Learning from Ken Langone

I’m sure you’ve realised by now that I love learning. And stories about successful investors and business people are right at the top of my list when I choose what it is I want to learn. I believe I understand my own strengths and limitations, however because of that, I’ve found that enhancing my knowledge of how other people have come to be at the top of their game is truly invaluable when it comes to my own investment processes and thinking.

And Ken Langone and his book ‘I Love Capitalism’ is a man I have learnt a lot from.

‘I Love Capitalism’ is the rags to riches story of billionaire US investor, businessman and philanthropist, Ken Langone. And what a story it is. I came across the legendary Ken Langone in the book about Home Depot, ‘Built From Scratch. The son of a plumber, a knock-about-student who almost got expelled from college. Rough as diamond, and a brilliant story teller who is poles apart from your typical Wall Street banker, Langone takes you on an exciting journey through Wall Street, weaving lessons of investing, business, people and philanthropy. Langone’s story is also available in a self-narrated audible book, which I highly recommend.

Langone started out as a misfit on Wall Street, landing his first job at a second tier investment bank selling securities. Dabbling in capital raisings, Langone hit the big time when he won the mandate to float Ross Perot’s EDS. With a knack for numbers and sniffing out opportunity, Langone invested in lots of different businesses, including a US home-improvement retailing chain called ‘Handy Dan’. When Handy Dan’s CEO and CFO were improperly fired, Langone encouraged them to start a new competitor with funding he raised alongside his own; this was the beginning of Home Depot. Langone’s later successes spanned health care, laser patents and an early investment in Stan Druckenmiller’s hedge fund.

With a raspy New York accent, and plenty of expletives, the story is enjoyable from start to end. It concludes with a very funny story of Langone’s brush with Ponzi Scheme extraordinaire, Bernie Madoff, where after the meeting Langone asks, “What the f*ck is wrong with that guy?

I’ve included some of my favorite extracts below..

Capitalism Works

Capitalism works. Let me say it again: It works! And- I’m living proof - it can work for anybody and everybody. Blacks and whites and browns and everybody in between. Absolutely anybody is entitled to dream big, and absolutely everybody should dream big. I did. Show me where the silver spoon was in my mouth. I’ve got to argue profoundly and passionately; I’m the American Dream.

Love

“The truth is that I loved what I was doing from the day I went to work, which is one of the great joys in life, I’ve found.”

“I learned early how essential it was to love the work I was doing. Sometimes I look back and wonder, how did all this happen? Then the answer comes. Shit, I know how it happened; I was at a place where I was having the time of my life! I still remember what Hudson Whitenight said to me sixty years ago: ‘If you really love your work as much as I think you’re going to, you’re going to be a big success.’ So I’m saying to a kid, I learned this ex-post facto; ‘you should learn it in front!’”

“I still love my work today; all of it. At eighty-two, I’m still excited to get out of bed in the morning, still charged up about what the next deal might bring. I can honestly say that if it came down to it, I would pay to go to work every day. How many people can say that?”

Education and Smarts

“I was never academically curious. I didn’t apply myself at all. I did the absolute minimum. I was too busy having fun and working at all my various jobs: the butcher shop, Bohack, caddying at the country club, selling Christmas wreaths.”

Learning & Curiosity

“All I knew was that I wanted to make money. And where did you make money? Wall Street… All I knew about Wall Street was that was where you bought and sold stocks and bonds. In other words, I knew nothing. But I read Fortune religiously every month, in the library at Bucknell. I was intrigued by mergers; I was intrigued by companies growing and how they financed their growth. I don’t know why I was so fascinated by Wall Street. I wasn’t from an Ivy League school. I really had no family connections.”

Understand

“I don’t know beans about options: puts and calls and strips and straddles and all this other crap. All I do is pick stocks, and I never buy anything I don’t understand.”

Humility

The one thing I can’t say and never will say is that I’m self-made. I’m not. To say that would be an injustice to all those people who bought me to the party. I’m grateful to every one of them.”

Arrogance is the enemy. For many years, Bernie Marcus and I never, ever went into a Home Depot store - never once - unless we were pushing carts in from the parking lot. I used to pray I would see a piece of trash on the floor so I could pick it up. Why? Those are entry-level tasks for the kid who works in that store. When he sees the top guying doing them, he can say to himself, ‘If it’s not too small for them, it’s not too small for me.’ The minute you take away all the artificial barriers between you and your people, you’re on your way to phenomenal success. But it takes a bit of humility.”

Generalist

“[Investing in health care and now home-improvement.. ] Contradictory? Sure! Life is full of left turns, and I’ve taken quite a few of them, following my nose, which has very often pointed me in the right direction. The truth is I can’t help myself; I am a deal junkie. If the phone rings, I’m like the proverbial fire-house dog - off to the races. Who knows who might be calling. More often than not, it’s someone who has a very interesting business proposition. Doesn’t matter what kind of business it is.

Confidence

“The first big lesson Bindy taught me was one he taught by example. I’d begun encountering some of the big, big guys on Wall Street, legendary guys, men I’d read about in Fortune. These men were gods to me, and I saw right away that Bindy simply wasn’t in awe of them. In short order, he taught me to understand that a man’s public persona usually has very little to do with his private persona. Without that lesson, I would have felt subservient toward these muckety-mucks, but with that lesson under my belt I felt completely equal to anyone I dealt with. And without Bindy in my life, I don’t think I would be as certain of myself as I am and as outspoken as I am.”

Resilience and Creativity

“The Home Depot didn’t exactly get off to a flying start .. If there’s anything I would take a bow for throughout this whole process [Home Depot’s IPO], it would be this: never give up, and thinking creatively, instead of just re-actively, when the chips are down. It’s a style I recommend highly.

“Yes, I’ve been lucky, incredibly lucky, and you can’t learn good luck. My old man used to say to me, ‘You could fall in a bucket of shit and come up with a gold watch and chain’. But we all fall in that bucket from time to time. What distinguishes the winners from the losers is the ability to turn adversity around: resilience and creativity.

Focus on People

People are always your best investment.”

“As I began my tenure [as Chairman of NYU Hospital] my first role was just to lift morale. It was a big lift. I decided to do some of the same things we did at Home Depot; hold town meetings, walk the halls, talk to the staff. Put my arm around people’s shoulders, tell them how much we appreciated them and what we were going to do for them - and deliver. In other words, don’t promise pie in the sky unless you’ve got the recipe to make it… There was a natural suspicion of me at first, as an outsider and non-medical person. A rich guy who maybe wanted to throw his weight around. And I’m proud to say I defused it - by never pretending to be anything I wasn’t, by being genuinely interested in everyone I met, but mainly by being present.”

Everybody talks about the bottom line, but as I’ve seen time and time again, you ignore the human element of business at your peril.

 Source: WSJ.

Source: WSJ.

Culture

Home Depot’s great strength was (and still is) it’s culture, and culture isn’t about statistics. In our culture, you don’t measure the intangible value of a sales associate saying to a customer, ‘Can I help you?’, or, ‘You don’t really need that. Come over here and look at this. It doesn’t cost as much, but you’ll be fine with it.’

Store Visits

“Back when the company had first started, I’d recommended a policy requiring every director to visit three Home Depot stores every ninety days, casually dressed and as inconspicuous as possible, and report on his or her findings. What the directors were now finding on their store visits was that something was amiss [post Bob Nardelli’s appointment as CEO].”

Destroying Culture

“When I went to Bob [Nardelli] and told him that I’d been in the [Home Depot] stores and morale was not good, he said, ‘They’re a bunch of crybabies’. ‘Bob, they may be a bunch of crybabies to you, but they’re the most precious thing we have’, I said. ‘They’re the only thing that separates us from everybody else. They’re our secret sauce, our secret weapon. They’re what makes us what we are as a company.

“My first impression of Bob Nardelli - ‘he’s a real people guy; we’ve got a great operator here’ - had been exactly 50 percent right. The guy really was a great operator. But I came to realize - too damn slowly - that the whole people equation of Home Depot, the essence of our culture, had completely eluded him. To me, the whole issue with Bob was the damage to the culture. There’s nothing like these people in our stores. They’re special. Now, how do you get these special people? Well, you start by treating them special. You let them know they matter. You let them know you appreciate their opinion. You let them know that if they think there’s a better way of doing things than the way they’re doing them, they have an obligation to tell us, and we have an obligation to listen. You also let them know that anybody can build a big store space and put all kinds of inventory in it; the glue that holds Home Depot together are these values. We don’t just say them. We believe them, and we practice them consistently.

“Bob was a great leader until he wasn’t. Was I too slow to see the writing on the wall? Definitely. Bob was racking up great numbers but ignoring the human equation, and in business good numbers can be like sunlight: blindingly bright.”

Value Employees

“Bob [Nardelli] had developed the mind-set that these people, who started at well over minimum wage and got a raise every year if their performance reviews were good, were a cost. And they were a cost! They were a significant part of the company’s overall costs. And therefore Bob spent a lot of time trying to figure out how he could take that cost down. In my mind, it was like the reverse of the straw and the camel’s back. Nardelli kept taking one straw off, and it reached a point where something very valuable was being lost.”

We’ve never paid anybody minimum wage at Home Depot. We had a simple belief: minimum wage, minimum talent. We always wanted to have good kids who wanted careers and not feel they had to compromise their pay. We paid them two or three bucks an hour more than minimum. We reviewed them every six months. And from the beginning we were growing like a weed, so we created enormous upside mobility.”

Complacency

“Complacency is the enemy. If we don’t stay focused on our mission every single day, every minute we’re awake, Home Depot will go to sleep.

Win-Win

“You want my whole philosophy in a nutshell? I want everybody to do well. The world is a lot more fun if we’re all rich instead of just some of us.”

Capitalism is brutal, but it’s rarely a zero-sum game. Both sides of a transaction should get something out of the deal.

One of the most important lessons of my life is this: leave more on the table for the other guy than he thinks he should get. And one of the most important rules in capitalism is incentive.

Mistakes

“I have no problem admitting my mistakes: I’m loaded with them. But I never bought a pencil without an eraser on it, and God invented erasers on pencils for people like me.”

Philanthropy

“Warren Buffett says that wealthy people should give away at least half their wealth to philanthropic causes. I signed Warren’s Giving Pledge years ago, but in my case it was academic: I’d already given away more than half my net worth.

But as much as we give, it keeps coming back; we’ve made all the money we’ve given away and more.”

“We will make sure we’ve given most of our money away by the time we die, with the exception of what we leave to our kids. We want to pass along enough for them to live reasonably well, but not so much that they can do anything foolish with it. We want them to have a roof over their heads, but we also want them to have the meaning in their lives that comes from having to make their own way.

Success

“As I said, I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better. Yet, too many people measure success the wrong way. Money should be at the bottom of the list, not the top.”

Curiosity

‘A lot [of how I learnt about business] was sheer stubborn curiosity. Whenever I served on a corporate board, I was notorious for asking more questions than any other director on the board. I didn’t give a shit if my question showed how stupid I was. A lot of people are scared to ask questions because they don’t want people to know how dumb they are. I’ve never had that problem.”

Career Advice

“Wall Street got a very bad reputation after the financial crisis, yet 40 percent of college graduates today are going into finance. I tell kids that’s a big mistake. I tell them they should learn the nuts and bolts of a business before going out and trading that business’s stock. I didn’t realize how stupid I was back when I was a salesman at Pressprich! I would look in the most superficial way at the companies whose stocks and bonds I was selling; I never truly understood how those business worked. It wasn’t until I got wealthy enough to buy pieces of companies that I developed a much deeper understanding of them.

“If there’s one lesson I could pass along to kids today, it’s this; the opportunities in America today are the very best they’ve ever been. You might have to look harder for them than in my day, but they’re there. Boy, do I wish I were twenty-one again and just starting out.”

Summary

Rough language aside, there is a wealth of learning to be taken from Langone. And beyond many of the aspects that denote success that have appeared so many times in other businesses I have reviewed - humility, curiousity, treat your people right and have the right culture - one of the other things that I love is how Langone is not afraid to ask questions, even if they appear dumb to other people. Buffett has said that if you’re reliant on the income that being a Director brings, then you shouldn’t be a Director; you’re unlikely to offer contrary opinions or advice as it may affect that income. Langone’s brusque approach to questioning things he doesn’t understand is crucial if not vital in my opinion - how can we learn if we don’t ask a question now and then? If you’re staying quiet in any effort to not appear dumb, then I believe you have failed miserably.

Further Reading:
I Love Capitalism - An American Story’, Ken Langone, May 2018.
I Love Capitalism - An American Story’, Ken Langone [Audible - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED].
Culture, Enculturation and the Cult of Home Depot’, The Investment Masters Class.
Learning from Arthur Blank’, The Investment Masters Class.
Talks at Goldman - Ken Langone’, June 26, 2018.


 Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER


The Snyder Family made IN-N-OUT BURGER

Who doesn’t love a burger? As I mentioned in my McDonald’s post, most, if not all of us have had some interaction with the biggies in the fast food world, and the company with the golden arches is usually acknowledged as the leader in that space. But what if I told you that one chain of Burger restaurants actually outsells the average McDonald’s store by nearly twice over? And they’ve been around as long as McDonalds? And that Warren Buffett would LOVE to own some of it? Would you believe me? I hope you do, because its all true.

In-N-Out Burger is the story of three generations of the Snyder family, who took a small hamburger shop in California way back in 1948, and turned it into a 335-store East Coast American Cult.

In-N-Out arose out of the massive tide of change that was sweeping the US following the Second World War. Automobiles were far more common, the US highway system was growing extensively and women were entering the workforce, paving the way for societal change that would see the demise of the traditional sit-down family meal.

The brainchild behind the chain was Harry Snyder. A man with vision, he saw this tide of change sweeping America and identified the opportunity within. Simply put, he chose to use the highest quality food ingredients available, and invented quick ordering technology, and because of it In-N-Out became a mecca for the rapidly expanding Californian surburbia.

For the next 70 years, the Snyders steadfastly refused to follow industry trends, instead sticking with a simple strategy - Quality Food, Cleanliness and Service. With a recipe that worked, the business has passed down the family tree [via some tragic events] and to this day remains virtually unchanged.

A fascinating article on In-N-Out in Forbes by Chloe Sorvino recently caught my attention. The article draws on an interview with the sole third generation of the Snyder family, the current owner of the business, Lynsi Snyder. Sorvino notes:

“An In-N-Out store outsells a typical McDonald’s nearly twice over, bringing in an estimated $4.5 million in gross annual sales versus McDonald’s $2.6 million. In-N-Out’s profit margin is an estimated 20%. That’s higher than In-N-Out’s East Coast rival Shake Shack (16%) and other restaurant chains that typically own their locations, like Chipotle (10.5%).”

What’s amazing about In-N-Out’s margins is that they’re not a function of higher prices or lower wages. In fact, quite the opposite; In-N-Out’s prices are cheaper than it’s competitors.

“Over the past 30 years, the price of the Double-Double hasn’t even kept up with inflation. In 1989 the sandwich cost $2.15, or about $4.40 in current dollars. It costs $3.85 today. A combo meal (Double-Double, fries, drink) goes for $7.30, compared with $10.94 for Shake Shack’s standard double-burger patty and fries.”

It’s also renowned as the highest payer in the industry. Again, Sorvino notes:

Restaurant workers, or ‘associates’ in In-N-Out speak, make $13 an hour, versus the $9 to $10 or so that’s typical at most national competitors, including McDonald’s and Burger King. Part- and full-time restaurant workers can enroll in dental, vision and life insurance plans through the company, and full-timers can get health insurance and paid vacation, accruing time off after two weeks of employment.”

In part, In-N-Out’s margins benefit from simpler menus and distribution synergies.

So how does In-N-Out maintain its margins? To start, the limited menu means reduced costs for raw ingredients. The company also saves money by buying wholesale and grinding the beef in-house. By doing its own sourcing and distribution, it likely saves 3% to 5% in food costs a year. It cuts out an estimated 6% to 10% of total costs by owning most of its properties—many bought years ago—and not paying rent. In-N-Out picks its locations carefully, clustering them near one another and close to highways to lower delivery costs while also avoiding pricey urban cores. It has just one location within the city limits of Los Angeles and one in San Francisco, while many Shake Shacks are smack in the center of town.”

But In-N-Out also benefits from the power of reciprocation - treating customers, staff and suppliers well - which when combined with a quality, value priced product, an adherence to what they know, some scarcity value and pure simplicity drives what Charlie Munger refers to as a Lollapalooza: a combination of factors which combine together to deliver outsized results.

Having enjoyed the Forbes article I picked up the New York Times bestseller: ‘In-N-Out Burger - A Behind The Counter Look At The Fast Food Chain That Breaks All The Rules’ by Stacy Perman.

The book chronicles the development of In-N-Out from Harry and Esther Snyder’s original Hamburger Shop until Lynsi’s ownership after her own father’s passing. Harry’s second son Rich took over the business when Harry succumbed to cancer. A tragic plane crash which killed Rich left the business in the hand’s of Rich’s only sibling, his older brother Guy. And when Guy died the business passed to the only third generation descendant, Guy’s daughter Lynsi. Throughout this, Harry’s wife Esther, maintained a deep involvement with the business, always managing the books and taking the reigns at times after the tragic events.

What struck me about the book were the parallels with other great businesses we’ve covered in the CEO Masters series - Walmart, Home Depot, McDonald’s, Panera Breads, etc.

I’ve included some of my favorite snippets from the book below…

Leverage Change

“Harry wanted to serve quality food at reasonable prices, and as quick as possible. ‘We really have to have a place where people can get their sandwiches and go’ he said. Harry and Esther would open a new kind of hamburger stand - the drive through - catering to an increasingly mobile society.

“Harry Snyder’s instinct was a good one. Southern California was the most heavily motorized place on earth.”

“The asphalt tributaries developing all over the San Gabriel Valley were a boon for the fledging In-N-Out.”

“This casual new way of dining dovetailed into the rise of car culture and the establishment of the extensive interstate highway system that was starting to crisscross the nation. With better roads people could travel farther. Along the way people would need places to rest, sleep, and above all eat.”

“Harry had anticipated the significant role the car would continue to play in California. American life was becoming increasingly mobile. The exodus from the cities in favour of the suburbs meant that people had longer commutes. More women were working and less and less time was devoted to food preparation in the home. One of the first casualties of the new on-the-go lifestyle was the sit-down meal.”

Competition

"[Harry’s friend Carl Karcher told him, ‘I have always said that competition just makes you stronger. You shouldn’t be afraid of the competition. They make you stay top of your game.. it’s very important to have respect for your competitors. I may have had a different philosophy than some of the others. But I believe that your competitors are really your friends. They keep you on your toes.”

Keep it Simple

““Harry Snyder made a promise to himself that he had no intention of breaking: ‘Keep it real simple’, he always said. ‘Do one thing and do it the best you can’.”

“Their philosophy was simple; the product - if it’s a good one - should sell itself, and everything else is smoke and mirrors.”

Harry created the formula that emerged as the standard for running In-N-Out. It informed the company’s identity and was rigidly adhered to over the coming decades. It was not based on fancy management methodology - rather, it grew out of Harry’s own instincts and exacting personality. The system was based on three simple words, ‘Quality, Cleanliness, and Service’.”

“A frugal and practical man in most respects, Harry was profligate when it came to purchasing the freshest, highest grade meat, potatoes, and produce; he refused to sacrifice quality for the sake of profits.

Customer Focus

“From the start, In-N-Out ran a customer-driven shop.

“Harry put a huge emphasis on customer satisfaction. In-N-Out workers were instructed to always smile, look their customers in the eye, and maintain a level of courtesy with every guest. Long before Starbucks, the Snyders called their customers ‘guests’.”

“One of the basic tenets taught at the [In-N-Out] University was called rule number one: ‘The customer is always right'.’.. Rule number two was, ‘If by chance the customer makes a mistake, refer to rule number one’.”

Quality Control

“In order to maintain the chain’s strict quality standards even as it grew, Rich implemented a small army of ‘secret shoppers’. These undercover customers went from store to store on a monthly basis, making sure that associates were properly dressed and clean, orders were correct, food was presented properly, and even that the right amount of change was given.”

[Rich rejected IPO’ing the business], “I think it would be too difficult to maintain quality control’, he explained. ‘I like the fact I can visit all of our locations and they all know me. It’s kind of like what they say about farming - the best fertilizer there is in the field is the farmer’s footprints’.”

Unconventional

Inside the company, franchising was a dirty word. In building In-N-Out Burger, Harry followed no compass but his own. There was no hierarchical management structure, no bureaucracy, and there were no shareholders to answer to.”

“Since In-N-Out never followed the strategies or trends of its competitors, it was barely affected by the cyclical turn of events that first catapulted fast food to success and then savaged the industry.”

“Notably, only store managers manned the grill, unlike most fast-food chains, the company considered a grill position a highly skilled job. After all, it was the altar upon which the whole enterprise rested. It was a very intricate operation, since every single burger was made to order - a beef patty did not go down until an order ticket went up.”

Success Factors

“When asked to account for the chain’s success, Esther Snyder once said that it has been ‘accomplished only with the dedicated enthusiasm and wholehearted co-operation of the In-N-Out Burger employees and our pleased customers’.”

“The Snyders built In-N-Out by continuously producing quality hamburgers and fries, reinvesting in their employees, and keeping the chain’s growing legion of customers happy: nothing more, nothing less. In-N-Out’s enduring success stemmed from Harry’s capacity to understand what he did best and focus exclusively on it.”

Humility

“Harry didn’t feel that it was beneath him to scrub the floor or pick up the trash.”

Win-Win

Harry treated his suppliers well and never tried to exploit his relationships. Deals were struck on a handshake and lasted decades, often ending only if the supplier went out of business - or failed to meet Harry’s exacting standards.” 

“Like his father before him, Rich Snyder continued to stick by the company’s promises to pay full price for the highest quality ingredients. When prices plunged or spiked, or there were shortages due to weather or other events, In-N-Out always absorbed the cost. As long as the quality remained exceptional, he did not look for cheaper suppliers. It was part of the Snyder's’ business practice to take care of their purveyors as they did their customers and associates.

Harry and Esther believed in serving the communities in which In-N-Out operated. The Snyders made any number of charitable donations, and their efforts of promotion were often connected to grassroots community and philanthropic endeavours.. the result was that In-N-Out generated a kind of homespun feeling; there was a consistency and authenticity about the chain.”

“[In-N-Out] became good corporate citizens in each community where a new store opened.”

Value Employees

Harry Snyder had picked up the rhythm of human interaction, and his business philosophy was based on it. If you treated people fairly and rewarded them accordingly, he held, they would do likewise.

When In-N-Out first started, California’s minimum wage was sixty-five cents an hour, but Harry paid a dollar an hour, plus one free hamburger per shift. He believed in paying for quality, and that included wages. As Esther later explained, ‘They take your orders and make your food. They’re so important, so you want to have happy, shiny faces working there’.”

“Years before business schools discussed managerial terms like customer relations management, worker empowerment, or profit sharing, Harry Snyder put these and other concepts into practice. He gave associates a measure of ownership in the enterprise and he remunerated handsomely for their ability to meet targets and surpass them.”

“In many ways, In-N-Out Burger was an employee-driven company. The Snyders displayed an uncommon respect for their workers.. they never looked at their workers as just employees but saw them as part of their own growing, extended family. The Snyders made sure to know each individual by name. In fact, they banished the words ‘employees’ and ‘workers’ altogether and instead referred to them strictly as ‘associates’. The result was that from the outset, In-N-Out had the feel not of a workplace but of a joint enterprise in which everyone shared.

