Houston Voices

Business leaders must focus on risks as much as on profit to ensure business success, according to Rice University research

When it comes to getting a good return on investment, businesses should be equally focused on mitigating risks as they are on earning a profit. Getty Images

Consider for a moment the race to build the next super computer. Google, Alibaba and other U.S. and China companies are racing to build a machine — called quantum computing — far more powerful than anything the world has ever seen. In this race, China reportedly has the lead.

Given that this kind of technology can protect trillions of dollars in corporate and even national secrets, why do American companies lag behind? If such research and development represents an unknown and is a potential business risk, should U.S. companies be interested in assuming such a task? Rice Business professors Vikas Mittal, Yan Anthea Zhang and a Rice Business Ph.D. student Kyuhong Han, may have answers.

They researched the various ways companies create strategic advantages for themselves. What is the relationship between these strategies and the risks involved? Companies create value through innovation-based activities such as research and development or else via branding and advertisement. As there's no set formula for success, each company has its own approach — which could affect the risk associated with the company's stock price (called idiosyncratic risk).

Typically, the two strategic pillars are examined separately, rather than jointly. But when they compared the two approaches, they found that one presented far more risk than the other.

To reach their conclusions, the Rice team looked at a data set of 13,880 firm-year observations that included 2,403 firms operating in 59 industries over 15 years (2000–2014). The data sets were from the firms' annual operational and financial information from Standard & Poor's Compustat, the University of Chicago's Center for Research in Security Prices and from the Kenneth French Data Library. What the data revealed was the stock price of companies that placed a higher strategic emphasis on marketing and branding (called value appropriation) than companies that focused research and development (called value creation).

If it is less risky for a firm to emphasize branding and marketing over research and development it stands to reason that firms would want to exercise caution in big new research and development efforts. What's the payoff for making a quantum computer or even Space X, after all, if the research and development risks associated with the endeavor are extraordinarily high? In some instances, it may be much safer to rebrand and market. Closer to home, many companies in the oil and gas industry bet big on innovative ventures — costly product features, digitization initiatives and so on that may only increase the risk to their stock price than meet customer needs.

The researchers found that firms that plunge big efforts into research and development have more to worry about than whether their innovations will work. They have to weather the fluctuations of industry demand. When industry demand is volatile, the downside of excessive research and development, at the cost of customer-relevant strategies is even worse.

For the Rice Business researchers, the lessons for managers are clear. The return on investment is intimately linked not only with optimizing potential profits but also minimizing potential risks. Research and development heavy endeavors like Space X and quantum computers may be flashy, but in the event of an unexpected drop in demand, they're also more likely to plummet to earth, creating stock-price volatility.

Managers need to think about the elements that create risk — like demand instability. The more companies create a stable and predictable client base, the less risk that they have to face in the stock market. There is still a tendency among many firms to see advertising and research and development as preceding and guiding customer perceptions, preferences and behaviors. But perhaps the relationship is just the opposite.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom. Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. Yan Anthea Zhang is a Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Professor of Management at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. Kyuhong Han is a marketing Ph.D. student at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University


The Sears opened in 1939. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.