good” Mall in town not long after redoing their store to be dark, gloomy and utterly uninviting. (Perhaps they thought the Goth kids were suddenly in the market for bathroom fixtures and sofas?)
Sounds like RH is a company to watch—but not in a good way. What a shame.
And from another reader:
The first thing that popped into my head was something a Xerox manager said when told that certain equipment transactions were failing. "We've been doing it this way so long, it can't be wrong".
The second thing that occurred to me is that Restoration Hardware most likely has a customer segment that views the catalog as another beautiful coffee table book. They enjoy the heft and look of these glossy artifacts and would miss them. The challenge is to identify them as opposed to you, and use the appropriate method of engagement.
From MNB user John Tieszen:
First of all, I am a huge fan of Morning News Beat. I have been a avid, daily reader for years.
I also received the Restoration Hardware packet and felt it was a complete waste of money. It went straight into the recycle bin. We do a ton of work in the home improvement channel and know that the majority of shoppers go to the Web first when they start a project. Restoration Hardware could have done an oversized postcard with an incentive to go to their website.
And another reader chimed in:
This is a perfect example as a follow-up to the response I wrote to your comments months back on the US Postal Service loosing billions of dollars. I'd bet that if Restoration Hardware had to pay $50+ to send those catalogs out via FedEx or UPS they'd rethink it. The USPS makes it easy for business to inundate us with useless crap that we never asked for and/or have no interest in, and as taxpayers we subsidize our mailboxes being filled with this junk. In the last week I've received over 100 items in my mailbox and two of them were necessary (my annual Property Tax statement and an Insurance bill...both of which could have come via email). I'm about to tape my mailbox shut.
I don't know how we get the message across to Congress (and the business lobbies that must be continuously pressing for the USPS to be subsidized) that we can get anything we need or want via the web and that if the USPS entered into the business to compete with FedEx and UPS, the cost of shipping a 4x6 postcard, or catalog from a company I bought something from once, would be so expensive it would stop and force business to use the web.
And we haven't even started the discussion on global warming...how many trees go down to support this ridiculous antiquated process of communicating?
MNB user Philip Bradley wrote:
I, too, got the seven pounds of crap from RE in my mailbox. I, too, was appalled at this. It went into the recycling bag almost immediately.
From another reader:
I too loathe receiving catalogs in the mail, but love iPad versions. I found the CoffeeTable iPad app shortly before Christmas this year. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so won’t provide a complete description, but it completely changed how I shop. I got the best of all worlds: (1) I could shop online, (2) I still got to browse through an actual catalog, (3) all while being able to like, save and earmark all the items I wanted to by, and (4) then being able to launch the individual sites through the app. Genius!
MNB user Glenn Cantor wrote:
Adding to the irritation of mailed catalogs is my new responsibility to properly dispose of these unwanted books. This includes phone books. In my town, recyclables approved for curb-side pick-up include bundled newspaper, cardboard, cans, and bottles. Printed material, including junk mail, must be taken to the township disposal site. Otherwise, I feel guilty for simply throwing it in the trash.
So not only do I suffer the irritation of unloading my over-stuffed mail box, I now have to use my time and energy to schlep this stuff to the disposal site. That detracts from my perception of the offending brands.
My town has just instituted single stream recycling. We just throw everything in the bin together, the truck comes on Friday mornings (in fact, I can see it coming down the street right now as I peer out my kitchen window), and they sort it all out later.
Another reader wrote:
I too received those books in the mail. I did look through them but today they are in my recycle bin. Regardless, of their return, they are not thinking about sustainability.
I didn't even open the heavy packet. I put it in the recycle bin in tact. I couldn't imagine having enough time to read it ( nor was I interested in doing so), and didn't want the clutter.
MNB took note yesterday of a Publishers Weekly report that Barefoot Books, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based publisher of children's books and educational titles, announced that its books no longer will be available on Amazon.com.
The announcement was in character: Seven years ago, Barefoot Books stopped doing business with Barnes & Noble and Borders.
According to the story, Barefoot "will focus on selling direct through its bookstore/studios in Concord, Mass., and Oxford, England, and its boutique in FAO Schwarz in New York City. It will also continue to sell direct on its Web site and to expand its Ambassador network of home-based sellers, which has been growing at a rate of 16% a month, according to Barefoot."
CEO Nancy Traversy told PW that "she was unhappy with having Barefoot titles heavily discounted at the e-tailer, which sometimes began selling them before the press even received advance copies from the printer."
If Barefoot can grow its business and its authors' readership without access to Barnes & Noble and Amazon, then more power to it.
It does have an advantage, I think, because of the niches it occupies. I'm not sure other publishers and authors would be well-served by the same strategy.
I can tell you this. Based on our experience with "The Big Picture," Michael Sansolo and I cannot even imagine going to market without Amazon as a sales venue. Barnes & Noble was impossible to deal with, but getting on Amazon was relatively easy ... and not only have we sold thousands of books, but Amazon continues to be a viable and, dare I say, sustainable, marketing tool.