“The associates were considered the chain’s front lines. For starters, all were required to keep up a clean-cut appearance. All hires were expected to maintain a friendly attitude toward customers (or rather ‘guests’), smiling and looking them straight in the eye.”

“It is likely that the most important decision that Harry and Esther Snyder made was the loyalty they built between In-N-Out and its associates.”

'“[A] consultant told Rich Snyder that if he slashed salaries, In-N-Out could save a ‘ton of money’; the very idea infuriated Rich. This contradicted the very foundation of In-N-Out’s philosophy and its success. When Rich sourly recounted the story, he said the suggestion was exactly the kind of advice one would get ‘from a guy who wears a suit and who thinks you don’t pay a guy who cooks hamburgers that much money’.”

“Rich Snyder shared in the belief that running a successful fast-food-business was not about cutting corners or purchasing the right equipment. What it boiled down to was people management.”

“From the start, In-N-Out paid its employees more than the going rate and was an early practitioner of profit sharing. Under Rich, In-N-Out went further, establishing an expansive set of benefits under which part-time workers received free meals, paid vacations, 401(k) plans and flexible schedules. Full-time associates also received medical, dental, vision, life and travel insurance.”

“‘If you lose your workers, you lose customers’, Rich said. ‘I don’t know how others do it, but we just try to keep everybody happy that works for us’.”

Promote Ownership

“Esther once proudly stated, ‘We’re blessed with good employees, who run the restaurants as if they were their own stores’.”

“It was Rich’s belief that his job was the bottom point of an inverted triangle. He was there to support everyone else in the company. When talking to store managers, he was always careful to refer to the shops as ‘your stores’ and never asked them ‘What store do you manage?’. He wanted them to have pride of ownership. Regardless of anyone’s position or length of time with the company, Rich treated everyone equally and as if they were special… As a result, In-N-Out could boast one of the lowest turnover rates in a high-churn industry.

Maintain Smallness

“Rich imbued the family firm with his effusive personality and nimbly transformed the restaurants into a big business without damaging the integrity of the small burger chain that his parents had built.”

Culture

‘[In-N-Out had a] corporate culture operating in stark contrast to the competitor’s systems of burger flippers and vat fryers, floor moppers and cashiers who put on their paper hats and grease-stained aprons in what society calls McJobs and economists refer to as the requisite churn of capitalism. It was a place where people genuinely enjoyed getting up in the morning and going to work. Rich explained it this way: “We try to maintain the highest quality level possible, and to do that you need good training and good people. That’s why we pay the highest wages in the industry’. He added, ‘It means we tend to keep employees longer than at other places, and the reduced turnover helps us maintain consistency in our products’. Notably the philosophy did not trade on or lead to either higher prices or lower-quality food’.

Corporate Debt

“… the suburban network of In-N-Outs that followed alongside the new highways also happened to dovetail nicely with Harry Snyder’s third criterion for placing his stores; he abhorred debt.”

“Harry insisted on using cash, not credit, to open each new restaurant. Harry followed the old rules. He built one store, saved money, he built a second store and saved more money. He didn’t open another until he could afford to and had trained managers to run it - that was the Harry Snyder way. He didn’t take out a loan. He didn’t take on debt. He was beholden to no-one.”

Summary

Its fascinating to hear how this family-owned and run chain has maintained its ideals across three generations. Lynsi Snyder, the current owner, has held to her father’s and grandfather’s models faithfully, ensuring the success story continues more than 70 years later.

In a recent interview with Drew Kluger, Lynsi remarked on why she did not adopt the modern technology of on-line ordering: “We we would probably have a faster operation, and you know, which equals more people going through. I mean you've got the potential to make more money. But I would not consider it because we're going to lose one of the things we do best, and that's our customer service and the interaction we have and the relationship. I mean, I really see a relationship between the customer and In-N-Out because we have such a history, and you know our history involves treating the customer like they're number one. They're our most important asset, and how are we going to do that if it's just gone to, you know, basically like a text? That relationship is going to change a lot; and I don't want to give that up.”

I love how she sees the value of the customer relationship as sacrosanct. If you’ve been reading the MastersInvest blog posts in recent times, you’ll no doubt recognise this trait as a common reason for success for many of the businesses we’ve reviewed. And its not just in customers that we see the parallels. All of those same companies, Walmart, Panera Bread and Home Depot treat customers with respect, empower and reward their staff, have effective cultures and keep business practices simple - you don’t have to have the the lowest paid workers nor squeeze your suppliers to be the most successful brand in town.

“We have a special culture at this company. I really believe that it’s my job, and the job of the whole management team, to make sure we nurture that culture and keep In-N-Out the unique place to work it has been for all our Associates — from the 30-year veterans to the ones putting on their aprons for the first time. The simple answer to keeping Associates with us is to treat them the right way.” Lynsi Snyder

And all this hasn’t gone unnoticed. I mentioned earlier that Warren Buffett would love to own some of this business and I meant it - according to the UCLA business school website, Buffett told a group of visiting students back in 2005 that he hungered to own the chain.

He actually wrote to In-N-Out with that idea in mind but never received a reply. Keep in mind that Buffett rarely if ever does this - he would much prefer that valuable companies pay court to him.

With three generations and over 70 years of success, I have to assume that they did not want to dilute the ownership of their brand with outside ownership. They seem to have succeeded despite the revolutions that have swept their way through the fast food market and done it on their own.

Given all this success, I wonder whether the Snyders would swap In-N-Out for a holding in the S&P500? I think the answer is simple: NO WAY! And would they sell because of some concern over a Trump tweet or a trade war? NO WAY!

This is another example of a quality business that just keeps getting more valuable - no wonder Buffett is hungry for a piece, and not just because he’s a burger aficionado.


Sources/Further Reading -
In-N-Out Burger - A Behind The Counter Look At The Fast Food Chain That Breaks All The Rules’ Stacy Perman, 2010.
Recipe For Success: Why Employees Made In-N-Out a Best Place to Work’ Emily Moore, GlassDoor, 2017.
Tell Me What to Say - Drew Kugler: Lynsi Snyder


 Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER



The First Investment Primer

greek philosopher_1.jpg

People like to make investing complicated. And the more complicated they can make it sound, the smarter some people think they are. If you stop and think about it, the investment strategies that are marketed today could make anyone’s head spin; Value, Deep Value, Relative Value, Growth, Core Growth, Aggressive Growth, Growth at a Reasonable Price, Alpha Overlays, Quantitative, Momentum etc - they’re all complicated terms that when used can make the dumbest investor sound very smart indeed.

But let’s get back to basics. What is investing really all about? Mostly, it’s about simple common-sense; you outlay money today with the expectation you’re going to get more returned in the future.

So the value of an investment then is the value of the future cash-flows you will receive in the future.

As a dollar in your hand today is worth more than a dollar in the future [because you could invest that dollar today and earn interest on it versus, say a dollar received in a year’s time] you need to discount those future cash-flows back into today’s dollars. The total amount of those discounted dollars is effectively a company’s ‘Intrinsic value’. And Warren Buffett says that this is what businesses and investing is all about.

“The intrinsic value of any business, if you could foresee the future perfectly, is the present value of all cash that will be ever distributed for that business between now and judgment day. And we’re not perfect at estimating that, obviously. But that’s what an investment or a business is all about. You put money in and you take money out.

While most people think of Buffett as a ‘value investor’, the concept of value is often misinterpreted. Buffett uses the term ‘value’ in reference to a company’s ‘intrinsic value’. In short, Buffett wants back more than he puts in.

“I just cringe when I hear people talk about, “Now it’s time to move from growth stocks to value stocks,” or something like that, because it just doesn’t make any sense.Warren Buffett

"Anybody that tells you, “You ought to have your money in growth stocks or value stocks,” really does not understand investing." Warren Buffett

Among his many skills as an investor, one is keeping things simple. At the Berkshire meeting in 2000, Buffett noted the laws of investing were set out a long long time ago...

“It’s very simple. The first investment primer, when would you guess it was written? The first investment primer that I know of, and it was pretty good advice, was delivered in about 600 B.C. by Aesop. And Aesop, you’ll remember, said, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Buffett noted Aesop was smart, but there were a few more questions that need to be answered to identify an attractive investment ..

“Now, Aesop was onto something, but he didn’t finish it, because there’s a couple of other questions that go along with that.”

And the other things you need to know are; when do you get the other birds? How certain are you that you will get them? And: What are interest rates?

“[Aesop] He forgot to say exactly when you were going to get the two in the bush — and he forgot to say what interest rates were that you had to measure this against.

But if he’d given those two factors, he would have defined investment for the next 2,600 years. Because a bird in the hand is — you know, you will trade a bird in the hand, which is investing. You lay out cash today.

And then the question is, as an investment decision, you have to evaluate how many birds are in the bush. You may think there are two birds in the bush, or three birds in the bush, and you have to decide when they’re going to come out, and when you’re going to acquire them.”

A nice summary of Investing. Buffett appropriated the analogy of buying the bushes for modern day investment.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Now our question is, when do we get the two? How long do we wait? How sure are we that there are two in the bush? Could there be more, you know? What’s the right discount rate?

And we measure one against the other that way. I mean, we are looking at a whole bunch of businesses, how many birds are they going to give us, when are they going to give them to us, and we try to decide which ones — basically, which bushes — we want to buy out in the future.

It’s all about evaluating future — the future ability — to distribute cash, or to reinvest cash at high rates if it isn’t distributed.”

What that means is you need to work out what cashflows you as an investor will receive from the company you own. When do they arrive, and how certain are you you’ll get them? What can the company do to grow those cash flows? But use conservative forecasts; if you’re uncertain, it may be best to avoid the investment. Then use an appropriate discount rate to discount those cash flows back to a present value.

The key criteria then is, can I buy the stock at an attractive discount to my estimate of intrinsic value? And finally, how does this investment compare to all the other investment choices I have? The latter of course includes, doing nothing.

“When you say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, you’re comparing it — you’ve got to compare that to every other bush that’s available.” Warren Buffett

Aesop didn’t use terms like Deep Value or Alpha Overlays. He simply stated that what you hold in your hand today should be be worth more in the future. He kept it simple, and without over-complicating his theory. And Buffett says much the same thing; he even used Aesop’s theory, rather than develop a new one of his own. Which sounds pretty smart to me. It’s a time tested equation that was as relevant 500 years ago as it’s likely to be be 500 years in the future.

 Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER


Factfulness -Learning from Hans Rosling

Facts are important. They are the fundamental truth that allows us to make decisions. They allow us to determine what is right and what is wrong. They help us decipher critical information so we can sift the lies and stories from the actual statistical details, and because of this, they’re very hard to refute. In fact, they’re important to almost everything we do, and never more so than in investing.

Having written the last blog post, ‘Investment Stories vs. Facts’ I happened upon a fabulous interview of Oaktree Capital’s, Howard Marks by Tim Ferris. In the interview, Tim Ferris asked Howard Marks if there were any books he’d recommend. Here’s what he had to say..

“The book I’m working on now is called Factfulness, and basically, it unmasks a lot of misperceptions that people have about the state of the world, and they hold these perceptions generally qualitatively, not based on data, and the author tries to substitute facts for these perceptions. He starts with a list of 13 questions describing the state of the world, and fascinatingly, he gives you the answer to one, and you have to think about the answer to the other 12. The average score on the 12 is two, and he points out that if you flip the coin, you’d get six right. So the average American gets two of the 12 questions right, so not only are they systematically wrong, but they’re wrong in the same direction, which is they always pick the more pessimistic answer when the more optimistic one is true, and so he responds to our bias and tries to overcome the ignorance and the bias by using facts and some great, very communicative graphics. So I would recommend Factfulness, and I love the idea of unmasking biases.”

Surprisingly enough, I already owned the book, and I distinctly remember Microsoft’s Bill Gates praising it. When Bill Gates said this book, “.. is one of the most important books I’ve ever read, an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world”, it got my attention.

As Howard Marks suggests, the book highlights the biases that most people carry. And not just Joe Averages either, but groups of Professionals, Nobel Prize laureates and medical researchers. It’s striking to think that people can hold firm to such strong, yet erroneous views.

The books author, the late Hans Rosling, details how the world is getting better, why we don’t notice it and he provides us with some tools for better thinking. There are striking similarities between the approaches to improve one’s thinking and seeing the world as it is, with those commonly espoused by the Investment Masters. The book could easily have been written with an investor in mind, for all great investors are seekers of truth. As Warren Buffett has observed:

“The most important thing in investments is not having a high IQ, thank God. I mean, the important thing is realism and discipline. And you don’t need to be extraordinarily bright to do well in investments, if you are realistic and disciplined.”

And this book will help you with realism

“This is a book about the world and how it really is. It is also a book about you, and why you (and almost everyone I have ever met) do not see the world as it really is.” Hans Rosling

It’s an easy read with lots of insightful examples. I’ve included some of my favourite quotes below:

“The human brain is the product of millions of years of evolution, we are hard-wired with instincts that helped our ancestors to survive in small groups of hunters and gatherers. Our brains often jump to swift conclusions without much thinking, which used to help us avoid immediate dangers. We are interested in gossip and dramatic stories, which used to be the only source of news and useful information.”

“We need to learn to control our drama intake. Uncontrolled, our appetite for the dramatic goes too far, prevents us from seeing the world as it is, and leads us terribly astray.”

“I want people, when they have been wrong about the world, to feel not embarrassment, but that childlike sense of wonder, and curiosity that I remember from the circus, and that I still get every time I discover I have been wrong; ‘Wow, how is that even possible?’.”

“If you want to convince someone they are suffering from a misconception, it’s very useful to be able to test their opinion against the data.”

Human beings have a strong dramatic instinct toward binary thinking, a basic urge to divide things into two distinct groups, with nothing but an empty gap in between. We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus Villains. My country versus the rest.”

Averages mislead by hiding a spread in a single number.”

“We almost always get a more accurate picture by digging a little deeper and looking not just at averages but at the spread; not just the group all bundled together, but the individuals.”

“The stories of opposites are engaging and provocative and tempting - and very effective for triggering our gap instinct - but they rarely help understanding.”

What do you need to hunt, capture, and replace misconceptions? Data. You have to show the data and describe the reality behind it.”

“I never trust data 100 percent, and you never should either. There is always some uncertainty.

“It is easy to be aware of all the bad things happening in the world. It’s harder to know about the good things; billions of improvements that are never reported.

“We are subjected to never-ending cascades of negative news from across the world: wars, famines, natural disasters, political mistakes, corruptions, budget cuts, diseases, mass layoffs, acts of terror. Journalists who reported flights that didn’t crash or crops that didn’t fail would quickly lose their jobs. Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page even when they occur on a dramatic scale and impact millions of people.”

“The news constantly alerts us to bad news in the present. The doom-laden feeling this creates is then intensified by our inability to remember the past; our historical knowledge is rosy and pink and we fail to remember that, one year ago, or tens years ago, or 50 years ago, there was the same same number of terrible events, probably more.”

When you hear about something terrible, calm yourself by asking, If there had been an equally positive large positive movement, would I have heard about that? Even if there had been hundreds of larger improvements, would have I of heard? Would I ever hear about children who don’t drown? Can I see a decrease in child drownings, or in deaths from tuberculosis, out of my window, or on the news, or in a charity’s publicity material? Keep in mind the positive changes may be more common, but they don’t find you. You need to find them, and if you look at statistics, they’re everywhere.”

“When looking at a stone flying toward you, you can often predict whether it is going to hit you. You need no numbers, no graphs, no spreadsheets. Your eyes and brain extend the trajectory and you move out of the stone’s way. It’s easy to imagine how this automatic visual forecasting skill helped our ancestors survive. And it still helps us survive: when driving a car we constantly predict where other cars will be within the next few seconds. But our straight line intuition is not always a reliable guide to modern life.

“To understand a phenomenon, we need to make sure we understand the shape of its curve. By assuming we know how a curve continues beyond what we see, we will draw the wrong conclusions and come up with the wrong solutions.

When we are afraid we do not see clearly

None of us have enough mental capacity to consume all the information out there. The question is, what part are we processing and how did it get selected? And what part are we ignoring? The kind of information we seem most likely to process is stories; information that sounds dramatic.

“The media can’t waste time on stories that won’t pass our attention filters.

If we are not extremely careful, we come to believe that the unusual is usual; that this is what the world looks like.”

“Of all our dramatic instincts, it seems to be the fear instinct that most strongly influences what information gets selected by news producers and presented to us consumers.”

“If we look at the facts behind the headlines, we can see how the fear instinct systematically distorts what we see of the world.”

“The fear instinct is a terrible guide for understanding the world. It makes us give our attention to the unlikely dangers that we are most afraid of, and neglect what is actually most risky.”

To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks.”

“It is pretty much a journalists’ professional duty to make any given event, fact or number sound more important than it is.”

“The most important thing you can do to avoid misjudging something’s importance is to avoid lonely numbers. Never, ever leave a number all by itself. Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. If you are offered one number, always ask for at least one more. Something to compare it with. Be especially careful about big numbers.”

Beware of exceptional examples used to make a point about a whole group .. ask whether an opposite example would make you draw the opposite conclusion. If you are happy to conclude that all chemicals are unsafe of the basis of one unsafe chemical, would you be prepared to conclude that all chemicals are safe on the basis of one safe chemical?”

Beware of vivid examples. Vivid images are easier to recall but they might be the exception rather than the rule.”

“We must try hard not to generalise across incomparable groups. We must try hard to discover the hidden sweeping generalisations in our logic. They are very difficult to discover. But when presented with new evidence, we must always be ready to question our previous assumptions and re-evaluate and admit if we were wrong.”

“Be prepared to update your knowledge. In the social sciences even the most basic knowledge goes off very quickly.. In 1996, a minority of 27 percent supported same-sex marriage. Today that number is 72 percent and rising.”

“A small change every year can translate to huge numbers over decades.”

Some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and regions are constantly changing.”

“Forming your worldview by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot.”

Being always in favour of or against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective. This is usually a bad approach if you like to understand reality… Instead constantly test your favourite ideas for weaknesses. Be humble about the extent of your expertise. Be curious about new information that doesn’t fit, and information from other fields. And rather than talking only to people who agree with you, or collecting examples that fit your ideas, see people who contradict you, disagree with you, and put forward different ideas as a great resource for understanding the world."

“When I know, for example, that all the population experts agree that population will stop growing somewhere between 10 billion and 12 billion, then I trust the data. When I know that economists disagree about what causes economic growth, that is extremely useful too, because it tells me I must be careful; probably there is not enough useful data yet, or perhaps there is no simple explanation.”

“Its better to look at the world in lots of different ways.

“Though we absolutely need numbers to understand the world, we should be highly skeptical about conclusions derived purely from number crunching.

Resist blaming any one individual or group of individuals for anything. Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it’s almost always more complicated than that.”

When we are afraid and under time pressure and thinking of worst-case scenarios, we tend to make really stupid decisions. Our ability to think analytically can be overwhelmed by an urge to make quick decisions and take immediate action.”

The future is always uncertain to some degree. And whenever we talk about the future we should be open and clear about the level of uncertainty involved.”

“While it is truly pointless worrying about something unknown that we can do nothing about, we must also stay curious and alert to new risks, so we can respond to them.”

Beware of fortune tellers. Any prediction about the future is uncertain. Be wary of predictions that fail to acknowledge that. Insist on a full range of scenarios, never just the best or worst case. Ask how often such predictions have been right before.

“Most important of all, we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity.”

Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.”. It also means, when you do have an opinion, being prepared to change it when you discover new facts.”

Being curious means being open to new information and actively seeking it out. It means embracing facts that don’t fit your worldview and trying to understand their implications. It means letting your mistakes trigger curiosity instead of embarrassment.”

What you learn about the world at school will become outdated within 10 or 20 years of graduating. So we must find ways to update adults knowledge too.”

Summary

Everything we do in daily life revolves around our learning. And Rosling believes that what we have learnt in the past clearly has a ‘use-by-date’ attached. Basically that means all our known information can become obsolete. That also means we cannot rest on our laurels and must accept that as humans we can never stop learning. The trap with this is that nowadays we have to sift through all the data out there for the kernels of truth or facts, rather than accept all the information at face value.

There is a wealth of critical truth in all of the above which only reinforces my thinking about facts vs stories. Beware a sample size of one. The media’s professional purpose is to be make something more sensational than it really is. We only hear about the negatives, never the positives. Question the assertions of others; never accept what they say as fact until you have proven it so. And as humans we have a very unhealthy appetite for drama and stories.

I really like Rosling’s opinion on how we are wired the same way we have always been wired - to socially interact and hunt just as our prehistoric ancestors did. And we are still hunting; as humans, or investors, we are constantly seeking new information that will allow us to survive. Whether its factual or not is another matter altogether.

Source:
Factfulness - Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think’. Hans Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund - Sceptre.


 Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER


Jeff Bezos interviewed by David Rubenstein

Just five weeks after Apple became the first trillion dollar company, Jeff Bezos’ Amazon became the second company to reach that milestone. And off the back of that, Bezos has become the world’s richest person.

And how did he get there?

Bezos has a drive for innovation and is driven by instinct. He has a preparedness to take risks and is able to embrace create thinking; all things we have noted as similar traits in other great business Mavericks.

I always enjoy listening to what Jeff Bezos has to say. And lucky for all of us, he was recently interviewed by David Rubenstein, the billionaire founder of Carlyle. Rubenstein always provides a great line-up of guests on his namesake show, ‘The David Rubenstein Show’. I’ve included some of my favorite snippets from Rubenstein’s latest peer to peer conversation with Bezos.

Don’t Think About The Stock Price

“I say when the stock is up 30% in a month don’t feel 30% smarter, because when the stock is down 30% in a month it’s not going to feel so good to feel 30% dumber. I never spend any time thinking about the daily stock price.

The Stock Is Not The Company - The Company Is Not The Stock

“[The whole tech bubble] is very interesting, because the stock is not the company and the company is not the stock. So as I watched the stock fall from $113 to $6 I was also watching all of our internal business metrics: number of customers, profit per unit, defects, everything you can imagine. Every single thing about the business was getting better, and fast. So as the stock price was going the wrong way, everything inside the company was going the right way. We didn’t need to go back to the capital markets because we didn’t need more money. The only reason a financial bust makes it really hard is to raise money. So we just needed to progress.”

Operate In The Future - Don’t Focus On The Quarter

“All of our senior executives operate the same way I do, they operate in the future, they live in the future. None of the people that report to me should be focused on the current quarter. When Wall Street congratulates us for a good quarter, that quarter was baked three years ago. Right now, I’m working on a quarter that’s going to reveal itself in 2021. That’s what you need to be doing. You need to be two to three years in advance.

Start and Think Small

Everything I have ever done has started small. Amazon started with a couple of people. Blue Origin started with five people and the budget was very small. Now the budget approaches a billion dollars. Amazon was literally ten people, today it’s half a million. For me it’s like yesterday I was driving packages to the post office myself and hoping one day we could afford a forklift. For me, I’ve seen small things get big and it’s part of this ‘day one’ mentality. I like treating things as if they’re small; Amazon is a large company but I want it to have the heart and spirit of a small one.”

Decision Making and Intuition

“I believe in the power of wandering. All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition and guts. Not analysis. When you can make a decision with analysis you should do so. But it turns out in life your most important decisions are always made with instinct, intuition, taste and heart.”

