RPE: Measuring Employee Worth

Citigroup is one of the biggest financial services corporations in the world, so it’s no surprise that the sudden switch in the company’s two top executive spots continues to generate considerable attention. It’s even being reported that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the circumstances behind the high-level shakeup.

But there’s another aspect to the story that’s also intriguing: While newly appointed CEO Michael Corbat has announced plans to optimize efficiencies at the venerable institution, the buzz is that he’s got his work cut out for him. That’s because, by some accounts at least, Citi has one of Wall Street’s least productive workforces.

The numbers seem to bear out that assertion. Citigroup generated about $206,000 in revenue per employee (RPE) through the first nine months of the year, down 7.5% from the year-ago period. Some other institutions, meanwhile, posted increases during the same time span.  This comes after the cutting of 100,000 jobs during the tenure of outgoing CEO Vikram Pandit. If current trends hold, according to estimates from Bloomberg, Citi will be one of only a half-dozen major lenders with a lower RPE than it had in 2005.

It’s easy—but according to experts, quite wrong—to overestimate the RPE metric when judging the business performance of not just banks but organizations in other industries.  “There’s only one metric that really matters when measuring HR.  It’s called Revenue per Employee (RPE),” claims a recent post in The HR Capitalist. “That’s all you need to know. The rest is BS.” That sentiment is echoed in other business performance sources as well.

So given the importance of this metric, how does the industry as a whole and, Citi in particular, stack up against other high-profile companies and industries?

24/7 Wall Street, which offers commentary for equity investors, did just such an analysis recently—tagging it as a study of companies with the ‘least valuable employees’—and the results make for interesting reading. Retailers and market-facing restaurant chains don’t fare too well: Sears (which also owns other brands) makes an appearance with an RPE of $139,000, as does Gap, with an RPE of $113,000, and JCPenney with $98,000. Starbucks may have some problems brewing at $89,000, and the stories of Mcjobs at McDonald’s may be true; the fast-food giant shows an RPE of only $65,000.

On the other side of the coin is Apple—the perfect company with the perfect products and the perfect market cap has one of the highest RPEs of any public corporation: $2.4 million. Even other flourishing tech brands can’t match that; for example, despite the much smaller employee base, Facebook (and coincidentally Google) come in at $1.2 million.

But here’s an element left out of this equation. Apple has come under attack for outsourcing much of its manufacturing; iPads and iPhones, among other devices, are made at corporations in China and elsewhere that pay a significantly smaller wage than Apple pays its own employees. There have also been numerous reports of less-than-ideal working conditions at some of these facilities, and even a recent strike at one.  If Apple built its products in-house, what would its RPE be then? And how would the market judge its performance?

Futurists frequently question the need for a central facility in a business environment where online collaboration technologies negate the need for a physical workplace. With business and support professionals virtually assembled around the world, it’s even possible to imagine a business world without Wall Street. But what other effects would this have?

RPE is surely a vital statistic, and it will be interesting to see how the new management team at Citigroup goes about raising productivity. But it’s also important to remember that in a complex global ecosystem, where jobs can be passed around between different economies and regions almost at will, it may be only one factor (and not the only factor) in gauging how good a company is at doing what it does.

What do you think about RPE? Let us know by tweeting at @bankingdotcom or replying in the comments section below.