MNB user Steve Kneepkens responded:
Congrats to Barefoot books for being bold. Congrats to Barefoot for standing by their strategic intent to be available in channels of trade that they feel are right for their business.
Just because you and Michael CANNOT IMAGINE going to market without Amazon…. I am not sure that is a sample size that is valid or relevant.
They may be wrong.. but being the aggressor rather than the defender is a value that should be applauded.
I don't think I represented our sample as being anything other than our own experience. Though I do think it is both valid and relevant.
I'd be willing to bet that a lot of authors would say that they've been able to get some traction with readers because Amazon has given them a sales and marketing platform. (Self-publishing an e-books certainly factor into this.)
Barefoot has a specific niche and strategy, and if it can do business without Amazon and Barnes & Noble and any other venue, good for them.
Finally, in a comment responding to the tax controversy surrounding Apple, I suggested that maybe I need to move MNB global headquarters out of Connecticut and to a no-state-income-tax state like Washington ... or maybe to Ireland.
Which led MNB user Tom Murphy to write:
I volunteer to staff & run your Ireland office…my preference would be Dingle, back room of Murphy’s Pub actually! I will work for a specific allotment of Murphy’s Stout, Guinness and Black Bush…with some occasional salmon, oysters, and brown bread thrown in. (Truthfully, as a friend, in full-disclosure as you would say…you cannot afford this!).
I have a feeling I may get a bunch of applications...
Regular MNB readers won't be surprised to know that I was looking forward to Star Trek Into Darkness with enormous anticipation. I've been a Trekker - the term preferred to "Trekkie" - since the first time I saw the original series back in the sixties, and always have related to both the "wagon train to the stars" concept and the ultimate optimism of the message, as delivered in four TV series (not including the animated version) and 12 movies.
I draw the line there, though. I don't own any memorabilia, have never worn anything resembling a Starfleet uniform, and never have attended any fan festivals. I never forget that Star Trek is, at its essence, a piece of entertainment, albeit one that often has used the future as an allegory for the present.
So it is with Star Trek Into Darkness, which is a sequel to 2009's very successful Star Trek, the JJ Abrams-directed "reboot" of the original series, which had the ingenious idea of casting younger actors in the iconic roles made famous by the likes of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley all those years ago, and then create a kind of alternate timeline that could venture into new territory without invalidating the events and episodes many of us had so much time with over the years. (Trekkers take this stuff very seriously.)
Star Trek Into Darkness, in my view, lives up to the expectations created in Star Trek four years ago - it is exciting, generally coherent, well-acted, and actually manages to contain, within all the space battles and destruction, a serious message about ethical behavior and the consequences of short-term rather than long-term thinking.
Now, two things about this "message." One is that I'm not going to get any more specific, because you deserve to find out for yourself, and there's nothing worse than a guy who spoils the movie by saying too much about the plot and themes. Second, I want to be clear that Star Trek Into Darkness wears this mantle lightly. (Something that you could not say about all the TV episodes when Gene Roddenberry created and produced the original series.)
Some of the plot points are well-known. Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise goes off in search of a terrorist named John Harrison after an attack on Starfleet headquarters, but in doing so, has to face issues that test his loyalty to the United Federation of Planets, his sometimes testy friendship with First Officer Spock, his allegiance to his crew, and his character as a man. As all this unfolds, there are space battles, hand-to-hand combat, lots of explosions, and plenty of sci-fi technobabble. The action never flags, the suspense is legitimately earned, and the performances - especially by Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock - are uniformly excellent.
There are those who have complained about the film seem to fall into one of three camps. Some simply don't "get" Star Trek, never have, and just don't care. (Not much we can do for them.)
Others have complained either that the film relies on spectacle and special effects when the original series and movies,because they had much lower budgets and technical expertise, tended to have more in the way of long conversations about this issue or that.
This is true, but I have no problem with it. If I'm going to pay $18 for a ticket - which I did because I saw it in Imax 3D at the terrific AMC Theaters in Port Chester New York, and it was totally worth it - then I don't want folks to sit around talking. I want epic space battles, and Star Trek delivers.
Finally, there have been some complaints that rather than boldly going where no one has gone before, Star Trek Into Darkness actually revisits some familiar territory. This is also true, but okay with me.
If you are doing Star Trek, there are certain notes you have to hit, certain themes you have to explore, if you are going to meet expectations. And Into Darkness does it differently enough to never look like a retread. Besides, while I'm not expert on quantum physics and the space-time continuum, I've watched enough Star Trek to know that parallel timelines and universes will often have overlapping events and share echoes of what has happened elsewhere.
But perhaps I'm explaining too much. Star Trek Into Darkness was, for me, great fun. And I'm already looking forward to the next installment as the crew of the Enterprise explores the final frontier - seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no one has gone before....
What can I say. I'm a Trekker.
Two wines to recommend this week...
• 2011 Verdicchio di Matelica from Italty's Bisci, which is a nicely bold white wine.
• 2009 Cape Lookout Pinot Noir from Oregon's Carlton Cellars, one of my favorite vintners, which is silky and bright with lots of flavor.
That's it for this week. have a great, long weekend, and I'll see you Tuesday.