Different Kinds of Smart

The older I get I realize how many kinds of ‘smart’ there are. There are a lot of kinds of smart. There are a lot of kinds of stupid too. I see people all the time who I know wouldn’t have got A+’s on their calculus exams, but they’re incredibly smart.”

Focus on the Customer

“The secret sauce of Amazon, where there are several principles, but the number one thing that has made us successful by far is obsessive, compulsive focus on the customer, as opposed to obsession over the competitor. I talk so often to other CEO’s and founders and entrepreneurs and I can tell that even though they are talking about customers they’re really focusing on competitors. It is a huge advantage to any company if you can stay focused on the customer instead of your competitor.

Identify Your Customer

You have to identify who is your customer. At the Washington Post, is the customer the people who buy advertisements from us? No. The customer is the reader. In the school, who are the customers? Is it the parents? Is it the teachers? No. It is the child.”

Seek Customer Feedback

“I got smart and I emailed 1,000 randomly selected customers and asked them, ‘besides the things we sell today, what would you like to see us sell?’ That answer came back incredibly long tailed. The way they answered the question was for whatever they were looking for at that moment. One of the answers was ‘I wish you sold windshield wiper blades, because I really need windshield wiper blades.’ I thought to myself we can sell anything this way. If you read the original business plan it was just books.”

Fix Problems Once

“[With customer problems] we try to find real route causes and then real route fixes. So when you fix it you’re not fixing it for that one customer but for every customer. That process is a gigantic part of what we do.”

Leverage Other People’s Capex/Technology

Amazon got started with only one million dollars of capital because I got to ride on the back of the credit card system, I got to ride on the back of the pre-existing transportation network that could deliver packages, and the pre-existing telecommunications network that could allow people to connect to our servers. All of that would have been hundreds of billions of dollars of capex but the heavy lifting was already in place.”

The Washington Post Business Model

“I wanted to be really open with myself and look in the mirror and be sure I was optimistic that it [the Washington Post] could work. If it were hopeless it would not be something I would get involved in. I looked at it and I was super optimistic. It needed to be transitioned into a national and global publication. There is one gift the internet brings newspapers and that is free global distribution. So we had to take advantage of that gift. That was the basic strategy. We had to switch from a business model where we made a lot of money per reader with a relatively small number of readers to a tiny bit of money on a very large number of readers. And that is the transition we did. I’m pleased to report the Post is profitable today, the newsroom is growing every year I’ve been there. It’s working. I know when I’m ninety, I always project myself forward to age ninety, it’s going to be one of the things I’m most proud of.”

Why Amazon? and Regret Minimization

“I came across the fact that the web was growing at something like 23,000% a year in 1994. Anything growing that fast, even if its base-line usage today is tiny, it’s growing so fast that its going to be big. I looked at that and thought I should come up with a business idea and let the internet grow around us. I made a list of the products I might sell on-line and I picked books because books are super unusual in one respect in that there are more book items in the book category than any other category. There are three million different books in print at any given time. The founding idea of Amazon was to build universal selection of books. The biggest bookstores only had 150,000 titles. I made the decision with my heart and not my head. I basically said, when I’m ninety,  I want to have minimized the number of regrets in my life. Most of our regrets are acts of omission. They are the things we didn’t try, the path untraveled. Those are the things that haunt us.”

Know Your Competency

“Whenever we have dabbled in something that’s a ‘me too’ service we tend to get beaten; it doesn’t work. Our culture is much better at pioneering and inventing. So we have to have something that’s different.”

Team Inventing. Love.

Team inventing is my favorite thing. I tap dance into the office. I love Amazon. Amazon is my full time job. I get to live two to three years into the future.”

Make A Small Number Of High Quality Decisions

“As a senior executive what do you really get paid to do? As a senior executive you get paid to make a small number of high quality decisions. Your job is not to make thousands of decisions every day. It’s different if it’s a start up company but we are not a start up.”

Mistakes

Getting it wrong isn’t that bad. When we make mistakes, and we’ve made doozies, the big winners pay for thousands of failed experiments.

Amazon Web Services’ Long Runway

“AWS completely reinvented the way companies buy computation. Then a business miracle happened. This never happens. This is the greatest piece of business luck in the history of business as far as I know. We faced no like-minded competition for seven years. It’s unbelievable. When you pioneer if you’re lucky you get a two year head start. Nobody gets a seven year head start. We had this incredible runway.”

Regulation and Big Companies

We are so inventive that whatever regulations are promulgated or however it works, that will not stop us from serving customers. Under all regulatory frameworks I can imagine, customers are still going to want low prices, they are still going to want fast delivery, they are still going to want big selection. It is really important that politicians and others need to understand the value big companies bring and not demonise or vilify big companies. The reason is simple. There are certain things only big companies can do. Nobody in their garage is going to build an all carbon-fiber fuel efficient Boeing 787. It’s not going to happen. You need Boeing to do that. This world would be really bad without Boeing, Apple, Samsung and so on.”

Summary

The main takeaway for me on Bezos’ early years was his focus on the business operating metrics and not the share price. Basically while those metrics were moving in the right direction, he totally ignored the share price - even when the share price dropped from $113 to $6. His philosophy that ‘the stock is not the company and the company is not the stock’ is a great learning piece for all investors, I feel. Had Bezos listened to the share price, particularly when it tanked like it did, he may well have panicked and sold. In which case today, he wouldn’t hold the title, ‘the world’s richest person’.

It almost seems like de ja vu, yet once again we’re looking at a highly successful business owner with the same set of success traits as all the others we have reviewed in recent posts. And given we have seen so many people who have succeeded putting customers first, learning from mistakes and not listening to the share price, it no longer comes as a surprise to me. I hope it doesn’t come as a surprise to you.

Further Reading:
’Learning From Jeff Bezos’ - Investment Masters Class

’The Master CEOs’ - Investment Masters Class

Source:
‘The David Rubenstein Show’, Bloomberg


 Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

Investment Stories vs. Facts

stories.JPG

Who doesn’t love a story? Those tales of woe and drama, intrigue and suspense; and the better the storyteller the more we’re usually hooked.

Stories sell. We often believe them without thinking or questioning. And they can have an unjustified weight on our perceptions. Consequently, stories often impact markets and our investment decisions when they shouldn’t.

I’m sure you’ve seen a situation where an analyst or journalist writes a short story about a stock or sector? Then the market takes it as a given and the stock or sector plunges as a result. And I’m sure you can think of plenty of investment stories you’ve heard over the years. Just think about some of the more recent ones .. ‘bitcoin’s finite supply means it will be worth more’, ‘negative bond yields imply a global recession’, ‘the longest equity recovery in recent history portends a market crash’, or ‘value investing is dead’.

Why do we believe such stories? Why do we get hooked into these narratives that are neither factually correct or accurate? The answer is, we are wired that way; mankind actually hasn’t evolved much from the days we spent hunting and gathering. One of the key skills that allowed us to progress from these primitive beginnings and reach the top of the food chain was collaboration. And collaboration involved stories. Yuval Noah Harari made the point in his must-read book Sapiens.

"We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them." Yuval Noah Harari

In an essay titled ‘What Makes Us Human’, Lisa Mada notes “Humans around the world, from the very young to the very old, have been communicating and transmitting their ideas through stories for thousands of years, and storytelling remains integral to being human and to human culture.

Stories are everywhere. In a recent article in the FT, Jon Authers, provided a few examples of ‘stories’ in today’s financial markets.

What’s the story? US unemployment numbers are out, jobs are up, and wages are not growing as fast as they were. Does this mean we are back in “Goldilocks”, or should the narrative be “Making America Great Again”? And as for world markets, can we go back to the story that was looking so good until a surprisingly strong wage growth number brought it to a halt? That story was “Melt-Up”, after an extraordinary rally in stock markets.” Jon Authers

Mr Authers refers to the narrative fallacy, the tendency for humans to turn random or disparate data into stories.

“We think in stories. When applying the word “narrative” we often bump against the “narrative fallacy” — the human tendency to try to turn random or disparate data into a satisfying story. But that is how we make sense of the world. Any journalist will admit that to explain a complex story you must turn it into a narrative. Anyone selling you an investment similarly does so by telling a story.” Jon Authers

And our story instinct makes us vulnerable to believing narratives that just aren’t true. Joe Wiggins, of Behavioural Investment notes, “There are myriad behavioural pitfalls that blight value investing”, an obvious one is ‘Stories’. He provides us with an example in the context of value investing.

“We have an overwhelming desire to construct, and believe, coherent, simple narratives. Walter Fisher (1978) first posited the narrative paradigm theory, which argued for the pre-eminence of storytelling in human communication – compelling tales outweigh robust argumentation. Growth stocks often benefit from beguiling narratives, which we inextricably link to positive share price performance, whereas value stocks suffer from the reverse –‘cheap for a reason’ is the common slight aimed at undervalued stocks. As investors strive for consistency, it is hard to reconcile the typically negative narrative that accompanies a depressed value stock with the potential for strong future performance.” Joe Wiggins

Investing stories can be dangerous. It’s little wonder the world’s most successful investors are mindful of this.

"Most stock-picking stories, advice and recommendations are completely worthless." Ed Thorp

"Stories are more powerful than statistics because the most believable thing in the world is whatever takes the least amount of effort to contextualize your own life experiences." Morgan Housel

Of all the dangers that investors face, perhaps none is more seductive than the siren song of stories. Stories essentially govern the way we think. We will abandon evidence in favour of a good story.James Montier

“Humans are irrational. We’re not especially good at stock picking. We have a tendency to get caught by narratives and stories.” Raife Giovinazzo

Stories sell stocks: the wonderful new product that will revolutionise everything, the monopoly that controls a product and sets prices, the politically connected and protected firm that gorges at the public trough, the fabulous mineral discovery, and so forth.” Ed Thorp

Stories appeal to our emotional side and they often blind us to the underlying facts. Stories are quick and easy. It’s human nature to respond to emotion before reason. That’s how we’ve evolved.

"Our brain is wired to perceive before it thinks - to use emotions before reason.” Peter Bevelin 

"Information presented in vivid and concrete detail often has unwarranted impact, and people tend to disregard abstract or statistical information that may have greater evidential value.  Statistical data, in particular, lacks the rich and concrete detail to evoke images, and they are often overlooked, ignored or minimised". Richards Hueur

Stories are often formed from a single or limited number of observations transformed into a generalisation. Just the other day, the front page of a national financial newspaper I was reading carried the story about a man who had lost his job, whose wife had just had a baby, and could no longer afford his mortgage repayments. He sold his house and received less than he’d expected, which was also less than the amount an estate agent told him the house would sell for 3 months prior. The narrative was: people are being forced out of their homes as they can’t afford them, and house prices are falling. Therefore mortgage banks are in trouble. SELL BANKS. The market reacted accordingly despite a sample size of just one.

Relying on only a few anecdotes can lead investors to the wrong conclusions. The famous theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, observed “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Studied by many of the world’s greatest investors, Feynman understood the danger of relying on small sample sizes.

"You can't prove anything by one occurrence, or two occurrences, and so on. Everything has to be checked out very carefully. Otherwise you become one of these people who believe all kinds of crazy stuff and don't understand the world they're in. Nobody understands the world they're in, but some people are better off at it than others." Richard Feynman

"Many people believe things from anecdotes in which there is only one case instead of a large number of cases." Richard Feynman

Because stories often lack statistical rigour, they provide a false representation of reality. They can also suffer from wishful thinking, poor analysis, inappropriate analogies, or incorrect observations.

“The narratives investors use to explain the market or economy sometimes lack the statistical rigor required for a proper description. And as we have learned, if the description is faulty the explanation is likely wrong.”  Robert Hagstrom

Overcoming the pull of stories requires keeping an open mind, collecting all the facts and testing investment ideas. Before acting on stories and narratives it’s important to test their validity. This can be done by collecting more information.

“One also needs to learn to fight certain human biases such as buying into stories. The thing that gets fundamental discretionary traders involved in trade is stories, because we can grasp onto them. But in general, it’s good to step away from the stories and take it back to the numbers.” Jim Leitner

“My point about narratives is that if you’re so caught up in the story and in finding evidence that supports the story, you might not adequately process data points that could raise important red flags,” Jake Rosser

When false narratives and stories are prevalent, stocks trade at the wrong prices; the stock price reflects the narrative, not the facts.

“Because of a financial-community appraisal that is at variance with the facts, a stock may sell for a considerable period for much more or much less than it is intrinsically worth.” Phil Fisher

It’s when a share price that’s been supported by a false narrative is subjected to reality, that investors who acted on that false information suffer.

Investment fads and misinterpretations of facts may run for several months or several years. In the long run, however, realities not only terminate them, but frequently, cause the affected stocks to go to far in the opposite direction. The ability to see through some majority opinions to find what facts are really there is a trait that can bring rich rewards in the field of common stocks.” Phil Fisher

Such distortions in perception, or not seeing the world as it really is, can lead to serious investment mistakes. In fact, Charlie Munger considers seeing the world the way it really is, as the most important thing of all.

“I would argue rationality, which is seeing the world the way it is, instead of the way you hope it is, I’d say that’s the most important [thing]. If you don’t see the world the way it is, it’s like judging something through a distorted lens, you think the world is one way and it’s different. And of course, that leads to terrible mistakes. You want to think correctly.” Charlie Munger

“We should see the world the way it is, which is the same as seeking truth from facts.” Li Lu

So, before you jump into an investment or make a change to an existing investment, you need to ask yourself the following questions - “Do I have all the facts?”, “Am I relying on an unsubstantiated story”, “Have I asked all the right questions?”, and “What assumptions am I making?

The Investment Masters don’t act without ensuring they have all the facts. They let the facts do the talking and don’t get caught up in stories and narratives.

“If you don’t know the facts don’t play.” Jim Rogers

"Be obsessive in making sure your facts are right and that you haven't missed or misunderstood something."  Barton Biggs

“I’m quite capable of selling a stock when it goes down. I am quite capable of buying a stock when it goes down. It all depends on the underlying facts.” Warren Buffett

“Most people do not look thoughtfully at the facts and draw their conclusions by objectively weighing the evidence… When you’re approaching a decision, ask yourself: Can you point to clear facts (i.e facts believable people wouldn’t dispute) leading to your view? If not, chances are you’re not being evidence based.” Ray Dalio

“Both my failure in whiskey and my success in copper emphasized one thing – the importance of getting the facts of a situation free from tips, inside dope, or wishful thinking. In the search for facts I learned that one had to be as unimpassioned as a surgeon. And if one had the facts right, one could stand with confidence against the will or whims of those who were supposed to know best.” Bernard Baruch

“You have to come to your own conclusions, and you have to do it based on facts that are available. If you don’t have enough facts to reach a conclusion, you forget it. You go on to the next one. You have to also have the willingness to walk away from things that other people think are very simple.” Warren Buffett

“We must focus on facts – as Dragnet fans will recall, “Just the facts”, Stories usually have an emotional content, hence they appeal to the X-system – the quick and dirty way of thinking. If you want to use the more logical system of thought (the C-system), then you must focus on the facts. Generally, facts are emotionally cold, and thus will pass from the X-system to the C-system.” James Montier

“First you’ve got to get all the facts, and then you’ve got to face the facts. Not pipe dreams.” Paul Cabot

“Never act upon wishful thinking. Act without checking the facts, and chances are that you will be swept away along with the mob.” Jim Rogers

Summary

The moral of this story is: be mindful of other stories and get the facts. And only the facts. Just because one homeowner can’t pay his mortgage doesn’t mean housing prices are going to crash and banks are going to be in trouble. Just because one person heard that so and so stock was going to tank doesn’t mean that it will.

Your task is to sift through the stories out there and find the kernels of truth, the facts that will determine if the story is correct. And while you’re doing it, don’t let other people’s emotional reactions or beliefs influence you to a different way of thinking. Don’t let urban myth dictate your investment activities. And whatever you do, look for evidence where stories are based on a sample size of one. Trust me when I say, they’re not hard to find, they’re just very hard to ignore.

Further Suggested Reading:
'
Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind’ - Yuval Noah Harari
Narrative Economics’ - Robert J. Shiller January 2017


 Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER


The Stock 'Business' Market

businessthink.JPG

 

"That whole idea that you own a business, you know, is vital to the investment process." Warren Buffett

 

Between the ages of 11 and 19, Warren Buffett was a failed investor. Hard to believe, right?

And it wasn’t for lack of trying. By the age of ten, Buffett had read every investment book on the shelves of the Omaha library. He'd gorged on stock quotes and technical analysis, and whilst his education in investing could be said to have improved, quite simply he wasn't making any money.

But at the age of nineteen, Buffett picked up Ben Graham's 'Intelligent Investor' and everything changed for him. Within Chapter Eight of that book lay an alternative philosophy about investments. The author proposed that an investor was 'analogous to that of a silent partner in a private business' whose results would be 'entirely dependent on the profits of the enterprise'. Graham proffered that 'as long as the earnings power of [the] holdings remain satisfactory, [an investor] can give as little attention as he pleases to the vagaries of the stock market'.

It had been the 'vagaries of the market', the unexpected and inexplicable changes in stock prices that had obstructed Buffett from investment success. With this learning, a light went on in Buffett's mind. It was a seminal moment that would change his life. 

"From 11 to 19, I was reading Garfield Drew, and Edwards and Magee, and all kinds of — I mean, I read every book — Gerald M. Loeb — I mean, I read every book there was on investments, and I didn’t do well at all. And I had no real investment philosophy. I had a lot of things I tried. I was having a lot of fun. I wasn’t making any money. And I read Ben’s book in 1949 when I was at University of Nebraska, and that actually just changed my whole view of investing. And it really did, basically, told me to think about a stock as a part of a business." Warren Buffett

Like Buffett junior, the vast majority of market participants think of stocks as pieces of paper to be traded, not an entitlement or claim to the underlying earnings of a business.

"To many on Wall Street, both companies and stocks are seen only as raw materials for trades." Warren Buffett

These investors take their cues about their investment decisions and the company they’ve bought from short-term stock price movement rather than the performance and outlook of the underlying business.

"People buy a stock and they look at the price next morning and they decide to see if they are doing well or not doing well. It is crazy. They are buying a piece of the business.” Warren Buffett

As such, a stock price decline must imply the outlook is deteriorating, and vice versa. But stock prices move for all sorts of reasons, and many of them are unrelated to business fundamentals. And humans are emotional, they often over-react; psychological biases mean they often do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Consequently, stock prices can have little semblance to what a company is worth, be it too high or too low. Basically, stock prices are frequently irrational.

"The beauty of stocks is that that do sell at silly prices from time to time. That's how Charlie and I have gotten rich."  Warren Buffett

This is the beauty and the real opportunity in public markets. These markets are brimming with emotional participants who don't know what they own, what their stocks are worth and who buy and sell at the wrong times. Emotions rather that facts drive their investment decisions. Sometimes it's not even people, but two algorithms programmed to sell at market prices, come what may. No price is the wrong price for an algorithm. 

“When the price of a stock can be influenced by a ‘herd’ on Wall Street with prices set at the margin by the most emotional person, or the greediest person, or the most depressed person, it is hard to argue that the market always prices rationally. In fact market prices are frequently nonsensical.” Warren Buffett

In contrast, private market transactions are ordinarily set by astute, informed, rational sellers.

"In a negotiated purchase of a business, you’re almost always dealing with someone that has the option of either selling or not selling, and can sort of pick the time when they decide to sell, and all of that sort of thing. In stock markets, it’s an auction market. Crazy things can happen. You can have, you know, some technological blip that will cause a flash crash or something. And the world really hasn’t changed at all, but all kinds of selling mechanisms are tripped off, and that sort of thing. So you will see opportunities in the stock market that you’ll never really get in the business market." Warren Buffett

"The stock market will offer you opportunities for profit, percentage-wise, that you’ll never see, in terms of negotiated purchase of business." Warren Buffett

By acknowledging that stock prices could be nonsensical, Buffett overcame the powerful emotional impact that can derail an investors' decision making process. Buffett changed his perspective, he now looked to the business as his guidepost, not the share price.

"We don’t consider ourselves richer or poorer based on what the stock does. We do feel richer or poorer based on what the business does. So we look at the business as to how much we’re worth. And we do not look at the stock price, because the stock price doesn’t mean a thing to us." Warren Buffett

"You have to have an attitude that divorces you from being influenced by the market." Warren Buffett

“I think it’s almost impossible if you’re to do well in equities over a period of time if you go to bed every night thinking about the price of them. I mean, Charlie and I, we think about the value of them.”  Warren Buffett

Taking a step further, Buffett framed his purchases under the guise of buying the whole enterprise which provoked a different analytical lens than for share purchases. 

"When we buy a stock, we always think in terms of buying the whole enterprise, because it enables us to think as businessmen, rather than as stock speculators." Warren Buffett

Buffett even considered stock purchases in the hypothetical context of a stock market that was indefinitely closed.

"No matter what the stock was selling for — it just doesn’t make any difference — because we do look at the businesses. We really look at it as if there wasn’t any quote on the stock. Because we don’t know what the stock is going to do. If the business gets worth more at a reasonable rate, the stock will follow, over time. But it won’t necessarily follow week by week, or month by month, or year by year... So we really measure all the time by the business. We think of it as a private business, basically, for which there’s a quotation. And if it’s handy to use that quotation, either in buying more stock or something of the sort, we may do it. But it does not govern our ideas of value." Warren Buffett

“We bought See’s Candy in 1972. We haven’t had a quote on it since. Does that make us wonder about how we’re doing with See’s Candy? No, we looked at the company results. So — there’s nothing wrong with focusing on company results. Focusing on the price of a stock is dynamite, because it really means that you think that the stock market knows more than you do. Now if the stock market may know more than you do, but then you shouldn’t be in stocks. I mean, you should have — the stock market is there to serve you and not to instruct you.” Warren Buffett

Buffett recognised that over the longer term a company's share price must reflect the value of the future earnings of that company. 

"Sooner or later, the amount of cash that a business can disgorge in the future governs the value it has — that the stock commands — in the market. But it can take a long time." Warren Buffett

"Wild swings in market prices far above and below business value do not change the final gains for owners in aggregate; in the end, investor gains must equal business gains." Warren Buffett

What a stock earns depends solely on the business that underlies that stock. It's little wonder Buffett considers himself, first and foremost, a business analyst.  

"When investing, we view ourselves as business analysts - not as market analysts, not as macroeconomic analysts, and not even as security analysts." Warren Buffett

"The only way we know how to make money is to try and evaluate businesses." Warren Buffett

And identifying good businesses that can grow their earnings is key. 

"People have been successful because they've stuck with successful companies. Sooner or later the market mirrors the business." Warren Buffett

Which means its important to think about what makes a good business. Focus on the ones you understand.

"I think most of the people in this room, if they just focused on what made a good business or didn’t make a good business and thought about it a little while, they could develop a set of filters that would let them, in five minutes, figure out pretty well what made sense or didn’t make sense." Warren Buffett, Berkshire AGM 1997

"The way you learn about businesses is by absorbing information about them, thinking, deciding what counts and what doesn’t count, relating one thing to another. And, you know, that’s the job. And you can’t get that by looking at a bunch of little numbers on a chart bobbing up and down about a — or reading, you know, market commentary and periodicals or anything of the sort. That just won’t do it. You’ve got to understand the businesses. That’s where it all begins and ends." Warren Buffett

"I would just read the Graham and the Phil Fisher books. And then read lots of annual reports, think about businesses, and try and think about which businesses you understand and which you don’t understand. And you don’t have to understand them all. Just forget about the ones that you don’t understand." Warren Buffett

"I think you ought to learn everything you can about industries and businesses that — where you think you have the ability to get your mind around them if you work at them. And with that arsenal, you’ll do very well, and if you’ve got the temperament for the business." Warren Buffett

Paying the right price for the future earnings is what value investing is all about.

"What you’re trying to do is look at all the cash a business will produce between now and judgment day, and discount it back at a rate that’s appropriate, and then buy it a lot cheaper than that." Warren Buffett

Not overpaying is important. Although, paying too much for a great business is more likely to lead to waiting longer for results rather than the permanent loss of capital.

"Stocks are part of a business. If the business does well, they’re [the investors] going to do all right as long as they don’t pay way too much to join into that business... [If] you pay too much for them, [the] risk is usually a risk of time rather than loss of principal, unless you get into a really extravagant situation." Warren Buffett

And if you get the business analysis right, the investment will be right. 

"We figure if we’re right about the business, we’re going to make a lot of money. And if we’re wrong about the business, we don’t have any hopes — we don’t expect to make money." Warren Buffett

"What costs us money is when we mis-assess the fundamental economic characteristics of the business." Warren Buffett

It also means not having to worry about the macro or political issues.

"I can’t remember any discussions Charlie and I have had, ever, going back to 1959, that where we would’ve come to the conclusion at the end of them that we would’ve passed on a great business opportunity — a business to buy — because of external conditions. Nor did we ever buy anything that we thought was mediocre simply because we thought the world was going to be wonderful." Warren Buffett

It shouldn't come as a surprise many of the Investment Masters think the same way as Buffett. While each Investment Master has their own style, a great majority consider themselves business owners rather than stockholders and consider stocks as 'pieces of a business'. 

“Forget the noise. Investing is about owning businesses!” Francois Rochon

"The number one idea is to view stock as an ownership of the business and to judge the staying quality of the business in terms of its competitive advantage."  Charlie Munger

“You have to think of yourself as an owner of a business, rather than an owner of a piece of paper." Li Lu

“Stock certificates are deeds of ownership in business enterprises and not betting slips.” J Paul Getty

“Stocks are ownership shares of businesses; they are not pieces of paper that bounce around on which you calculate Sharpe and Sortino ratios. They are ownership shares of businesses that we value, and either buy at a discount or short when they are overpriced.” Joel Greenblatt

Summary

I think one of the most important lessons from Buffett has to be this fundamental shift in his thinking. Prior to his discovery of Ben Graham’s book in 1949, he had been dabbling in the Stock Market and whilst having lots of fun, had not earned a cent. Once he had shifted his thinking towards Business Ownership as opposed to Stock Ownership, he began to make money.

And it’s a relatively simple lesson that is missed by the majority of the world’s investors. They live their lives based on what a stock price is doing rather than the future earnings potential of the businesses they own, and therefore often ‘create’ fluctuations in the prices of those stocks due to their emotions or thinking biases. Or even worse, the emotions and thinking biases of other people. AKA: the Herd.

So here’s some easy things to remember from all this:

1) Think about the stock as part of a business
2) Learn everything you can about businesses and industries
3) Identify good businesses with sustainable competitive advantages that are growing
4) Recognise that stock prices can be completely irrational and nonsensical
5) Apply Mental Tricks - consider you are buying the whole business and that the stock market will close indefinitely
6) Look to buy such businesses for less than they’re worth
7) Focus on the underlying performance of the business rather than its stock price
8) Provided the business does well over the long term, you will do well.

Sometimes the simple act of thinking about something in a different way can bring context to a situation.  Buffett's example is a case in point. It wasn't until he read Ben Graham’s book and changed his frame of reference to consider stocks as 'pieces of a business' that success came. And this approach has proven itself over time.

"I haven’t seen anything in the last 25 years, and I read — I glance through — most of the books. I’ve seen nothing to improve on Graham and Fisher in terms of the basic approach of going about investing, which is to think about stocks as businesses, and then think about what makes a good business." Warren Buffett

Further Reading:
‘Business Owner Mentally’ Investment Masters Class

 Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER


 

Learning From Ray Kroc

We all know McDonald's. And we've all probably eaten there; it's a pretty rare person who hasn't dined at one of their restaurants at some point in their life. And given there is more than 35,000 of them in 120 countries, and that they serve over 68 million of us every single day, it's no surprise that they're so well known and so successful. 

Ray Kroc is the man behind the business. Like myself, you may have seen the recent film 'The Founder', which details the rise of this incredible iconic company. And like with the podcasts I listen to, having watched the movie, I was keen to find out more about Ray Kroc and how he came to grow the McDonald's brand into the most successful fast-food chain in history.

“I can’t think of anybody else who, before McDonald’s, ever did what McDonald’s did to create a chain of restaurants on such a scale, that worked.” Charlie Munger

Luckily for me there was a biography available which went into far more detail about his story and the secrets to his success. And I just finished that book, 'Grinding it Out', which is a fascinating read. Whilst the movie portrays Ray in a less than positive light at times, I found the book far more factual with some incredibly interesting parallels to other businesses and leaders I have reviewed in recent times. 

Which is also no surprise.

Ray began his career selling paper cups and milk shake machines and stumbled across the Californian Hamburger bar run by the brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald in the 1950's. Realizing the incredible potential of the company, at the age of fifty-two, he negotiated franchising rights with the brothers and launched the McDonald's franchise in 1955.

Since then, the franchise idea has been copied so many times that these days Restaurant Franchises are a dime a dozen. There are so many of them about, in so many formats and brands, its almost impossible to work out which is the best. I know people who have ventured into the world of franchising, only to be bitten by over promising and under-performance, which over time led to them closing the doors and losing their initial investment. And many of the bigger franchise groups simply don't care. There are so many people on the waiting list for a franchise, that they can just sell that failed franchise to the next person. And then the next. As long as they are taking their cut and getting their fees, its doesn't matter to them whether an individual franchise fails. It doesn't matter, until it does.

One of the most striking things about the success of the McDonald's model is that Ray worked out that for the business to be ultimately successful, the franchisee had to make money. If the franchisee was making money, then the franchisor would, too. Warren Buffett, who once owned more than four percent of McDonald's, identified this trait in successful franchises as well.

"You want a franchise operation — you want the franchise operator to make money and you want him to create a capital asset that’s worth more than he’s put in it. That’s the goal." Warren Buffett, Berkshire AGM 1998

"Whereas Dairy Queen will, in most cases, receive 4 percent of the franchisee’s sales, in terms of a royalty, at a McDonald’s there’s more than that percentage, plus rentals and so on. So they’re two different — very different — economic models. They both depend on the success of the franchisee in the end. I mean, you have to have a good business for the franchisee to, over time, have a good business for the parent company." Warren Buffett, Berkshire AGM 1998

"A successful franchisee can sell his operation for significantly more than he has invested in tangible assets. And we want it that way, obviously, because that means he’s got a successful business, and it means that, over time, we will have a successful business." Warren Buffett

I have mentioned many times that the Investment Masters learn from their mistakes. Buffett himself has espoused the value of it and also mentioned that he made a mistake with McDonald's. A Billion Dollar mistake.

"The portfolio actions I took in 1998 actually decreased our gain for the year. In particular, my decision to sell McDonald's was a very big mistake." Warren Buffett, Berkshire Letter, 1998

  Source: Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

Following on from the recent posts about Walmart, Les Schwab Tires, Panera Bread, Nucor, Home Depot and Starbucks, I have added my favourite quotes and points from Ray Kroc's book below...

Love What You Do

"For me work was play. I got as much pleasure out of it as I did from playing baseball."

"There's nothing more fun for me than rubbing elbows with a bunch of operators and talking shop."

"In many corporations when the top guy moves it's to a figure-head role. He becomes chairman of the bored. Not me."

Early Experience

"I spent a lot of time thinking about things."

"I learned that you could influence people with a smile and enthusiasm and sell them a sundae when what they'd come for was a cup of coffee."

"No self-respecting pitcher throws the same way to every batter, and no self-respecting salesman makes the same pitch to every client."

"Too many salesman, I found would make a good presentation and convince the client, but they should have stopped talking. If I ever noticed my prospect starting to fidget, glancing at his watch or looking out the window or shuffling papers on his desk, I would stop talking and ask for his order."

"I stressed the importance of making a good appearance, wearing a nicely presented suit, well-polished shoes, hair combed, and nails cleaned. "Look sharp and act sharp," I told them. "The first thing you have to sell is yourself. When you do that, it will be easy to sell paper cups."

"There's almost nothing you can't accomplish if you set your mind to it."

Keep It Simple

"My first motto for McDonald's - KISS - which meant, 'Keep it simple, stupid.'"

It's About People

"[My management style] proceeded on the strength of my salesman's instinct and my subjective assessment of people... I've been wrong in my judgements about men, I suppose, but not very often."

"I liked to get people fired up, fill them with zeal for McDonalds, and watch the results in their work."

Tone At The Top

"I've never been too proud to grab a mop and clean up the rest rooms, even if I happened to be wearing a good suit."

3a63e06aaacd7fa2baae0a15a872c513.jpg

"I've never submitted a personal expense account to McDonald's in my life. In the early days, of course, it would have been an empty exercise. I didn't take a salary; I was keeping the thing afloat with my income from Prince Castle Sales, But even in later years it never entered my mind that I should be reimbursed by the company. I pay most of my company expenses out of my own pocket, although, of course, I do use my company credit card. But by the same token, I have purchased a fleet of nineteen customised Greyhound buses, outfitted with kitchens, rest rooms, telephones, colour television, and lounge-style seating and I rent these to the corporation for one dollar a year. Each of our district books the use of one of these Big Mac Buses to its operators for worthwhile activities such as taking disadvantaged children and senior citizens on outings. I also bought the company plane, a Gulfstream G-2 jet. McDonald's rents it from me for the same low price, one dollar a year."

"I couldn't give [my first two employees, Harry Sonneborn and June Martino, who worked tirelessly and neglected their families] them raises to compensate them for their past efforts, but I could make sure they would be rewarded when McDonald's became one of the country's major companies, which I never doubted it would. I gave them stock - ten percent to June and twenty percent to Harry - and ultimately it would make them rich. At the time, of course, Chicago Transit Authority tokens would have been worth more." 

Risks And Mistakes

"You have to take risks. I don't mean to be a daredevil, that's crazy. But you have to take risks, and in some cases you must go broke. If you believe in something, you've got to be in it to the ends of your toes. Taking reasonable risks is part of the challenge. It's the fun."

"If you are willing to take big risks, and I always have been, you are bound to blow one once in a while; so when you strike out, you should try to learn as much as you can from it."

"None of this is meant to sound as though I think I've never made a mistake, Far from it. I could probably write another book about my mistakes. But it wouldn't be very interesting. I've never seen negatives add up to a plus."

"I learned then [with early set-backs] how to keep problems from crushing me. I refused to worry about more than one thing at a time, and I would not let useless fretting about a problem, no matter how important, keep me from sleeping."

"A good executive does not like mistakes. He will allow his subordinates an honest mistake once in a while, but the will never condone or forgive dishonesty."

"Achievement must be made against the possibility of failure, against the risk of defeat. It is no achievement to walk a tightrope laid flat on the floor. Where there is no risk, there can be no pride in achievement and, consequently, no happiness."

No Master Plan

"There is a certain kind of mind that conceives new ideas as complete systems with all their parts functioning. I don't think in that 'grand design' pattern. I work from the part to the whole, and I don't move on to the large scale ideas until I have perfected the small details. To me this is a much more flexible approach. For example, when I was starting McDonald's, my original purpose was to sell more Multimixers. If I had fixed in my mind as a master plan and worked unswervingly toward that end, my system would have been far different and much smaller scale creation... At the risk of seeming simplistic, I emphasis the importance of details. You must perfect every fundamental of your business if you expect it to perform well."

Customer Comes First

"I thought of the customer first."

"My philosophy was one of helping my customer, and if I couldn't sell him by helping him improve his own sales, I felt I wasn't doing my job."

"[When you] Look at it strictly from the customers point of view, which is how I do it, because this guy is our real boss - you see the importance of every penny."

Look After The Stores

"There is a basic conflict in trying to treat a man as a partner on the one hand while selling him something at a profit on the other. Once you get into the supply business, you become more concerned about what you are making on sales to your franchisee than with how his sales are doing. The temptation could become very strong to dilute the quality of what you are selling him in order to increase your profit. This would have a negative effect on your franchisee's business, and ultimately, of course, on yours."

"Many franchise systems came along after us and tried to be suppliers, and they got into severe business and financial difficulty. Our method enabled us to build a sophisticated system of purchasing that allows the operator to get supplies at rock-bottom prices."

"Convincing [suppliers in California] that we were an honest operation, that we protected our operators, and that we would take no kickbacks, was a big order. They could not be persuaded that if they would supply McDonalds restaurants with items the way we wanted them at prices that would allow us to sell hamburgers for fifteen cents, our growth would put them on Easy Street."

"I said [to Harry of Interstate Foods when he wanted to show his appreciation by giving a sign or a clock for the stores.] ".. let's get this straight, once and for all. I want nothing from you but a good product. Don't wine me, don't dine me, don't buy me any Christmas presents. If there are any cost breaks, pass them on to the operators of McDonald's stores."

"[I told Frank Cottee when he was drafting the franchisee licensing agreement ..] "you can hogtie these guys with all the ifs, buts and whereases you like, but it's not going to help the business one goddamn bit. There'll be just one great motivator in developing loyalty in this operation. That is if you got a fair, square deal, and the guy makes money. If he doesn't make money, I'm in a peck of trouble. I'm gonna lose my shirt. But I'll be right out there helping him and doing all I can to make sure he makes money'. As long as I do that, I'll do just fine."

"We are an organisation of small businessmen. As long as we give them a square deal and help them make money, we will be amply rewarded."

Cultivate Win-Win Relationships

"Fred would go out to Milwaukee or Molina or Kalamazoo or wherever a new operation was starting, and he'd call on a baker there and tell him about McDonald's and the buns we would like him to make for us. Fred had the figures laid out cold, so the baker could see why our way was better and how it would save him money. He'd never heard of the kind of box we wanted, so Fred would set up a meeting with the box manufacturer. Supplying buns to McDonald's was the break of a lifetime for many of these men."

"Our stores were selling only nine items, and they were buying thirty or forty items with which to make the nine. So although a McDonald's restaurant's purchasing power was no greater than any other in a given area, it was concentrated. A McDonald's bought more buns, more ketchup, more mustard, and so forth, and this gave it a terrific position in the marketplace for those items. We enhanced that position by figuring out ways a supplier could lower his costs, which meant of course, that he could afford to sell to a McDonald's for less. Bulk packaging was one way; another was making it possible for him to deliver more items per stop."

"Whenever Fred came up with a better idea of handling a product, I'd see to it that our suppliers implemented it in all their operations. My years of experience in selling paper cups and Multimixers paid off here, because I knew exactly what hands held the strings I wanted to pull to get the job done. I didn't start McDonalds until I was fifty-two years old, and then I became an overnight success. But I was just like a lot of show business personalities who work away quietly at their craft for years, and then suddenly, they get the right break and make it big. I was an overnight success all right, but thirty years is a long, long night."

"I've always dealt fairly in business, even when I believe someone was trying to take advantage of me. That's one reason I have had to grind away incessantly to achieve success. In some ways I guess I'm naive. I always try to take a man at his word unless he's given me reason not to, and I've worked out many a satisfactory deal on the strength of a handshake." 

Transparency

"I like people who level with me and speak their minds. I always say exactly what I think; it's a trait that's gotten me in trouble plenty of times, but I never have problems getting to sleep at night with a guilty conscience."

"[When I re-asserted myself as Chairman and President] I removed that misguided moratorium on building new stores. In reviewing our real estate picture, I discovered all kinds of locations we had purchased and sort of stockpiled for future development. When I was told we were waiting for the local economy to improve in those areas, I hit the ceiling. 'Hell's bells, when times are bad is when you want to build!' I screamed. 'Why wait for things to pick up so everything will cost more? If a location is good enough to buy, we want to build on it right away and be in before the competition. Pump some money and activity into a town, and they'll remember you for it."

Decentralise

"It has always been my belief that authority should be placed at the lowest possible level. I wanted the man closest to the stores to be able to make decisions without seeking directives from headquarters."

"Authority should go with the job. Some wrong decisions may be made as a result, but that's the only way you can encourage strong people to grow in an organisation. Sit on them and they will be stifled. The best ones go elsewhere. I knew that from my past experience with [my boss] John Clark at Lily Tulip Cup. I believe that less is more in the case of corporate management; for it's size, McDonald's today is the most unstructured corporation I know, and I don't think you could find a happier, more secure, harder working group of executives anywhere."

Focus on Your Core Competency

 The first Indiana McDonald's opened in 1956. Source: McDonalds Corporation

The first Indiana McDonald's opened in 1956. Source: McDonalds Corporation

"Another judgement I made early in the game and enforced through the years would be no pay telephones, no juke boxes, no vending machines of any kind in McDonalds restaurants. Many times operators have been tempted by the side income some of these machines offer, and they have questioned my decision. But I've stood firm. All of those things create unproductive traffic in a store and encourage loitering that can disrupt your customers."

Innovate & Experiment

"A well-run restaurant is like a winning basketball team, it makes the most of every crew member's talent and takes advantage of every split-second opportunity to speed up service. Once our bun-box was finalised, Fred kept coming up with refinements on it."

"Fred applied the same sort of thinking he'd used on the buns [individual rather than clusters and pre-sliced] to all the other supplies being purchased. It's important to make clear Fred wasn't buying these items on behalf of the corporation and we weren't selling to the operators. We set the standards for quality and recommended methods for packaging, but the operators themselves did the purchasing from suppliers."

"The purpose of all of these refinements [for the beef patties - i.e. specific wax packaging paper, optimal stacking etc], and we never lost sight of it, was to make our griddle man's job easier to do quickly and well. All the other considerations of cost cutting, inventory control, and so forth were important to be sure, but they were secondary to the critical detail of what happened there at the smoking griddle. This was the vital passage in our assembly line, and the product had to flow through it smoothly or the whole plant would falter."

"Some of my detractors, and I've acquired a few over the years, say that my penchant for experimenting with new menu items is a foolish indulgence. They contend it stems from my never having outgrown my drummer's desire to have something new to sell. 'McDonald's is in the hamburger business,' they say. 'How can Kroc even consider serving chicken?' Or, 'Why change a winning combination?'

"Of course, it's not difficult to demonstrate how much our menu has changed over the years, and no-body could argue with the success of additions such as the Filet-O-Fish, the Big Mac, Hot Apple Pie, and Egg McMuffin. The most interesting thing to remember about these items is that each evolved from an idea from one of our operators. So the company has benefited from the ingeniuity of its small businessmen while they were being helped by the system's image and our co-operative advertising muscle. This, to my way of thinking, is the perfect example of capitalism in action. Competition was the catalyst for each of the new items. Lou Green came up with Filet-O-Fish to help him battle against the Big Boy chains in the Catholic parishes in Cincinnati. The Big Mac resulted from our need for a larger sandwich to compete against Burger king and a variety of specialty shop concoctions."

"I keep a number of experimental menu items in the works all the time. Some of them now being tested in selected stores may find their way into general use. Others, for a variety of reasons, will never make it."

"Back in the early days when we first got a company airplane, we used to spot good locations for McDonalds stores by flying over a community and looking for schools and church steeples. After we got a general picture from the air, we'd follow up with a site survey. Now we use a helicopter and it's ideal. Scarcely a month goes by that I don't get reports from whatever districts happen to be using our five copters on some new locations that we would never have discovered otherwise. We have a computer in Oak Brook that is designed to make real estate surveys. But those print outs are of no use to me. After we find a promising locations, I drive around it in a car, go into the corner saloon and into the neighbourhood supermarket. I mingle with the people and observe their comings and goings. That tells me what I need to know about how a McDonalds store would do there. Hell, if I listened to the computers and did what they proposed with McDonalds, I'd have a store with a row of vending machines in it."

 The first McDonald's fast food franchise c.1955 Source: Time Magazine

The first McDonald's fast food franchise c.1955 Source: Time Magazine

Complacency And Humility

"Business is not like painting a picture, you can't put a final brush stroke on it and then hang it on the wall and admire it. We have a slogan posted on the walls around McDonald's headquarters that says, 'Nothing recedes like success. Don't let it happen to you'."

Embrace Change

"Change has been our history, and you can't consider our growth without taking into account the context in which it occurred, an America in which tremendous social changes were taking place. McDonald's is vastly different now from the company it was back in the early days, and that's good."

Competition

"You can learn all you ever need to know about the competition's operation by looking in his garbage cans. I am not above that, let me assure you, and more than once at two o'clock in the morning I have sorted through a competitor's garbage to see how many boxes of meat he'd used the day before, how many packages of buns, and so forth. 

"My way of fighting the competition is the positive approach. Stress your own strengths, emphasize Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value, and the competition will wear itself out trying to keep up. I've seen it happen many times."

"My attitude was that competition can try to steal my plans and copy my style. But they can't read my mind; so I'll leave them a mile and half behind."

"The thing that has made this country great is our free enterprise system. If we have to resort to this - bringing in government - to beat our competition, then we deserve to go broke. If we can't do it by offering a better fifteen cent hamburger, by being better merchandisers, by providing faster service and a cleaner place, then I would rather be broke tomorrow and out of this business and start all over again in something else."

Summary

I like what Charlie Munger says about McDonald's and the impact its educational style has had on people.

"I had fun once at a major university when I said I thought McDonald’s succeeded better as an educator than the people in the university did. And what I meant was McDonald’s hires a lot of people who are quite marginal at the very start of their working career. And they learn to show up on time for work and observe the discipline. A lot of them go on in employment to much higher jobs. And they’ve had an enormous constructive effect about educating into responsibility a lot of people who were threatened with not making it. So I think we all owe a lot to the employment culture of McDonald’s. And it’s not enough appreciated." Charlie Munger

In over fifty years of investing, there just isn't a lot Buffett and Munger haven't worked out. Which means that their ideas and opinions on business and investing are usually on the money.

Likewise, if I found just one company that had succeeded using the successful and ethical traits I have listed above, it would just be an anomaly. Its a sample of one and whilst unique, could hardly be called a trend. But when you have so many businesses from so many different industries who have those same traits and beliefs, and are successful because of it, its kind of hard to refute don't you think?

 

 

Further Reading: 'The Master CEOs' - The Investment Masters Class

Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

 

 

Learning from Les Schwab

les2.JPG

"If you want to read one book that will demonstrate really shrewd compensation systems in a whole chain of small businesses, read the autobiography of Les Schwab, who has a bunch of tire shops all over the Northwest. And he made a huge fortune in one of the world’s really difficult businesses by having shrewd systems. And he can tell you a lot better than we can." Charlie Munger, Berkshire AGM 2004

Every successful company that grows and prospers in an industry that has both powerful competitors and relatively low barriers to entry must have an edge. They've got to have a differentiator that sets them apart, something unique that gives them an advantage in an otherwise crowded economic space.

It's in studying these sorts of businesses and then identifying the characteristics, systems and/or circumstances that allowed them to succeed that can help you formulate your own mental models. These characteristics are typically unconventional, unique and qualitative in nature and often combine to produce results in a non-linear fashion; what Charlie Munger refers to as 'lollapalooza' results. 

Of course, information on these companies is now readily available to us all in a plethora of forms. I'm still a fan of books, though, particularly those that educate me to different ways of thinking, or more importantly those books that are recommended by greats such as Buffett and Munger. In that regard, you can't go past Les Schwab's memoir, 'Pride in Performance, Keep it Going!'

"It’s an interesting book, and, you know, selling tires, how do you make any money doing that?" Warren Buffett

In a speech at the University of California in 2003, Munger drew on the Les Schwab story as a case study to highlight how he combines mental models with a checklist approach to analyse investments.

At 15, Led Schwab was an orphan. At 30, with a $3,500 investment he built the most successful independent tire chain business in the US. Schwab was a straight shooter whose story parallels many of the businesses and leaders we've reviewed recently; Walmart, Home Depot, Panera Bread, Nucor and Starbucks. And like those stories, his lessons have stood the test of time. While the book was written over 30 years ago, the lessons are as relevant today as they were then.

Les Schwab's extraordinary success can be traced to his fanatical nature combined with a business philosophy of empowering, sharing and rewarding staff. Other success traits include a long-term focus, absolute transparency, a win-win culture, continuous innovation and prioritising front line employees. His generous profit sharing plans started with a deal he offered his second employee in 1954, and are probably the most unique sharing plans ever created for employees. A staff retirement fund incentivised employees and provided the capital for the business to both support those staff and grow. It also secured retirements for thousands of employees. It's these characteristics which made the Les Schwab Company almost impossible to compete against. 

I've included some of my favourite extracts from the book below.

Tone at the Top

"I am 68 years old now. And I've run it in overdrive my whole life."

"It was not unusual for me to drive 600 miles or more in one day and make many stops."

"I think the biggest misconception the public has about a successful businessman is he is working for more money. You won't find many truly successful ones that are greedy."

"I am seventh or eighth down the line if you consider bonuses. I have never taken a bonus from the company."

"I've always wanted to be the best tire dealer, not necessarily the largest tire dealer."

Culture

"Our company is a large family."

"I told my managers .. 'If you don't do for your employees what I have done for you, then this company will die when I die'."

"Mary Kay, founder of the very successful Mary Kay Cosmetic Company has a saying .. 'do good for people and it will come back to you ten fold. Do bad and it will also come back to you tenfold'."

Love your Customer

"Love your customer, give him top service, give him the best available price the first time and stay with it, and don't let your customers run your business."

Pricing Power

"People don't buy tires on price, they buy from someone they trust and from someone who will smile, and from someone who will give service and stand behind what they sell."

Share Profits with Staff

"I encourage you to share profits with your employees. I encourage you in every way possible to 'build people'. This is good for America, it is good for you, and it is good for your employees."

  Les Schwab [Source: The Bulletin]

Les Schwab [Source: The Bulletin]

"[The sharing plan that I started in 1954] was the start of the profit sharing plan we still use today. We still share 50 percent of our profits, but we share with all employees in the store. The manager now gets 25% of what is left after sharing with all other employees."

"My thinking has always been, if I give away half the profits I still have half left; if I share $10,000,000 with people, I still have $10,000,000 left over before taxes. I don't understand why businessmen can't do this, as it is unselfish for good reasons. It helps a lot of other people."

"'Unselfish for good reasons' has been a slogan of mine for nearly 34 years."

"I believe in sharing with those who helped me. The more you share, the more you have left for yourself. I don't like to think about having it left for myself. I like to think about it as having it left to expand the business, and to create more opportunity for more young people."

"[When competition arrived that operated for lower cost and somewhat lower prices] after thinking about this for a year or so, wondering if I should cut wages and benefits, I finally made the decision. That decision was, 'If I couldn't be proud of my company, If I couldn't pay good wages, if I couldn't have good benefits, if I couldn't have the best employees, then why would I even want to stay in business, as I had all the money I wanted personally'. So we did nothing, and we won. The customer likes us best. Life is hard .. for the man who thinks he can take a short cut."

"With our programs the employees leave a lot of their money in the company, or Trust, and this too can be used to expand the programs. It's self perpetuating."

"I can't remember one single man leaving our company and doing better outside."

"We have a need to continue to make our company the best employee company in the area. I've never been sorry for my desire to be a good employer. The more I've done for my employees, the more successful our company has been."

"There's something in our program that makes a man, several hundred miles from the main office, be at the store at 7.30am and stay there until 9.00pm. If needed. It's not a thick policy book, it's not a lot of supervisors, as we don't have them; it's something that our programs created in him right in his heart. That is opportunity, the right to be successful, to be a good family man and hold his head high."

Build People

"People are the success of our company. Most anyone can sell tires. The only difference between a Les Schwab Tire Centre and most any tire dealership is the people working there.. And that's why we must continue to ask ourselves .. how can we do an even better job?"

"What is the best route to follow to continue to be successful? What should our company do to to build for the future? The answer is, as it has always been ... BUILD PEOPLE."

"How can you make people feel important? The best way is to believe that they are important. Really believe it!"

"The success of any company is in direct proportion to the ability and motivation of its people, and that fits anything."

"We teach our managers to believe in making the men under them successful."

Empower Staff

"I ask our people to reach for goals that they think are way beyond what they might think possible"

"In our 34 years of business, we have never hired a manager from the outside, nor have we ever hired an assistant manager directly to that job. Every single one of our more than 250 managers and assistant managers started at the bottom changing tires. They have all earned their management jobs by working up."

"We are different from most of the American corporations, as we think the most important people in the company are the people on the firing line; the ones who sell, do the service work and take care of the customer. Most American corporations have the fat salaries and outrageous bonuses for the top people, and treat people at the end of the line as peons. I guess that is why, if you are on the ball, you can beat them on any type of fair competitive basis."

"The office and all the computers, all the records in the world just tell the stores and the other departments what they did last month, last year. Too many corporations think all the brains are in the main office and all the bonus money is paid to the four or five high people. All the others are peons, or just numbers, and if you have a union, that really makes them a number. The truth is that the success is at the other end. The office merely keeps their records and tells them how they are doing. The real job for the office people is to provide motivation, to create programs that make it possible for them to be successful, to be fair, to be open, to have really open communications, to have no secrets, to support them."

"Our managers have much more leeway than any chain type operation that I know of. But the manager, in no way, can take a free ride."

"I'll make a prediction that if our top four or five people in the [head] office start to make more than our top four or five store managers, then our company won't be the company it is today. They won't as long as I am alive. This is an unusual way to run a business; but more businesses would be successful if they gave more attention to the people on the front lines."

Correct Incentives

"We already had an excellent Trust fund set up for our warehouse company which was the same as the stores. I didn't want a bonus based upon the profit of the retreading shop or warehouse, because we could name our own profit. We had captive customers, our stores and member dealers."

Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 9.19.36 PM.png

Decentralisation

"A company starts, it grows, and as it grows, more and more of the decision making moves to the main office. And this is one hell of a big mistake. The decision making should always be made at the lowest possible level... Give your manager the authority to make his own daily decisions, under certain guidelines of course, but let him run his show."

"Let the people at the store level and your manager know you are behind them. They are the ones who make you successful, not the person in a nice office who has nothing to do today but to send out another damn directive. If it doesn't help the store, tear it up .. tell the store to tell the office to go to hell."

"[We tell store managers that] we expect you to run the store. You are on your own, and you will sink or swim according to your abilities."

"Each store operates as a separate entity and each store operates as a separate business. The store employees share only in the profits of the store they work in."

"The thing that held it together [in the early days] was that we ran each store as a separate entity."

"We have had over the years some people in the [head] office that sometimes think they are more important than the stores. The office serves only one purpose, and that is to serve the stores."

"If the store manager runs his store right, he doesn't have to spend hours and hours looking at the office reports; if he's doing okay the records will show it. In fact if he spends too much time in his office reading the mail, it is a sure thing his store will suffer. Sell tires, give service, keep expenses low, make sure everything is billed out, keep good communications with employees, be careful with credit, watch for leaks .. do these things and you'll come out all right. The damn computers can't run a tire store, they can only tell you what you have done."

"I've told accountants .. you tell us where the pencil has gone; but, if you were smart enough to tell us where the pencil should go, you would really earn the high fees you charge us. The same goes for lawyers."

"Stay out of a store 30 days and you've forgotten 50 percent of what you know."

Look After The Stores

"I never allowed any company to give spiffs directly to our people. Give it to the company, and we'll decide what to do with it."

"Our theory has always been to make the store, or our Member Dealers successful. That if they were successful, then the home office just had to be successful. The big bonuses, the most opportunity, I feel should be at that end. The large corporate policy is that the large bonuses, and the most opportunity, is in the home office. The men at the so called' bottom end' were only numbers. Then I asked 'Who is right? On one side we have the large corporate theory, and on the other you have the Les Schwab theory. Are we smarter than those huge companies? ..  and I think the answer is, you're darn right we are."

"[In response to new lower priced competition I asked] should we attempt to lower our cost by taking away benefits, pay lower salaries? By doing this, we could milk the stores and Member Dealers and pull this back into the home office. Sounds good, but it doesn't work that way. We took the opposite approach. This was the start of our program to make better jobs for the men down the line. We increased wages, we changed and improved our medical, dental and insurance programs. We increased our cash bonus making it 12 percent to be shared instead of 10 percent... The results proved us right. We had better employees than our competitors. We gave better service. I don't have any way of really knowing, but I don't think our percentage wage cost was any higher than our competition because our people just plain 'put out out more'."

"We know that our stores that sell the tires must be successful, and they are more important by far than the main office.

"The large rubber companies turned out to be our best friends. Why? Because, their ways, their policies broke their dealers, often leaving us as the only deter in town in a position to give service."

Invest in Your Own People

"It is rarely that we accept new member dealers. They have to already be in business; they have to be the most successful dealer in the area, and they should be in good financial shape. We get calls constantly wanting to start what they call a franchised store. Actually, we are not a franchised company, as we don't charge a franchise fee. Sometimes they do have the money but don't have experience. If we are going to take the time to do this, we would rather spend it on our people. We have the money to start more stores, and we don't want to gamble on inexperienced people. Also, if they (a prospective member dealer) expect us to finance them, then we would rather finance one of our own people with one of our own stores."

Innovation and Change

"I told my managers at a meeting that we were going to modernise all our stores, we were going to have tiled restrooms and we were going to have men's and ladies' restrooms. They laughed. Who had ever heard of tiled restrooms in a tire business?"

"When we create programs [eg. profit sharing contract, free-flat tire repairs for ladies, TV advertising approach, employee Trust fund, cash bonus program, 'More Mile' retreading program, centralised retreading plant etc], we are successful. Our future depends on us creating our own programs for the future. If we fail to create, then we will die on the vine, like so many other companies have done in the past."

"Just as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, our customers will change. We must take into consideration changes as we plan our future advertising, our promotions, our themes, our future image in the marketplace."

"Things, ideas, and people change. If we wait for things to happen the right moment may have passed and the market will have slipped by. We must continue to build enthusiasm into our company. Without enthusiasm out company is dead."

Transparency & Honesty

"All major decisions are made at our store manager meetings. This is the place to argue like hell, but once the decision is made you must follow."

"I've always believed in the complete open book policy. I haven't any reason to hide our profit statements, or to hide anything."

"To me an important element in establishing a happy, prosperous atmosphere is our insistence on open, free, and honest communications in our business meetings. We owe each other our honest opinions at all times. No one wants to follow a weak leader. We build strong leaders with open and honest communications."

"I really do think that young men who work for the Les Schwab Company for three or four years is almost as good as taking three or four years of business schooling. The reason for this is the complete openness of the company. Every employee in every store is encouraged to read and study the Profit and Loss Statement of his store. Each store has a monthly meeting around the P&L Statement. They are encouraged to ask questions."

"[I tell managers] be honest with the people we work with. Be honest with your customer. I've told you before, I'll tell you again .. 'There's absolutely no excuse, no reason, or cause for you to be anything but 100 percent honest with the people you work with, or with the customer you serve."

Humility & Complacency

"If we become complacent, brother it's all over with"

"One thing we must guard against is complacency"

"If we think there is a free lunch, if we rely own last year's results and ask for pay for non-productive items, then this company will turn the corner, too, and then we too will start down the hill. And once you start down, it is mighty hard to turn around. Remember this in years to come and if we do start to fail, remember today, because there will be an association."

Accountability

"All people must carry their weight or move aside; and that includes me."

"We must earn our way every day. And those not earning their way must have the limb sawed off the tree, as cruel as that may sound.. and that goes for Member Dealers, you must earn your way or we must saw off your limb and drop you from the tree."

Win-Win

"I don't want my company to take advantage of anyone."

"I talked about our operation as being a three-way partnership. The stockholders as one unit, the corporations and its people as another unit, and the employee Trust Fund as the third unit. Our company will always be successful as long as all three units work in harmony. Greed can come from any of the three, but most likely it would show up first with the stockholders, it usually does in any company."

"A company, any company, should work up programs and policies that are fair to stockholders, to management and to the employees. And then we should have very open communications, follow the open book policy. If you can't defend it, it must be wrong. If it is wrong, then make it right."

Scale

"I found out early in business life that there was power in volume buying. I think this was one of the main reasons I had such a desire to get big. I know today, right or wrong, that our company can buy tires for much less than the small independent dealers. Many times we could sell at their cost and have the profit we needed."

Summary

Its no accident that we can draw similarities between the likes of Nucor, Panera Bread, Walmart, Home Depot and Starbucks with Les Schwab's Tire Business. Whilst they are all in vastly different industries, each of these business mavericks have struck upon the same ideals when determining how their businesses should run. And whilst all of these appear very similar in terms of things like culture and business ethics etc, the truth of the matter is that as an investor, these things are not easily discovered; they're not evident upon first glance at these organisations.

Ok, its fair to say that their income statements will probably reflect positively because of these traits, but in reality the income statement doesn't tell you why. It also doesn't tell you what to expect in the future - which is what investing is all aboutYou can't peruse pages and pages of spreadsheets or P&L's to determine that front line people are empowered or that the company has a humble culture. These things are discovered by spending time learning about the business, doing channel checks and considering the factors that make them successful. And by that I mean real time, not time just sitting behind your computer analysing numbers. I can't stress enough the value to be gained from a truly deep dive into organisations to understand what makes them tick; the answers are not to be found on the income statement.

And its not just me espousing this idea - if Munger and Buffett do it, then the rest of us should, too.

 

 

Further Reading:
“Academic Economics: Strengths and Faults After Considering Interdisciplinary Needs”, Charlie Munger Speech, University of California, 2003 [courtesy Tilson Funds]
CEO Series - The Investment Masters Class
"A sad day in Les Schwab country", The Bend Bulletin 2007

 

Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

Learning From Podcasts

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 7.25.22 PM.png

 

"Nothing has served me better in my long life than continuous learning." Charlie Munger

If there is one common trait that links the world's greatest investors, it's a desire to learn. And to keep learning.

When I was younger, the available learning sources were much fewer than we have available to us today. We had newspapers and magazines, libraries and universities, but none of it was instantaneous; we had to travel somewhere else to grab the latest information. Nowadays its much different - Enter the Internet. These days there's an incredible volume of high quality, free material available to us to supplement our learning experiences. 

Of course, one of the downsides to having all this information is that we don't always have the time to review it. Our lives are so busy with work and family, there's usually not much spare time to devote to learning. Enter the humble Podcast.

Podcasts are like audio-blogs. When stuck in traffic, sitting on a plane or waiting for a bus, a podcast is a great way to better utilize that downtime and keep learning. 

Over the last few years I've taken to regularly listening to podcasts, and have enjoyed many which have challenged my thought processes, provided numerous investment insights and added to my knowledge base. If I'm reading a book recommended by one of the Investment Masters, I'll often search the Apple podcast App to see if I can catch a quick podcast with the author first. I also often subscribe to a series and save individual podcasts to come back to. 

Below are some of my favorite Podcast series along with some great episodes worth listening to [click on the images to access] ... 

The series that I've included above are those I regularly enjoy, however you'll find there are plenty of other great podcasts available to you. To date, despite listening to copious amounts of these wonderful audio blogs, I've barely scratched the surface when it comes to those devoted to great businesses and investing. 

Others I've also enjoyed listening to include episodes from FT's Alphachat, McKinsey on Finance, The Tim Ferris Show, Invest Like the Best, Knowledge@Wharton, Inquiring Minds and Value Investing Podcast to name but a few.

If you're embarking on a new book, studying a new discipline or learning about a favourite investor, take a trip to the App store to see what you can find. You might be surprised. And whether you're driving, about to travel on a plane or are stuck in traffic on the way to a meeting, throw on those headphones and listen to a podcast. Its one of the best ways I know to keep learning!

 

 

 

 

Keep learning on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

Chuck's 3 Legged Stool

Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 9.53.56 AM.png

Investing is full of uncertainties. You know the story; there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns, but there ain't no perfection, secret formulas or guaranteed riches. Investors have been searching for that elusive recipe for success for ages, and have mostly come up blank. Despite this, there IS one immutable law of investing, that if followed religously and diligently applied will ensure your wealth grows. And rapidly at that. What is it?

It is the 'Power of Compounding'.

And if there's one investor that both understands and seeks to harness that power, it's Charles T Akre

"I usually ask my friends this question: Which would you rather have, $750,000 today or the outcome of doubling a penny a day for 30 days. What do I hear? 'Penny.'  So that's the question.  Compounding our capital is what we're after, that's what makes it a great investment for us. What's the value of compounding? Well the answer in this case is simply astounding.  Double a penny a day for 30 days gets you, who knows, $10 million, $737,000 change."  Chuck Akre

"Striving for sustained, uninterrupted compounding over long periods of time is smart investing, and that’s precisely our goal.  Many people think of us as a 'value investor' and others ask whether we are a value or a growth investor. We’ve started to say, we’re neither, we are a compounding investor." Chuck Akre

Charles Akre, or 'Chuck' for short, runs his namesake fund, the $6b Akre Capital, out of a 'one-traffic light' town in Virginia. Away from the hullaballoo of Wall Street, Chuck and his team spend their days searching for attractively priced 'compounding machines'; rare businesses that have contributed to Akre's long history of market beating returns. 

“At our firm we spend nearly every waking hour trying to identify what we refer to as 'compounding machines'. Chuck Akre

Over the years I've always enjoyed reading Chuck's letters and interviews and to my great delight, I had the pleasure in meeting this down to earth and thoughtful investing legend in Omaha this year. 

Like many successful investors, Chuck has studied and adopted many of the investing lessons laid out by Warren Buffett. Akre is far more latter-day Buffett, with a real penchant for identifying capital light, high quality businesses throwing off cash which can be deployed into high return opportunities.  

The Three Legged Stool

Chuck Akre uses the visual analogy of an early 20th century 'three legged milking stool' to describe his investment process; a metaphorical 'stool' provides a more stable and reliable footing than a standard four-legged stool amidst the topography of chaotic markets. It also leverages the Power of Compounding

"The essence of our investment approach is perfectly captured by the visual of a “three-legged stool.” This metaphoric three legged stool describes what we look for in an investment: (1) extraordinary business, (2) talented management and (3) great reinvestment opportunities and histories. I have an old three-legged milking stool in our conference room and it is clear by looking at it that it is sturdy and durable.  We believe our stool is just as sturdy and durable based on our many years of experience!" Chuck Akre

The investment process starts with the recognition that shares are really pieces of a business.

"Our focus remains entirely on the long-term prospects of the businesses we own. Our simple view is that we will be successful (1) if the businesses we own are successful, and (2) if we do not overpay when buying shares of these businesses."

Let's look at each of the stool's legs in a little more detail...

Leg One : Extraordinary Businesses

The first leg of the stool is the Quality of the Business. The foresight for the first checklist item was in part a result of Chuck's early investment in Berkshire Hathaway; Berkshire's growth in book value was driving shareholder returns.

"I became the best student of Buffett I could and first bought Berkshire Hathaway shares when it had a $100 million market cap. From that happy experience, it became clear to me that the best way to see if a business is adding shareholder value is by the growth in its book value per share."

Chuck also noticed that the long term annual US stock market return had approximated the aggregate return on capital of it's constituent companies. 

"I look at it this way: The average annual total return from equities over long periods of time has been around 10%. When you clean up the accounting, the real return on equity [ROE] of American business averages in the low teens."

Over the long term, he figured that a company's returns were determined by it's ongoing return on capital. A fact well espoused by Charlie Munger.

"Over the long term, it's hard for a stock to earn a much better return than the business which underlies it.  If the business earns 6% on capital over 40 years and you hold it for 40 years, you're not going to make much different than a 6% return even if you buy it at a huge discount.  Conversely, if a business earns 18% on capital over 20 or 30 years, even if you pay an expensive looking price, you'll end up with a fine result.  So the trick is getting into better businesses." Charlie Munger

When it comes to compounding, it's the rate of return that matters.

“The bottom line of all investing, whether it be Aunt Tillie's C.D. or Uncle Jack's venture fund, is compound rate of return.” Chuck Akre

“We believe that all investing is ultimately about rate of return.” Chuck Akre

Not surprisingly, Chuck looks for businesses with superior returns on capital. 

"Our conclusion is that a stock’s return will approximate the company’s ROE over time, given a constant valuation and absent distributions. So we choose to swim in the pool of companies where the returns are a whole lot better than average, in the 20% range." Chuck Akre

“We recognize that over long periods of time, the share prices of our holdings should grow at a pace driven by the economics of the underlying businesses.” Chuck Akre

  Source: Akre Capital

Source: Akre Capital

"If we buy companies in which shareholders’ capital compounds at a 20% rate of return over a reasonable time period and we pay a below-average multiple for it, our investors will do extremely well." Chuck Akre

The trick is identifying businesses with high returns on capital and ascertaining what the key factors are that allow those high returns to endure. Often, the secret to those high returns lies in the qualitative, not the quantitative factors. They are not always obvious.

"We endeavor to look past the non-essential details and tune out the often deafening noise. We want to identify the “essence” of each business. So, for instance, what is it about MasterCard that enables them to generate after-tax margins approaching forty percent? Why have the Rales brothers been so successful buying and fixing businesses? How has Markel managed to compound book value per share at fifteen percent for the past twenty years despite falling interest rates and a competitive underwriting environment?"  Chris Cerrone, Akre Capital

"The source of a business’ strength may not always be obvious. Therefore, understanding that first leg of the stool, the business model, has its own level of difficulty. It’s also where the fun is, I might add, and we believe it is absolutely critical. As I said, we spend countless hours at our firm working on these issues every week." Chuck Akre

Some of the characteristics that Chuck looks for are set out in the adjacent table found on the Akre Capital website. Through his annual letters and a few insightful Value Investor Insight interviews, Chuck has expanded on the qualitative characteristics which can contribute to above average returns.

"High return businesses have something special which allows them to earn above average rates on employed capital. That may be intellectual property, scale economies, a regulatory advantage, high customer switching costs, or some sort of network effect. We want to see evidence the business model produces unusual returns, to understand why and to believe that’s likely to continue. Part of that is a function of the opportunity yet to be realized – we’re always asking, 'How wide and how long is the runway?'"  Chuck Akre

"We believe that the successful business reliably compounds owners’ capital at an above-average rate; provides a highly valued or essential service to customers, with limited competition, and is often a leader in a market that enjoys strong long-term growth." Chuck Akre

“Our favorite businesses will be those which exhibit real pricing power with their brands, which require modest amounts of capital to prosper, which are run by people with equal parts skill and integrity, and which have demonstrated an ability to reinvest virtually all the excess capital that the business generates.” Chuck Akre

Another attraction of owning high quality businesses is the resilience they tend to display in difficult markets. Consistent profitability through business cycles combined with solid balance sheets protects against the permanent loss of capital.

“The practice of not losing money is significantly advanced by the selection of superior businesses.”  Chuck Akre

"Our primary frontier of risk management isn’t wide diversification, but the quality of the individual businesses, their balance sheets and the people who run them." Chuck Akre

  Meeting the Investment Master Chuck Akre, Omaha 2018

Meeting the Investment Master Chuck Akre, Omaha 2018

“We want companies that are positioned to withstand almost any economic environment and that have the financial resources to take advantage of opportunities as they appear, be it acquiring new assets, or repurchasing their own shares at very attractive prices (the reinvestment piece).”  Chuck Akre

“The relative low level of risk comes not from the absence of volatility, but rather, from the strength of the businesses themselves.  This strength is reflected in their balance sheets, their superior returns on capital, and the outstanding quality of their managements.” Chuck Akre

Leg Two: Talented Management

Chuck recognizes the importance of management. Once again, a key learning from the world's Investment Masters is that management matters. Ordinarily good management have a track record of success, are shareholder-orientated, and are capable capital allocators.

"You want to find management that is terrific in managing the business and presumably they have demonstrated that by the time we get involved. We ask them how do you measure your success at this company, by what means?  We listen to what they have to say and make our own judgment.  Sometimes you get answers such as 'well if the stock price goes up'. Sometimes you find CEO's with screens on their desk watching their stock price all day long. That's not a characteristic we find particularly attractive.  My quick judgment would be their eyes are on the wrong thing." Chuck Akre

  Source: Akre Capital

Source: Akre Capital

"We’re looking for managers who have demonstrated they are 'killers' at business execution, and who have a history of always acting in the best interests of all shareholders." Chuck Akre

"We read piles of shareholder letters, proxy statements, and biographies. We frequently leave our offices in idyllic Middleburg to visit corporate headquarters, manufacturing facilities, and retail locations. We try to ask open-ended questions so we can see how managers think. It doesn’t always hit us over the head right away so sometimes we have to go back more than once." Chris Cerrone, Akre Capital

"I’m not interested, for example, in CEO's who appear personally greedy. I frequently ask CEO's how they measure success. They often speak about meeting the needs of their various constituencies, including shareholders, employees, customers and the community. Many have said they measure their success by the rise in the share price. The closer they get to saying they measure success by growth in the company’s real economic value per share, the more interested I am." Chuck Akre

"We want to invest not only in highly capable managers, but also those with clear track records of integrity and acting in shareholders’ best interest. I’ve found that when a manager puts his hands in shareholders’ pockets once, he’s much more likely to do so again." Chuck Akre

It is paramount management show a history of acting in shareholders interests. Oftentimes helped by a strong alignment of interest.

"Not only do we want to have great business managers but we want see they treat public shareholders as partners even as though don't know them." Chuck Akre

"A company’s shareholders are often anonymous to its managers. Do managers nonetheless feel an obligation to treat those shareholders fairly? A close reading of the proxy statement can be instructive. We look at both the size of the pay packages as well as the incentives that trigger cash and equity bonuses. We love to find managers that have “skin in the game” through outright ownership of common stock." Chris Cerrone, Akre Capital Management

“We look for managers who are owners, and who have always acted in the best interest of ALL shareholders. This leg is the trickiest: our experience shows us that we must follow what these managers have actually done, rather than what it is that they have said they have done. (You know, just the  reverse of our parents' admonition: "do as I say, not as I do").” Chuck Akre

Leg Three : Great Re-Investment Opportunities

Chuck Akre's final leg of the stool is capital allocation. Once again, a tenet that is well recognised by the Investment Masters.

"After ten years in the job, a CEO whose company retains earnings equal to 10% of net worth, will have been responsible for the deployment of more than 60% of all capital at work in the business.” Warren Buffett

It's a company's ability to redeploy capital at high rates of return that turns into a compounding flywheel. 

"Over a period of years, our thinking has focused more and more on the issue  of reinvestment as the single most critical ingredient in a successful investment idea, once you have already identified an outstanding business." Chuck Akre

  Source: Akre Capital

Source: Akre Capital

"Does the company have the capital-allocation skills necessary and the market potential to invest all the excess cash generated by the business in projects that can earn above-average returns? In my experience this is perhaps the single most important issue facing any CEO, and is also the area in which management can create or destroy value most quickly and permanently." Chuck Akre

"The ability to earn earnings upon earnings is essentially the definition of compounding. In the long run, we feel strongly that the rate at which the value of a business compounds will approximate its returns on reinvestment." Chuck Akre

"With an outstanding reinvestor at the helm, even an ordinary business can become a remarkable compounding machine.  There are abundant examples, including of course Berkshire Hathaway, which began its compounding journey as a struggling textile mill." Chuck Akre

And being a great CEO doesn't imply someone is also a skilful capital allocator.

"Disappointingly, we often discover that managers who excel at running their businesses fall victim to “fuzzy thinking” on the issue of capital allocation. The most common example that we have encountered recently is the payment of a dividend solely to enlarge the potential shareholder base (some funds by charter will only invest in companies that pay dividends). The decision to pay a dividend, in our mind, should be based on a careful examination of alternative reinvestment options (namely, a lack thereof) and an expensive stock that makes more tax-efficient buybacks unattractive. Other commonly encountered examples of fuzzy thinking include a fixation on the near-term “accretive” or “dilutive” impact on earnings per share of acquisitions, or buying back shares irrespective of valuation." Tom Saberhagen, Akre Capital

Three Legs = Compounding Machine

Chuck Akre understand compounding.  When the three areas of the analysis line up, the business is referred to as a “compounding machine”. 

“The ideal business is one that earns very high returns on capital and that keeps using lots of capital at those high returns. That becomes a compounding machine.” Warren Buffett

  Source: Akre Capital

Source: Akre Capital

The next step is to purchase these businesses at a modest valuation. And then, provided the 'legs of the stool' remain intact, hold for the long term.

“We will be very disciplined about the price we are willing to pay, as in the end our rate of return will be determined not only by the quality of the businesses we choose to own, but importantly by the starting price as well.” Chuck Akre

"Our timetable is five and ten years ahead, and quarterly “misses” often create opportunities for the capital we manage." Chuck Akre

“If you are selling because of a missed earnings report or the trend of the market or something, you’ve stopped looking at the rate of return the company can achieve over time.”  Chuck Akre

As Munger highlighted above, even if you pay an expensive looking price, you'll be rewarded in the long term.

“If you paid 20 times for a business that was compounding the economic value per share in the mid-teens and have some level of confidence it is likely to do that for a reasonable long level of time, you will get to heaven doing that.”  Chuck Akre

The key point, is holding on for the long term. 

Summary

For more than a quarter century Chuck Akre has invested in compounding machines. His simple 'three legged-stool' process has delivered through different business and market cycles, and has consistently produced enviable returns. It's little wonder he's sticking with his process

And as he has said, Compounding Machines are very rare. Akre Capital spend much of their time scrutinising organisations and management teams to determine if they fall into this small category, and most often find that despite holding one or two aspects of the '3-legged stool checklist', many of these businesses fall short. But they do exist, and through diligence and research you will find them.

"Whatever the future holds, we will stick to our process. We are not guaranteed of getting what we want all the time—far from it—but we believe it is the best foundation for getting what we want over time." Chuck Akre

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading:

Akre Fund - Pitch Book
Speech:
Chuck Akre -  8th Annual Value Investor Conference: 'An Investor's Odyssey: The Search for Outstanding Investments'
Speech: Chuck Akre - Talks At Google
Chuck Akre Letters https://www.dropbox.com/sh/dvfi54xr6lzgynh/AAAtjtuDZmqRNJdqCW3EV-DEa?dl=0
Interview: Chuck Akre - Compounding Machine - Wealth Track
Interview: Value Investor Insight - Chuck Akre Interview 2006/2011
Website: Akre Capital

 

 

Note: This post is for educational purposes only. I have no relationship with Akre Capital.

Learn more with us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

 

John Neff - a Fifty Seven Bagger!

neff1.JPG

I can't recall how I came across John Neff's book. It must have been recommended by one of the Investment Masters, but to be honest, the name John Neff didn't jump out at me, and the book certainly didn't either. With pictures of currency symbols on the front cover, I'd be inclined to think John Neff was a currency trader. And I'm embarrassed by that oversight. During the thirty years that John Neff ran the 'Windsor Fund', he increased the initial stake an incredible fifty-seven times. In the process the Windsor Fund became the largest mutual fund in the United States, and John Neff became an investing legend.

"John Neff is the investment profession's investment professional. Nobody has ever managed a large mutual fund so very well for so very long a time. And no one is likely to do so ever again." Charles Ellis

While the commonalities with Neff and the world's Investment Masters are striking, like each of those Masters, Neff had his own style. While he was a low 'Price to Earnings Ratio' guy in every sense of the word, earnings growth was always front of mind. He hunted for things the crowd disdained. And when the crowd's affections turned, he was always happy to oblige. Neff never fell in love with his stocks; every stock Windsor owned was for sale. Neff continually and tactfully recycled funds into 'behind-the-market', undervalued stocks. He condemned institutional group-think and spent his entire career 'arguing with the market'. 

I thoroughly enjoyed John Neff's memoir, 'John Neff on Investing'. While Neff shares his insights into the characteristics that defined him and his investing approach, he does so while taking the reader on a journey through the market action of the 1970's, 80's and 90's. This is such a rare quality to any investment book and can help provide context when looking at markets today. Successful investing, after all, requires an understanding of history. In this regard, Neff's book is an invaluable guide.

"At least a portion of Windsor's critical edge amounted to nothing more mysterious than remembering lessons of the past and how they tend to repeat themselves. You cannot become a captive of historical parallel, but you must be a student of history." John Neff

I've included some of my favourite quotes below ... 

Be Curious and Disciplined

"An inventory of my skills on entering college revealed a relentless curiosity, faculty with numbers, an ability to express myself, and firm self-discipline."

Contrarian Nature

"My whole career I have argued with the stock market."

"Windsor's success ultimately flowed from our willingness to step outside the crowd's embrace and be exposed to the risk of embarrassment."

"Taking the unpopular view was how we made our money."

"Savvy contrarians keep their minds open, leavened by a sense of history and a sense of humour."

Low P/E Works

"Carloads of research statistics demonstrate that low p/e investing works, but no evidence I have seen speaks more convincingly than Windsor's track record. During my 31 year tenure, we beat the market 22 times. By the time I retired, each dollar invested in 1964 had returned $56 versus $22 for the S&P500."

Screen Shot 2018-07-27 at 6.34.55 PM.png

"I attribute success not to genius or blinding insights, but to a frugal nature and lessons well learned. Therein rest my enduring principles, stamped indelibly with the merits of low p/e investing."

"The challenge is to foster opportunities for a free plus, and low p/e investing is the most reliable method I know. If you own a stock where negatives are largely known, then good news that comes as a surprise can have outsized effects."

High Flyers Can be Dangerous

"Unlike high-flying growth stocks poised for a fall at the slightest sign of a disappointment, low p/e stocks have little anticipation, no expectation built into them. Indifferent financial performance by low p/e companies seldom exacts a penalty. Hints of improved financial performance trigger fresh interest."

"Accounting practices leave ample wiggle room. Most companies that are close to earnings targets should meet those targets - particularly when the stock price hangs in the balance. In high p/e territory, if lofty growth expectations are missed by an inch, it may mean that a company has really missed by a mile.

"When shares of a stock change hands for 30 times earnings, who doesn't recall the day when shares fetched only 12 times earnings? But where were the buyers then? Most were cowering in fear of the latest news report or piling onto the speediest growth-stock bandwagon, even if its wheels were about to fall off .. 

Investors typically bristle at the notion that the crowd governs their behaviour. Countless self-proclaimed contrarians declare that General Electric is a buy at 40 times earnings because it is such a good company.  Hang around long enough and you'll hear variations on that assertion repeatedly. The truth is, General Electric is a very good company - a great company, in fact. But with very few exceptions, markets don't work that way. You can't up the ante forever. Eventually even great stocks run out of gas. So if you bet that GE will go up to 80 times earnings, you're betting against the odds. At Windsor, we tried to keep the odds in our favour."

“Almost routinely, in the aftermath of excessive overvaluation, there is a compensatory penalty on the downside.” 

Low P/E and Late Bull Markets

"Aside from late bull markets, in which good low p/e candidates were largely ignored while growth stocks reached strained and dangerous levels, Windsor's edge was usually formidable."

"Ironically, the merits of low p/e ratios are most compelling amid the clamor for hot stocks and hot sectors, but that is when investors are least likely to listen."

"All investing trends seem to go to excess eventually. In the Sixties, the go- go era swept investors in and judgement out. In the early Seventies, the Nifty-Fifty ruled supreme. In 1980, some experts foresaw a $60 barrel of oil, transforming oil companies to gold. These fads clattered to their inevitable conclusions when expectations encountered reality."

"Owing chiefly to the relentless din or experts who fan delusions (with help from the media), the timing and the magnitude of inflection points take most investors by surprise. But some signals are unmistakable. The marketplace always becomes momentum-laden as inflection points draw near, rife with warnings that starry-eyed investors dismiss."

"The capacity of investors to believe in something too good to be true seems almost infinite at times, especially when the market is crying for a sobering inflection point."

When Low P/E is 'Dead'

“Unfavorable news flags my attention. About the time experts declare low p/e has no future and that stocks ‘du jour’ will rule forever, inflection points are drawing near."

Look Forwards Not Backwards

"Adapting to changing circumstances, we try not to be cowed or intimidated by our own lack of success."

"It would be nice to be able to invest yesterday, but investors don't have that option. You can spend your time regretting that you didn't buy Cisco before a tenfold rise, or you can organise for future performance. That's the nature of the daily investment challenge."

Investment Process

"Sufficiently removed from Wall Street's hullabaloo, Windsor applied our low P/E sometimes boring principles in consistent fashion. We weren't fancy, just prudent and consistent. We always took note of prevailing opinion, but we never let it sway our investment decisions."

"I can't think of a better way to start to understand a company's performance than by poring over its results with pencil and paper."

"My motto has not changed: keep it simple."

"Playing the technical or momentum game has always seemed misguided to me."

"We never sought to own market weighting. We concentrated assets in undervalued areas."

"Rather than load up on hot stocks along with the crowd, we took the opposite approach. Our strength always depended on coaxing overlooked, out-of-favour stocks to move from undervalued to fairly valued. We left 'greater-fool' investing to others."

“A wise investor studies the industry, it’s products, and its economic structure. Industry trade magazines supply very valuable information long before it finds its way into the general consensus. Prudent investors always stay abreast of developments, which is why casual investors usually get wind of change after the stock price adjusts.” 

Stock Characteristics

"My emphasis was on stocks with a future instead of stocks with a past."

"The stocks Windsor bought usually had had the stuffing beaten out of them. Their p/e ratios were 40 to 60 percent below the market."

"Typical Windsor fare featured good companies with solid market positions and evidence of room to grow."

"I assigned great weight to a judgement about the durability of earnings power under adverse circumstances."

"Absent the ability to dominate markets, products and services cannot command premium prices.

"Growth rates less than 6 percent or exceeding 20 percent (our customary ceiling) seldom made the cut."

Return on Equity (ROE) furnishes the best single yardstick of what management has accomplished with money that belongs to shareholders.

"You don't need glamour to make a buck. Indeed, if you can find a dull business that makes money, it is less likely to attract competition."

 

  Source: John Neff on Investing. 1999. John Wiley & Sons Inc..

Source: John Neff on Investing. 1999. John Wiley & Sons Inc..

 

"What we always tried to do: select the outstanding company in a difficult industry or environment, and fight our way upstream as those qualities became more obvious to the market."

"When areas of the marketplace are under attack, investors can buy the best at little or no premium."

"Dull, ugly stocks found prominence at Windsor, owing to their frequent unpopularity. Insofar, as they were capable of expanding their price-earnings multiples, they fit our profile."

Neff's 'Total Return Ratio'

No solitary measure or pair of measures should govern a decision to buy a stock. You need to probe a whole raft of numbers and facts, searching for confirmation or contradiction.”

"In Windsor's lexicon, 'total return' described our growth expectations: annual earnings growth plus yield. As a way to measure the bang for our investment buck, total return divided by initial p/e could not have been more succinct. We just never found a catchy name for it other than 'Total Return Ratio'."

"Academicians probably don't celebrate this measure; it's a bit too unsophisticated by their lights. But I never found a better way to express total return relative to what we paid for it."

"Windsor hunted for stocks with a cheapo profile; their total return divided by the p/e ratio was notably out of line with industry or market benchmarks. To put it differently, we preferred stocks whose total return, divided by the p/e, exceeded the market average by 2 to 1."

"For many years, Windsor routinely snatched stocks whose p/e equaled half of the total returns. As the Nineties progressed, this target became tougher to realize. By early 1999, S&P500 earnings were growing long-term at an 8% clip. This plus a 1.1% average yield pegged total return at 9.1%. Meantime, the going p/e hovered around 27 times."

"A stock whose 'total return ratio' exceeds 0.7 matches Windsor's traditional edge."

[Note: While John Neff utilized quantitative data he also focused heavily on qualitative information. In John Train's book, 'Money Masters of our Time', a chapter dedicated to John Neff discusses his investment in Ford which netted Windsor almost $500m in profit. You'll notice similar cultural characteristics which also contributed to the astonishing returns of Home Depot and Walmart..  "Explaining the investment merit of Ford, Neff pointed out that the company had little debt and $9 billion cash. The difference betweeen Ford's management and GM's, he says, is night and day. GM is arrogant, while the men who run Ford are 'home folks' who know how to hold down costs and avoid delusions of grandeur. The president eats with the men from the assembly line, so he knows what they are thinking. A Ford assembly-line worker makes several thousand dollars a year in bonuses, while a GM worker gets next to none. Neff began buying Ford heavily in 1984, when popular disillusionment with the automobile manufacturers had driven the stock down to $12 a share, two and half times earnings! Within a year he had accumulated 12.3 million shares at an average price under $14. Three years later the stock had reached $50 a share and had brought Windsor a profit of almost $500 million"]

Stock Market Predictions Aren't Necessary

"We were not skilled at predicting the path of the market."

"It is always hard to be too penetrating or too precise about the outlook for the market in general."

Don't Fall in Love

"Falling in love with stocks in a portfolio is very easy to do and, I might add, very perilous. Every stock Windsor owned was for sale."

Don't Just Own your Company's Stock

"Be wary, however, of investing exclusively in the company that writes your paycheck. You may like your employer's prospects, but if business goes awry, you don't want to see your nest egg vanish along with your salary."

Three Areas of The Economy to Watch

“I always watch three areas of the economy for signs of excess: (1) capital expenditures, (2) inventories, (3) consumer credit.”

Summary

John Neff allocated his clients assets into areas of the market that were out-of-favour and cheap in a rational and disciplined manner. And while Neff's strategy outperformed, it didn't always. At times when markets were momentum-laden and valuations were stretched, Neff tended to under-perform. An imminent inflection point was usually at hand.

It's ironic that at the time time Neff published his book in 1999, one of the greatest investment bubbles in history was approaching its climactic end point. In the book's final chapter titled 'De Ja Vu', Neff noted the S&P500 was trading at 28 times offering just a 1% yield. And although, Neff could not see the typical warning signs he looked for, [capital expenditures, inventories and consumer debt] he recognized the risks... 

"With no signs of excess visible in the [typical areas of excess] ... we always have to remain alert to other excesses that are not measured as acutely. The market itself suggests excess."

"Red-hot Nasdaq stocks seem most exposed to reality checks, particularly because five stocks command almost 40 percent of the market capital of the Nasdaq 100 Index. Four of these five stocks advanced more than 140 percent in 1998. This growth is quite unsustainable. Even if growth had been less than 140%, that's impressive, to be sure. My point is: They have enjoyed superlative growth for several straight years. Does the market believe they'll grow in excess of 30 percent for the several straight years? I don't...

If there is any classic lesson in the market place, it's that at some point reversion to the mean occurs. Sooner or later, something happens and growth, particularly high-magnitude growth, is diminished."

Neff's lessons remain timeless: History has a tendency to repeat. While most people forget the lessons of the past, Neff's book is a great reminder of many of those lessons, particularly in light of today's momentum driven market.  De ja vu, indeed.

 "All things considered, if I started again in January 2000, I'd follow the identical course."  John Neff

 

 

 

Further Reading:
'John Neff on Investing', by John Neff. 1999. John Wiley & Sons.
'Money Masters of Our Time' by John Train. 2000. HarperCollins [Chapter 9 'John Neff - Systematic Bargain Hunter']

 

 

Learn more with us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

The Berkshire Archive - Part 2

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 7.51.52 PM.png

Once a year, investors from all over the world flock to Omaha, Nebraska, for one primary reason: to learn. And the crowd that gathers ranges from beginners who are just just starting out to many of the Investment Masters themselves.

Prior to this year's meeting I was fortunate to chat to Chuck Akre, a true Investment Master. Chuck told me he'd been attending the meetings for over 30 years.

"The reason I come to Omaha is to learn. Warren and Charlie remind us to keep it simple. It's unusual for a CEO to sit for six hours and answer questions. It's unique; it will never be repeated."  Chuck Akre

The recently published book, 'The Warren Buffett Shareholder - Stories from inside the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting', contains lots of anecdotes from great investors and business people on their annual pilgrimage to Omaha.

"Over the last 20 Annual Meetings, I have learned so much about investing from Buffett and Munger, who are truly gifted teachers, able to make even complex topics understandable. There is no doubt in my mind I wouldn't have achieved anything close to the success I did  had I not attended every Annual Meeting and absorbed their investing lessons." Whitney Tilson

"Going to the 1999 Berkshire meeting has been the best investment of my life... Nothing is more important in our business than going to the Meeting." Francois Rochon, Giverny Capital

"As a Berkshire shareholder since 1982, annual visits to Omaha have assume religious proportions... I have come to learn from Messrs. Buffett and Munger's official remarks as well as from scores of Berkshire's operating company CEO's and other executives." Thomas Russo

"The Meetings remain as valuable as a university education." Daniel Pecaut, Pecaut & Company

"The Berkshire Meeting provides a unique opportunity in corporate America for managers and shareholders to learn from each other." Bruce N Whitman, Chairman & CEO Flight Safety International

"There is nothing like this weekend in the world and I hope it will continue for many years to come." Olza (Tony) Nicely, Chairman & CEO, GEICO

The Annual Meeting is an integral part of Berkshire's culture. While it provides a platform for Warren and Charlie to get across all the information and answer shareholder questions, it also helps them find like minded-investors.

"I really think if we spend six hours here answering your questions about the business and we do a half-way decent job of writing the annual report, we should get across the essential information." Warren Buffett

"We’re not trying to talk to an audience that is trying to get some special insight into what next quarter or next year is going to look like. We’re really looking for owners who join us in what we regard as kind of a lifelong investment." Warren Buffett

"Warren and Charlie understand that companies, over time, largely get the shareholders they deserve, and by communicating as honestly and clearly as they do at the Annual Meeting, they contribute to Berkshire's attracting an extraordinary group of shareholders." Robert E Denham, Partner Munger Tolles & Olson, LLP.

The book is full of anecdotes and quotes that are both enjoyable and enlightening. Its clear to see that many Investment Masters journey to Omaha regularly and have both enjoyed and profited from the learning. And with the recent release of the annual Berkshire meeting videos, a veritable gold mine of investing nuggets, that wisdom is available to all of us.

In my last post I outlined a number of important and enlightening themes that had been conveyed in those videos. As a follow on from Part One I've put together a further collection of themes that I enjoyed, and those of which expanded upon or challenged my own way of thinking.

Teaching Finance

"If I were teaching a course on investments, there would be simply one valuation study after another with the students trying to identify the key variables in that particular business, and evaluating how predictable they were first because that is the first step." Warren Buffett

More Than One Way To Succeed

I don’t think there’s only one way to succeed in life, and our successors, in due time, may be different in many ways. And they may do better.” Charlie Munger

  Source: CNBC Warren Buffett Archive

Source: CNBC Warren Buffett Archive

Understand Human Nature

“The better you understand human nature and are able to distinguish between different types of individuals, the better the investor you are going to be.” Warren Buffett

Make you Own Judgement

“You really shouldn’t ask other people their opinion about stocks. Let’s say I give an opinion on the XYZ company. I could change my opinion a week from now and [you won’t know]. You ought to have your own reasons for buying a stock. If you don’t you're going to get shaken out by some event, the stock market goes down a lot or you read some negative comments. You should make you own judgements in stocks.” Warren Buffett

Use Filters

"We do have filters, and sometimes those filters are very irritating to people who check in with us about businesses, because we really can say in ten seconds or so “no” to 90 percent-plus of all the things that come in, simply because we have these filters. We have some filters in regard to people, too."Warren Buffett

“[Our] filters haven’t changed much over the years.” Warren Buffett

"We have a bunch of filters we’ve developed in our minds over time. We don’t say they’re perfect filters. We don’t say that those filters don’t occasionally leave things out that should get through. But they’re very — they’re efficient." Warren Buffett

Book Value Is Not A Consideration

“We’ve tried to put in the annual report pretty much how we approach securities. And book value is not a consideration — virtually not a consideration at all.” Warren Buffett

High Price To Book May Be Better

"If anything, we are less likely to look at something that sells at a low relationship to book than something that sells at a high relationship to book, because the chances are we’re looking at a poor business in the first case and a good business in the second case.” Warren Buffett

Stay Away From Low Return On Equity

"We like to think when we buy a stock we’re going to own it for a very long time, and therefore we have to stay away from businesses that have low returns on equity." Warren Buffett

"If you have a business that’s earning 5 or 6 percent on equity and you hold it for a long time, you are not going to do well in investing. Even if you buy it cheap to start with." Warren Buffett

Price And Value 

"We don’t pay any attention to beta or any of that sort of thing. It just doesn’t mean anything to us. We’re only interested in price and value. And that’s what we’re focusing on all the time, and any kind of market movements or anything don’t mean anything." Warren Buffett

Think Of Value Not Price

“I think it’s almost impossible if you’re to do well in equities over a period of time if you go to bed every night thinking about the price of them. I mean, Charlie and I, we think about the value of them.”  Warren Buffett

Market Won't Do What You Want

“I’d say it’s in the nature of things that the market is not going to do exactly what you want when you want it.” Charlie Munger

Buffett Dropped Technical Indicators

"We don’t think anything that relates either to volume, price action, relative strength, any of that sort of thing — and bear in mind, when I was in my teens I used to eat that stuff up. I mean, I was making calculations based on it all the time, and kept charts on it, even wrote an article or two on it. But it just — it just has no place in the operation now." Warren Buffett

"The chart of the price action doesn’t mean a thing to us, although it may catch our eye, just in terms of businesses that have done very well over time. But we — price action has nothing to do with any decision we make. Price itself is all-important, but whether a stock has gone up or down, or what the volume is, or any of that sort of thing, that is — as far as we’re concerned, you know, those are chicken tracks, and we pay no attention to them.” Warren Buffett

Look At Risk As A Go/No Go Valve

"We look at riskiness, essentially, as being sort of a go/no-go valve in terms of looking at the future businesses. In other words, if we think we simply don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily risky, it just means we don’t know. It means it’s risky for us. It might not be risky for someone else who understands the business. In that case, we just give up. We don’t try to predict those things." Warren Buffett

Buffett Doesn't Use Discount Rate To Compensate For Risk

"And we don’t say, 'Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen, so therefore we’ll discount it at 9 percent instead of 7 percent,' some number that we don’t even know. That is not our way to approach it. We feel that once it passes a threshold test of being something about which we feel quite certain, that the same discount factor tends to apply to everything. And we try to do only things about which we are quite certain when we buy into the businesses. So we think all the capital asset pricing model-type reasoning with different rates of risk-adjusted return and all that, we tend to think it is — well, we don’t tend to — we think it is nonsense." Warren Buffett

"I don’t think you can stick something — numbers on a highly speculative business, where the whole industry’s going to change in five years, and have it mean anything when you get through. If you say I’m going to stick an extra 6 percent in on the interest rate to allow for the fact — I tend to think that’s kind of nonsense. I mean, it may look mathematical. But it’s mathematical gibberish in my view." Warren Buffett

Earnings Power

"By and large, the depreciation charge is not inappropriate in most companies to use as a proxy for required capital expenditures. Which is why we think that reported earnings plus amortization of intangibles usually gives a pretty good indication of earning power." Warren Buffett

Annual Reports

"I don’t think we’ve ever gotten an idea, you know in 40 years, from a Wall Street report. But we’ve gotten a lot of ideas from annual reports." Warren Buffett

Know Who Is Running The Business

"The main thing that they can’t mandate in annual reports: I really to know as much as I can about the person that’s running it and how they think about the business and what’s really going on in the business." Warren Buffett

You Can Learn A Lot From Annual Reports

"We’ve learned a lot from annual reports. For example, I would say that the Coca-Cola annual report over the last good many years is an enormously informative document. I mean, I can’t think of any way if I’d have a conversation with Roberto Goizueta, or now Doug Ivester, and they were telling me about the business, they would not be telling me more than I get from reading that annual report.

We bought that stock based on an annual report. We did not buy it based on any conversation of any kind with the top management of Coca-Cola before we bought our interest. We simply bought it based on reading the annual report, plus our knowledge of how the business worked." Warren Buffett

Weak Competition

“The secret of life is weak competition, you know." Warren Buffett

“We have found in a long life that one competitor is frequently enough to ruin a business.” Charlie Munger

Never Made A Big Sector Play

“We have never made a big sector play on a country. In fact, we’ve almost never made a big sector play." Warren Buffett

No Asset Allocation Theories

“We don’t have any sector allocation theories whatsoever.” Warren Buffett

Wonderful Companies Can Buyback Stock At High Prices

“When we own stock in a wonderful business, we like the idea of repurchases, even at prices that may give you nose bleeds. It generally turns out to be a pretty good policy.” Warren Buffett

Cash Is Cash

“If we could see the future of every business perfectly, it wouldn’t make any difference whether the money came from running streetcars or from selling software, because all the cash that came out, which is all we’re measuring between now and judgment day, would spend the same to us.” Warren Buffett

What Investing Is

"You may have an insight into very few businesses. I mean, if we left here and walked by a McDonald’s stand, you know, and you decided, would you pay a million dollars for that McDonald’s stand, or a million-three, or 900,000, you’d think about how likely it was there would be more competition, whether McDonald’s could change the franchise arrangement on you, whether people are going to keep eating hamburgers, you know, all kinds of things. And you actually would say to yourself this McDonald’s stand will make X — X plus 5 percent — maybe in a couple years because over time prices will increase a little. And that’s all investing is. But you have to know when you know what you’re doing, and you have to know when you’re getting outside of what I call your circle of competency, you don’t have the faintest idea.” Warren Buffett

Good Businesses Invest Now For The Future

"I think almost all good businesses have occasions where they’re making today look a little worse than today would otherwise be, to help tomorrow." Charlie Munger

Call It Value Or Growth

"[Berkshires] trying to put out capital now to get more capital — or money — we’re trying to put out cash now to get more cash back later on. And if you do that, the business grows, obviously. And you can call that value or you can call it growth. But they’re not two different categories." Warren Buffett

Ask For Past Projections

“I was recently involved in a situation where projections were a part of the presentation. And I asked that the record of the people who made the projections, their past projections also be presented at the same time. It was a very rude act.”  Warren Buffett

The Future P/E Is What Counts

"It isn’t a multiple of today’s earnings that is the primary determinate of things. We bought our Coca-Cola, for example, in 1988 and ’89, on this stock, at a price of $11 a share. Which — as low as 9, as high as 13, but it averaged about $11. And it’ll earn, we’ll say, most estimates are between 230 and 240 this year. So, that’s under five times this year’s earnings, but it was a pretty good size multiple back when we bought it." Warren Buffett

Businesses Losing money

“It would not bother us in the least to buy into a business that currently was losing money for some reason that we understood, and where we thought that the future was going to be significantly different. Similarly, if a business is making some money — there’s no P/E ratio that we have in mind as being a cutoff point at all. There are businesses — I mean, you could have some business making a sliver of money on which you would pay a very, very high P/E ratio.” Warren Buffett

Don't Care About Who is Buying or Selling

"We care how much Coca-Cola has sold five years from now, and what percentage of the world market they have, and what they’re charging for it, and how many shares are outstanding, and that sort of thing. But we just — we don’t care who’s buying or selling it in the least, except we like it when the company’s buying it. The same way with Gillette. We care about whether people are trading up in the shaving experience. So capital flows and all of those macro factors that people like to write about a lot just have nothing to do with what we do. We’re buying businesses." Warren Buffett

Listen to Your Customer

“One of our directors said very simply, ‘We should make a list of everything that irritates the customer, and then we should eliminate those defects one by one.’ That is the way to compete in a service business.” Charlie Munger

“I don’t worry about the dumbest competitor in a business that’s service. The customer will figure that out over time.” Warren Buffett

“There’re these fads in management — I mean, obviously, listening to your customer and things like that, I mean, that is — nothing makes more sense. But it’s hard to write a 300-page book that just says, “Listen to your customer.” Warren Buffett

Indexing

"The very nature of index funds is that you are saying, I think America’s business is going to do well over a — reasonably well — over a long period of time, but I don’t know enough to pick the winners and I don’t know enough to pick the winning times." Warren Buffett

“Really  the idea of buying an index fund over time is not to buy stocks at the right time or the right stocks. It’s to avoid buying them at the wrong time, the wrong stocks.” Warren Buffett

Summary

The true value in these meetings, and in all the learning you can take from them, is that if you go just once, don't expect to learn everything there is to know. Many of the Investment Masters that I have met and that I read about in the book above, have continued to attend even though they are incredibly successful in the investment field by their own right. And why is that? Because they have continued to learn every single time they went.

The Berkshire videos that have been released go back to 1994; that's over twenty years of history that allows all of us who haven't been privileged enough to attend to learn as if we were there. And that's gold to me.

So if you've been thinking about attending the Berkshire Meeting, I've got one suggestion .. 'Just Do It'. 

 

 

 

Follow us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

 

 

Sources:
Warren Buffett Archive, CNBC
The Warren Buffett Shareholder -  Lawrence Cunningham & Stephanie Cuba
 

Further Suggested Reading:

Investment Masters Class - The Berkshire Archive - Part 1
Investment Masters Class - The Buffett Series
Investment Masters Class - Evolution of a Value Manager

 

The Berkshire Archive - Part I

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 4.57.57 PM.png

What would you pay for the opportunity to spend a few hours with the world's two most successful investors?

And when I say the world's two most successful investors, I'm talking about two guys with a combined 140 years of investment success. They've operated businesses, they've invested across industries and asset classes. They've navigated every political, economic and investment cycle you can fathom and they've been pitched every idea under the sun. They'll cover off on almost any topic you can think of and there really is very little they haven't had to consider over the years. Basically, they'll be willing to share all their investment secrets with you.

Does three or four million dollars sound reasonable?

That's the order of magnitude needed to win Buffett's annual charity lunch where you and seven friends can dine with Warren Buffett at New York’s Smith & Wollensky steakhouse. But you only get Buffett. If you want his partner too, Charlie Munger, you're best bet is taking the 'value' option. It will cost you a plane ride to Omaha, Nebraska for the annual Berkshire Hathaway meeting. Attendance is complementary if you own Berkshire shares. Here Buffett and Munger sit on stage while addressing unscripted questions from the audience for five or six hours.

  2018 Power Lunch Auction   Source: EBAY

2018 Power Lunch Auction   Source: EBAY

For many decades, the only way to see and hear them was to be in the room itself. Until live streaming began in 2016, those attending, including journalists, were not allowed to make or release any video or audio recordings. For the first time, earlier this year, Buffett shared the entire series of videos, going back to 1994, that Berkshire had taped for their own internal records. These videos and the accompanying transcripts have been compiled by CNBC into one of the Greatest Investment Treasures of this century.  "It blew my mind when I saw it," Buffett said.

This year, I finally took the time out to see my two favourite investors and mentors in Omaha. While standing in line at 4.30am I met two businessmen who'd traveled from New York to attend. These two friends had been coming for the last five years. When I inquired where their interest lied they said  "This is the best 6 hour MBA you will get anywhere. Period." I agree.  

  Source: CNBC Buffett Archive

Source: CNBC Buffett Archive

Over 40,000 people flock to Omaha each year to hear Warren and Charlie answer impromptu audience questions covering a broad swathe of topics. Sitting in the stands, you quickly realise these attendees love Buffett. And I can tell you, the locals do, too. Whether it was the Uber drivers, the staff at Gorat's Steakhouse [A highly recommended trip back in time], or Nebraska Furniture Mart's Ronnie Bumpkin, [whom I had the pleasure of meeting], the feedback was consistent: Buffett's just your regular, friendly, great guy!

It's lucky for us that one of Buffett's strengths is his ability to change his mind. And thank goodness he does. At the 1995 Berkshire meeting an audience member asked Mr Buffett, "Could you consider availing a videotape of this meeting to us, the shareholders?" Buffett, in his iconic humorous way responded..

WARREN BUFFETT: "Yeah, we’ve had that suggested a number of times. It’s a good suggestion, and we’ve considered it. The thing we’re worried about, in connection with that, is discouraging attendance. I mean, it — (laughter) — we’d hate to have two people here asking questions and then send it out to tens of thousands. So — (laughter) — in the end —

CHARLIE MUNGER: Particularly if it might make sales go down at the jewelry store.

WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. (Laughter and applause). Since we were just attacking hypocrisy in American business, Charlie felt like he should add that to my comments. (Laughter) But we — it’s a close call on that because we would like everybody — Of course, we try to cover a great many subjects in the annual report. But we like the idea of the meeting — answering a lot of shareholders questions. We don’t want to discourage attendance. And it’s fun to have everybody come in and ask questions. And the chances are, if we had far fewer people, we would have, you know, far more — far fewer — good questions. So that the quality of the meeting is enhanced, I think, by having a lot of people come. But you’ve come a long way, so I can understand why you might be interested in a transcript. (Laughs) I appreciate that. Thank you.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: — or no. Is that a yes or a no?

WARREN BUFFETT: It’s — (Laughter)

CHARLIE MUNGER: It was a no.

WARREN BUFFETT: It’s a no.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: OK. (Applause)

WARREN BUFFETT: Most everything we say is a no. But we have various ways of getting there. (Laughter)

I suppose with 40,000 plus attendees Buffett weighed the odds of releasing the videos against the chances of poor attendence and questions, and found in favour. These transcripts are an unfettered gold mine of investing nuggets. And while I've read every one of Buffett's annual letters from both Berkshire Hathaway and the Buffett Partnership, trawling through the transcripts opened my eyes to so many new concepts and insights I hadn't considered. Not just on investing but on life as well. I hope you'll enjoy them and learn from them as much as I have. 

In Part One of this series I've included some of my favorite insights .. hopefully some of these will be new to you...

How to Behave

“We work all the time at trying to behave with other people as if our positions were reversed. That’s what Charlie’s always advised in all our activities, and we’ve tried to follow it. And we’re certainly far from perfect at it, but if you keep working at it, it does get results.” Warren Buffett

A Good Family Helps

We owe a considerable amount, both of us, to the families we were raised in. I think the family standards helped us to identify the good people more easily than we would have if we’d had a more disadvantaged background.” Charlie Munger

There is More than Managing Money

“If you’re good at just investing your own money, I hope you’ll morph into doing something more.” Charlie Munger

“If all you succeed in doing in your life is to get early rich from passive holding of little bits of paper, and you get better and better at only that for all your life, it’s a failed life. Life is more than being shrewd at passive wealth accumulation." Charlie Munger

Culture is Important

"Everything we do we hope is consistent with what most people would call a “culture” at Berkshire." Warren Buffett

"I think Berkshire’s culture runs as deep as any large company could be in the world." Warren Buffett

Trust is Most Important

"Trustworthiness is more important than the brains. It’s not that they don’t have the brains, but we wouldn’t hire anybody, no matter how able, if we didn’t trust them." Charlie Munger

Look For a Successful Framework

"Look for the successful framework that’s been successful for people, and there’s nothing like Graham’s, in my view, and you’ll have a lot of fun and you’ll probably make a lot of money." Warren Buffett

Investment Principles Haven't Changed for 40 Years

"I know more about businesses than I knew 20 years ago, or 40 years ago. I haven’t really changed the principles. The last change — the basic principles are still Ben Graham. They were affected in a significant way by Charlie and Phil Fisher, in terms of looking at the better businesses. But they — but I didn’t leave any of — I didn’t leave Graham behind on that. And I really haven’t learned any new fundamental principles. But I may have learned a little bit more about how business operates over time." Warren Buffett

Analysing Stock Prices hasn't Changed in 50 Years

"There’s nothing different, in my view, about analyzing securities now than there was 50 years ago." Warren Buffett

Start Investing

"I think you have to jump in the water, because investing on paper and investing with real money, you know, is like the difference between reading a romance novel and doing something else." Warren Buffett

The Stock Market Offers Better Prices Than Private Market

"The stock market will offer you opportunities for profit, percentage-wise, that you’ll never see, in terms of negotiated purchase of business.  In negotiated purchase of a business, you’re almost always dealing with someone that has the option of either selling or not selling, and can sort of pick the time when they decide to sell, and all of that sort of thing. In stock markets, it’s an auction market. Crazy things can happen." Warren Buffett

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 10.19.20 PM.png

Wonderful is More Important than Price

"Generally speaking, I think if you’re sure enough about a business being wonderful, it’s more important to be certain about the business being a wonderful business than it is to be certain that the price is not 10% too high or 5% too high or something of the sort." Warren Buffett

Wonderful Businesses Are Worth More Than Most People Think

"I would say that if it’s a really wonderful business, we probably come up with higher intrinsic values than most people do." Warren Buffett

Could Pay Significantly More for Wonderful Businesses

"Looking back, when we’ve bought wonderful businesses that turned out to continue to be wonderful, we could’ve paid significantly more money, and they still would have been great business decisions. But you never know 100 percent for sure." Warren Buffett

Avoid Declining Businesses

If you really think a business is declining, most of the time you should avoid it. The real money is going to be made by being in growing businesses, and that’s where the focus should be.” Warren Buffett

Successful Investors Sell Stocks that go up

"I would worry, frankly, if I sold a bunch of things right at the top [of the market], because that would indicate that, in effect, I was practicing the bigger fool-type approach to investing, and I don’t think that can be practiced successfully over time. I think the most successful investors, if they sell at all, will be selling things that end up going a lot higher, because it means that they’ve been buying into good businesses as they’ve gone along." Warren Buffett

Three Week Delay Would be Okay

“I think you could be in someplace where the mails were delayed three weeks, and the quotations were delayed three weeks, and I think you could do just fine in investing.” Warren Buffett

Psychological Edge

"Humans will continue to make the same mistakes that they have made in the past. I mean, they get fearful when other people are fearful... when people get scared, you know, it’s very, very pervasive.. It’s just the way the humans are constructed. That’s where Charlie and I have an edge. We don’t have an edge, particularly, in many other ways." Warren Buffett

Risk Relates to Time Horizon

"If you have a time horizon on a business, we think the risk of buying something like Coca-Cola at the price we bought it at a few years ago is essentially, is so close to nil, in terms of our perspective holding period. But if you asked me the risk of buying Coca-Cola this morning and you’re going to sell it tomorrow morning, I say that is a very risky transaction." Warren Buffett

The Thing to Do

"The thing to do is just find a good business at an attractive price and buy it." Warren Buffett

Get Back more than you Put in

“I just cringe when I hear people talk about, “Now it’s time to move from growth stocks to value stocks,” or something like that, because it just doesn’t make any sense.” Warren Buffett

"Anybody that tells you, “You ought to have your money in growth stocks or value stocks,” really does not understand investing." Warren Buffett

Phil Fisher's Lesson on Compounding Machines

"Phil Fisher was just telling me the same thing that Charlie was telling me, which was that it’s very important to get into a business with fundamentally good economics, and one that you could ride with for decades, rather than one where you had to go from flower to flower every day." Warren Buffett

What to Study

"We think you should study things like Mrs. B out at the Nebraska Furniture Mart, who takes $500 and turns it, you know, over time, into the largest home furnishing store in the world. There has to be some lessons in things like that. What gives you that kind of a result and that kind of competitive advantage over time?" Warren Buffett

Follow the Competition

"If we own stock in a company and in an industry, and there are eight other companies that are in the same industry, I want to own or be on the mailing list for the reports for the other eight, because I can’t understand how my company is doing unless I understand what the other eight are doing.

I want to have the perspective of, in terms of market share, what’s going on in the business or their margins or the trend of margins, all kinds of things that I can’t get unless I know —

I can’t be an intelligent owner of a business unless I know what all the other businesses in that industry are doing. And so, I try to get that information out of a report." Warren Buffett

Never Mind the Macro

"Charlie and I, to my knowledge, or my memory, I can’t recall ever us making an acquisition or turning down one based on macro factors that — you know, and we talk about deals when they come along, but whether it was See’s Candy, or whatever it might have been, the Burlington Northern we bought at a terrible time, in general economic conditions." Warren Buffett

Business Adversity

“One of the things we look for in businesses, is how — you know, if you see a business take a lot of adversity and still do well, that tells you something about the underlying strength of the business.” Warren Buffett

You Need To See A CEO's Track Record

"It is far easier to tell the great baseball batters after you’ve seen a couple seasons of their batting than it is to go to a college — in college baseball teams or high school baseball teams — and pick out the superstars." Warren Buffett

Don't Try and Change Management

“I would say that we’ve found it almost useless in 60 years of investing to give advice to anybody in business.” Warren Buffett

“I would say that the history that Charlie and I have had of persuading decent, intelligent people, who we thought were doing unintelligent things, to change their course of action has been poor.” Warren Buffett

No Single Metric

"I don’t think price-earnings ratios, you know, determine things. I don’t think price-book, price-sales ratio; there’s no single metric I can give you, or anybody else can give you, that will tell you this is a great time to buy stocks or not to buy stocks." Warren Buffett

Forget Concepts & Country Allocations

"When we hear somebody talking concepts, of any sort, including country-by-country concepts or whatever it might be, we tend to think that they’re probably going to do better at selling than at investing." Warren Buffett

Businesses Don't Always Meet Expectations

"Businesses do not meet expectations quarter after quarter and year after year. It just isn’t in the nature of running businesses. And, in our view, people that predict precisely what the future will be are either kidding investors, or they’re kidding themselves, or they’re kidding both." Warren Buffett

Stock Prices in the Lobby is a Tell

"We’ve been suspicious of companies, for example, that place a whole lot of emphasis on the price of their stock. I mean, when we see the price of a stock posted in the lobby of the headquarters or something, you know, things like that make us nervous." Warren Buffett

Avoid Start-Ups

"I've never swung at a ball while it's still in the pitcher's glove." Warren Buffett

Wonderful Businesses beat Cigar Butts

"Those sub-working capital stocks are just almost impossible to find now. And if you got into a market where a lot of them existed, you’d probably find wonderful businesses selling a lot cheaper, too. And our inclination would be to go with a cheap, wonderful business." Warren Buffett

Don't Be 1% Incautious

“I would rather be, you know, a hundred times too cautious than 1 percent too incautious, and that will continue as long as I’m around.” Warren Buffett

Buffett and Munger have spent their whole lives, over a century in time, thinking about not only investment but also leading a fulfilling life. Their track record is unprecedented. Their communicative style can be best described as simple, genius in fact. If you really want to understand investing, I can't recommend highly enough studying the lessons of these Investment Masters. When asked what he would like to be remembered for in the future, or his legacy, Buffett replied "If you really ask me, I’d probably like 'teacher'. I enjoy teaching a lot." To this day, most Finance and Investment Courses don't take up Buffett on his wish. For those that do, let's hope the status quo remains; there will be more opportunities to leverage his wisdom.

I hope to see you in Omaha next year! Maybe we can grab a steak at Gorat's together...

 

 

 

 

Follow us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

 

Further Suggested Reading:
Investment Masters Class - The Buffett Series
Investment Masters Class - Evolution of a Value Manager

Learning from Wal-Mart's Sam Walton

qwalton.JPG

"Walmart figured out ways to do things at lesser costs that people needed — where people spent money in big quantity." Warren Buffett

The Walton family is the richest family in America. And their wealth is the product of one man: the late Sam Walton. Walton's career tracks like many other greats of our time; starting from humble beginnings, soaking up knowledge and learning from others, and then developing an innovative concept of their own along the way.

Walton's first job out of college was as a management trainee at JC Penney. This was in 1940. In 1945, Walton borrowed $20,000 from his father-in-law to buy a Ben Franklin variety store in Newport, Arkansas; population 7,000, and within five years store sales had increased from $72,000 to $250,000 a year. Walton's landlord, noticing the success, wanted to give his son the store and refused to renew the lease, at any price. And Walton was devastated. Rather than drowning in self-pity though, Walton packed his bags for Bentonville, Arkansas, population just 3,000, where he bought a new store. It wasn't until 1962, when Sam Walton, aged 44, opened the first Wal-Mart. 

In 1991, and in poor health, Walton published the memoir 'Sam Walton : Made in America' chronicling history's greatest retailing success story. At the time, Wal-Mart's market capitalisation had escalated from just $135m fifteen years earlier to over $50b. Between 1977 and 1987, Wal-Mart delivered average annual returns of 46% pa. One hundred dollars invested in Walmart in 1972 would be worth $136,000 today, compared to $2,500 invested in the Dow Jones Index.

  Wal-Mart vs Dow Jones Industrial Average - 1972-2018 [source: Bloomberg]

Wal-Mart vs Dow Jones Industrial Average - 1972-2018 [source: Bloomberg]

Walton's story contains many of the same themes that have characterised other great businesses we've covered such as Koch Industries, Nucor, Home Depot, Pixar and Panera Bread. These themes include reciprocation, win-win philosophy, constant innovation, humility, and culture; they all permeate through the book.

It's little wonder Buffett kicks himself when he didn't buy Wal-Mart in the early days. In fact, Buffett cites this miss as his biggest investing mistake. A 'Mistake of Ommission' that, by 2004, had cost Berkshire shareholders more than $10 billion dollars.

"Walmart — I cost us about — it’s up to 10 billion now.  I cost us about $10 billion. I set out to buy 100 million shares of Walmart, pre-split, at about 23. And Charlie said it didn’t sound like the worst idea ever came up with, which is — from him, I mean, it was just ungodly praise.   And then, you know, we bought a little and then it moved up a little bit. And I thought, “Well, you know, maybe it will come back” or what. Who knows what I thought? I mean, you know, only my psychiatrist can tell me. And that thumb sucking, reluctance to pay a little more — the current cost is in the area of 10 billion." Warren Buffett, Berkshire Meeting 2004

"We blew Walmart, too. When it was a total cinch, we were smart enough to figure that out and we didn’t." Charlie Munger 2017

Highlighted below are my favourite excerpts from Walton's book that explain the key drivers to Wal-Mart's success.

Education and Smarts

"I wasn't what you'd call a gifted student, but I worked really hard."

Learn from Others

"I learned a lesson which has stuck with me all through the years; you can learn from everybody. I didn't just learn from reading every retail publication I could get my hands on, I probably learned the most from studying what John Durnham was doing across the street."

Love

"I loved retail from the very beginning, and I still love it today."

"If you love your work, you'll be out there everyday trying to do it the best you possibly can, and pretty soon everybody around you will catch the passion from you - like a fever."

Focus on Customers and Staff

"The secret to successful retailing is to give your customers what they want."

"Our philosophy of putting the customer ahead of everything else."

"Everything we've done since we started Wal-Mart has been devoted to this idea that the customer is our boss."

"We exist to provide value to our customers, which means that in addition to quality and service, we have to save them money."

"The idea was simple, when customers thought of Wal-Mart, they should think of low prices and satisfaction guaranteed."

"Exceed your customers' expectations. If you do, they'll come back over and over. Give them what they want and a little more. Let them know you appreciate them."

"I'll tell you this; those companies out there who aren't thinking about the customer and focusing on the customers' interest are just going to get lost in the shuffle - if they haven't already."

"I read in some trade publication not long ago that of the strip of 100 discounters who were in business in 1976, 76 of them have disappeared. I started thinking about what really brought them down. It all boils down to not taking care of their customers, not minding their stores, not having folks in their stores with good attitudes, and that was because they never really even tried to take care of their own people. If you want people in the stores to take care of the customers, you have to make sure you're taking care of the people in the stores. That's the most important single ingredient of Wal-Mart."

"As much as we love to talk about all the elements of Wal-Mart's success - merchandising, distribution, technology, market saturation, real estate strategy - the truth is none of that is the real secret to our unbelievable prosperity. What has carried this company so far so fast is the relationship that we, the managers, have been able to enjoy with our associates. By 'associates' we mean those employees out in the stores and in the distribution centres and on the trucks who generally earn an hourly wage for all their hard work. Our relationship with the associates is a partnership in the truest sense. It's the only reason our company has been able to consistently outperform the competition - and even our own expectations."

"The more you share profits with your associates - whether it's in salaries or incentives or bonuses or stock discounts - the more profit will accrue to the company. Why? Because the way management treats the associates is exactly how associates will then treat the customers. And if the associates treat the customers well, the customers will return again and again, and that is where the real profit in this business lies, not in trying to drag strangers into your stores for one-time purchase based on splashy sales or expensive advertising. Satisfied, loyal, repeat customers are at the heart of Wal-Mart's spectacular profit margins, and those customers are loyal to us because our associates treat them better than salespeople in other stores do. So in the whole Wal-Mart scheme of things, the most important contact ever made is between the associate in the store and the customer."

"I didn't catch on to that idea for quite a while. In fact, the biggest single regret in my whole business career is that we didn't include our associates in the initial managers-only profit-sharing plan when we took the company public in 1970."

"Lip service won't make a real partnership - not even with profit sharing. These days, the real challenge for managers in a business like ours is to become what we call servant leaders. And when we do, the team - the manager and the associates - can accomplish anything."

"The decision .. to commit ourselves to giving the associates more equitable treatment in the company, was without a doubt the single smartest move we ever made at Wal-Mart."

"Today, more than 80% of our associates own Wal-Mart stock, either through profit sharing or on their own, and personally I figure most of the other 20% either haven't qualified for profit sharing, or haven't been with us long enough to catch on. Over the years, we've also had a variety of incentive and bonus plans to keep every associate involved in the business as partners."

"One simple thing puts it all together: Appreciation. All of us like praise. So what we try to practice in our company is to look for things to praise. look for things that are going right. We want to let our folks know when they are doing something outstanding, and let them know they are important to us."

"We want our associates to know and feel how much we, as managers and major shareholders, appreciate everything they are doing to make Wal-Mart the great company it is."

"As long as we're managing our company well, as long as we take care of our people and our customers, keep our eye on those fundamentals, we are going to be successful."

Experiment & Keep Innovating

"It didn't take me long to start experimenting - that's just the way I am and have always been."

"We paid absolutely no attention whatsoever to the way things were supposed to be done, you know, the way the rules of retail said it had to be done."

"I think my constant fiddling and meddling with the status quo may have been one off any biggest contributions to the later success of Wal-Mart."

"I've always been driven to buck the system, to innovate, to take things beyond where they've been."

"Most folks were pretty skeptical of the whole [Walmart] concept. Walmart was just another one of Sam's crazy ideas. It was totally unproven at the time, but it was really what we were doing all along; experimenting, trying to do something different, educating ourselves as to what was going on in the retail industry and trying to stay ahead of those trends."

"We were probably ten years ahead of most other retailers in scouting locations from the air, and we got a lot of great ones that way. From up in the air we could check out traffic flows, see which way cities and towns were growing, and evaluate the location of the competition - if there was any."

"Ignore the conventional wisdom. If everybody else is doing it one way, there's a good chance you can find a niche by going in exactly the opposite direction."

Empower People

"My role has been to pick good people and give them the maximum authority and responsibility."

"You've got to give folks responsibility, you've got to trust them, and then you've got to check on them."

"We were among the first in our industry with the idea of empowering our associates by running the business as an open book."

"Sharing information and responsibility is a key to any partnership. It makes people feel responsible and involved, and as we've gotten bigger we've really had to accept sharing a lot of our numbers with the rest of the world as a consequence of sticking by our philosophy."

"At our size today, there's all sorts of pressure to regiment and standardise and operate as a centrally driven chain, where everything is decided on high and passed down to the stores. In a system like that, there's absolutely no room for creativity, no place for the maverick merchant that I was in the early days of the Ben Franklin [store], no place for the entrepreneur or the promoter."

"The bigger we get as a company, the more important it becomes for us to shift responsibility and authority toward the front lines, toward that department manager who's stocking the shelves and talking to the customer."

"Our buyers have much more responsibility for deciding what's carried in our stores than buyers at most other companies."

"We all worked together, but each of them [managers] had lots of freedom to try all kinds of crazy things themselves."

Be Optimistic & Accept Mistakes

"It's not just corny saying that you can make a positive out of most any negative if you work at it hard enough. I've always thought of problems as challenges."

"When somebody made a bad mistake - whether it was myself or anybody else - we talked about it, admitted it, tried to figure out how to correct it, and then moved on to the next day's work."

Imitate

"Most everything I've done I've copied from somebody else."

"I guess I've stolen - I actually prefer the word 'borrowed' - as many ideas from Sol Price as from anybody else in the business."

Remain Open Minded

"[Sam Walton] was always open to suggestions, and that's one reason he's been such a success." Claude Harris

"I don't like to go to the [management] meeting and hear about just the good things that are happening. I like to hear what our weakness are, where we aren't doing as well as we should and why. I like to see problems come up and hear suggestions as to how it can be corrected."

"We're always looking for new ways to encourage our associates out in the stores to push their ideas up through the system."

"Listen to everyone in your company. And figure out ways to get them talking. The folks on the front lines - the ones who actually talk to the customer - are the ones who really know what's going on out there. You'd better find out what they know."

"Great ideas come from everywhere if you just listen and look for them. You never know who is going to have great ideas."

Hard Work

Working weekends; it's just something you have to do if you want to be successful in the retail business."

"Four-thirty [am] wouldn't be all that unusual a time for me to get started down at the office."

Competition

"I was visiting stores all the time, and I still do today."

"I ran the country studying the discounting concept, visiting every store and company headquarters I could find."

"Some folks no doubt figured we were a little fly-by-night - you know, in the discount business today but out selling cars or swampland tomorrow. I think that misunderstanding worked to our advantage for a long time, and enabled Wal-Mart to fly under everybody's radar until we were too far along to catch."

"We would be putting in fifty stores a year, when most of our [competitive] group would be trying to start three, four, five or six a year. It always confounded them."

"[The competition] didn't really commit to discounting. They held on to their old variety concept stores too long. They were so accustomed to getting their 45% mark-up, they never let go. It was hard for them to take a blouse they'd been selling for $8.00, and sell it for $5.00, and only make 30%. With our low costs, our low expense structures, and our low prices, we were ending an era in the heartland. We shut the door on variety store thinking."

"I remember [Sam Walton] saying over and over again; go in and check our competition. Check everyone who is our competition. And don't look for the bad. Look for the good." Charlie Cate

"I like to keep everybody guessing. I don't want our competitors getting too comfortable with feeling they can predict what we're going to do next. And I don't want our own executives feeling that way either. It's part of my strong feeling for the need for constant change, for keeping people a little off balance."

"Competition is actually the reason I love retailing so much.. There is always a challenger coming along .. To stay ahead of those challengers, we have to keep changing and looking back over our shoulder and planning ahead."

"So far none of our competitors has yet been able to operate on the volume that we do as efficiently as we do. They haven't been able to get their expense structure as low as ours, and they haven't been able to get their associates to do all those extra things for their customers that our do routinely; greeting them, smiling at them, helping them, thanking them."

Touch the Business

"Because I have spent as much time as I could out where it counts, in the stores, seeing if we're doing the job we should be, it has put a very heavy load on all our executives, especially since I expect them to get out in the stores too."

"I always tried to maintain a sense of hands-on, personal supervision - usually flying around to take a look at our stores on a regular basis."

"A computer is not - and never will be - a substitute for getting out in your stores and learning what's going on. In other words, a computer can tell you down to the dime what you've sold. But it can never tell you how much you could have sold."

"At Wal-Mart we are absolute fanatics about our managers and buyers getting off their chairs in Bentonville and getting out into those stores."

"The really valuable intelligence that surfaces in these [management] sessions is what everybody has brought back from the stores."

"Visiting the stores and listening to our folks was one of the most valuable uses of my time as an executive. Our best ideas usually do come from the folks in the stores. Period."

"For a long, long time Sam would show up regularly in the drivers' break room at 4am with a bunch of doughnuts and just sit there for a couple of hours talking to them. He grilled them. 'What are you seeing at the stores?' 'Have you been to that store lately?' 'Is it getting better?' It makes sense. The drivers see more stores every week than anybody else in this company. And I think what Sam likes about them is that they're not like a lot of managers. They don't care who you are. They'll tell you what they really think." Lee Scott

Scale

"The efficiencies and economies of scale we realise from our distribution system give us one of our greatest competitive advantages."

"When you own and manage your distribution and logistics channel, you have a great competitive advantage over companies that rely on third-party suppliers."

Culture

"A strong corporate culture with its own unique personality, on top of the profit-sharing partnership we've created, gives us a pretty sharp competitive edge."

"We've always tried to install in our folks the idea that we at Walmart have our own way of doing things. It may be different, and it may take some folks a while to adjust to it at first. But it's straight and honest and basically pretty simple to figure out if you want to. And whether or not the folks want to accomodate us, we pretty much stick to what we believe in because it's proven to be very, very successful."

"I enjoyed doing what I was doing so much and seeing the thing grow and develop, and seeing our associates and partners do so well, that I never could quit."

"If you're committed to the Walmart partnership and it's core values, the culture encourages you to think of all sorts of ideas that break the mood and fight monotony."

"We and the associates and the management like to do things together that contribute to the community and make them feel like a team, even if they don't directly relate to selling or promoting our merchandise."

"The bigger Wal-Mart gets, the more essential it is we think small. Because that's how we have become a huge corporation. - by not acting like one."

Tone at the Top

"A lot of people think it's crazy of me to fly coach whenever I go on a commercial flight, and maybe I do it a little bit. But I feel like it's up to me as a leader to set an example. It's not fair for me to ride one way and ask everybody else to ride another way. The minute you do that, you start building resentment, and your whole team idea begins to strain at the seams."

"We as a family have bent over backwards not to take advantage of Walmart, not to press our ownership unfairly, and everybody in the company knows it."

Drive Win-Win Relationships

"We're co-operating with our big vendors these days at the highest levels."

"We can get beyond a lot of our old adversarial relationships and establish win-win partnerships with our suppliers and our workers, which will leave us with more energy and talent to focus on the important thing, meeting the needs of our customers. "

"In the future, free enterprise is going to have to be done well - which means it benefits the workers, the stock holders, the communities, and of course, management, which must adopt a philosophy of servant leadership."

"You may have trouble believing it, but over time we've tested the old saying, it has paid off in spades: the more you give, the more you get."

Harness Technology

"We as a company have been ahead of most other retailers in investing in sophisticated equipments and technology."

"Without the computer, Sam Walton could not have done what he's done. He could not have built a retailing empire the size of what he's built, the way he built it. He's done a lot of other things right, too, but he could not have done it without the computer. It would have been impossible." Abe Marks

Accept and Adapt to Change

"To succeed in this world you have to change all the time."

"You can't keep doing what works one time, because everything around you is always changing. To succeed, you have to stay out in front of that change."

"I've made it my own personal mission to ensure that constant change is a vital part of Wal-Marts culture itself. I've forced change - sometimes for change's sake alone - at every turn in our company's development. In fact, I think one of the greatest strengths of Wal-Mart's ingrained culture is its ability to drop everything and turn on a dime."

"Just like everybody else, in order to survive, we need to keep changing the things we do."

"If American business is going to prevail, and be competitive, we're going to have to get accustomed to the idea that business conditions change, and that survivors have to adapt to this changing conditions. Business is a competitive endeavour, and job security lasts only as long as the customer is satisfied. Nobody owes anybody else a living."

"A whole lot has changed about the retailing business in the forty-seven years we've been in it - including some of my theories. We've changed our minds about some significant things along the way and adopted some new principles. But most of the values and the rules and the techniques we've relied on have stayed the same the whole way."

Humility

"If we ever get carried away with how important we are because we're a great big $50b chain - instead of one store in Blytheville, Arkansas, or McComb, Mississippi, or Oak Ridge, Tennessee - then you probably can close the book on us."

"A lot of bureaucracy is really the product of some empire builder's ego. Some folks have a tendency to build big staffs around them to emphasise their own importance, and we don't need any of that at Wal-Mart. If you're not seeing the customer, or supporting the folks who do, we don't need you."

Investors and the Long Term 

"I believe the folks who have done the best with Wal-Mart stock are those who studied the company, who have understood our strengths and our management approach, and who, like me, have just decided to invest with us for the long run."

If I were a stockholder of Wal-Mart, or considering becoming one, I'd go into ten Wal-Mart stores and ask the folks working there, "How do you feel? How's the company treating you?" Their answers would tell me much of what I need to know."

"As companies get large, with a broader following of investors, it becomes awfully tempting to get into that jet and go up to Detroit or Chicago or New York and speak to bankers and the people who own your stock. But since we got our stock jump-started in the beginning, I feel like our time is better spent with people in the stores, rather than off selling the company to outsiders. I don't think any amount of public relations experts or speeches in New York or Boston means a darn thing to the value of the stock over the long haul. I think you get what you're worth."

"As business leaders, we absolutely cannot afford to get all caught up in trying to meet the goals that some retail analyst or financial institution in New York sets for us on a team-year plan spit out of a computer that somebody set to compound at such-and such rate. If we do that, we take our eye off the ball."

"If we fail to live up to somebody's hypothetical projection for what we should be doing, I don't care. It may knock our stock back a little, but we're in it for the long run. We couldn't care less about what is forecast or what the market says we ought to do. If we listened very seriously to that sort of stuff, we never would have gone into small-town discounting in the first place."

Postscript: Amazon

While Buffett initially missed Wal-Mart, he took a position in 2005. In 2017, Buffett exited the position. The Internet had changed shoppers' preferences and eroded the commanding influence Wal-Mart had over its suppliers. A new competitor also emerged.

Unencumbered by store costs and a conventional retailers mindset, Amazon.com harnessed technology to lower costs, increase selection and convenience and developed a pact with shareholders to accept limited profitability in return for a long term competitive advantage.  

“Walmart’s a fabulous company. What Sam Walton’s and his successors did is one of the great stories of American business. I think retailing is too tough for me – just generally. We bought a department store in 1966 and I got my head handed to me. I bought Tesco in the UK and I got my head handed to me. Retailing is very tough and I think the on-line thing is very hard to figure out. I think Amazon in particular is an entity that’s gonna have everyone in their sights, and they've got delighted customers and it's extraordinary what they’ve accomplished. That is a tough, tough competitive force. Now Walmart is pushing forward online themselves and have all kind of strengths but I thought I’d look for an easier game.”  Warren Buffett 2017

  Walmart Share Price vs Amazon - 1972 Normalised   Source: Bloomberg

Walmart Share Price vs Amazon - 1972 Normalised   Source: Bloomberg

  Amazon Share Price vs Dow Jones vs Walmart - 1998 Normalised   Source:Bloomberg

Amazon Share Price vs Dow Jones vs Walmart - 1998 Normalised   Source:Bloomberg

Summary

Sam Walton's incredible story illuminates the characteristics that combined to create a compounding machine. They have a relentless focus on the customer and a competitive edge derived from: distribution scale, embracing counter-parties, empowering employees, experimentation driving innovation, first mover advantages and corporate culture. And when combined with a large runway for sales, shareholder returns were phenomenal.

The history of Wal-Mart also highlights the brutality of capitalism. Change is inevitable. No business is forever. Trees don't grow to the sky. In 2015, after just two decades, Amazon’s value bypassed that of Wal-Mart. Ironically, Sam Walton ended his memoir contemplating whether there could be another Walmart.

"My answer is of course it could happen again. Somewhere out there right now there's someone - probably hundreds of thousands of someones - with good enough ideas to go all the way. It will be done again, over and over, providing that someone wants it badly enough to do what it takes to get there. It's all a matter of attitude and the capacity to constantly study and question the management of the business." Sam Walton

As Walton had copied others, Amazon's Jeff Bezos copied Walton. According to Brad Stone's book, 'The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon', Bezos studied the lessons of Walton and weaved them into the fabric of Amazon. 

Notwithstanding, Sam Walton's legacy of prioritising the customer, continuous innovation, technology embracement, and developing win-win relationships remains enduring. As Bezos became the Sam Walton of the 21st Century, the next Bezos maybe out there now.

 

 

 

Learn more with us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

Further Reading: 

MASTER CEO'S

 

 

Staying Curious

curious.JPG

Are you a curious person? Do you always ask questions, determinedly seek out new information or continually want to know why? If there is one thing the Investment Masters seem to agree on, it's that you don't need a sky-high IQ or advanced mathematical skills to be a successful investor. What you do need is curiosity. And curiosity is an unbelievably powerful tool. Some of the most famous thinkers and innovators in human history (think DaVinci, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison and Einstein, to name but a few) have had one simple thing in common - curiousity. Einstein himself attributes curiosity to his success: 'I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious." 

Curiosity can be described as the drive that brings learners to knowledge. Curiosity is about being aware and open, checking things out, experimenting, and interacting within one's surroundings. Other physical manifestations include observing, reading, wondering, thinking and questioning.

Fostering curiosity can often provide an edge the market has overlooked. It can lead to new ideas and provide insights for further analysis. We know the Investment Masters are all voracious readers. What you may not know is they read widely; newspapers, annual reports, trade magazines, history books, business books, biographies; basically anything they can get their hands to accumulate large, mental databases of information.

"My policy [is] reading every annual report in sight that can further my knowledge about anything." Warren Buffett

"Be widely read and curious.” Ed Thorp

“Being a successful investor you need to be hungry, intellectually curious, interested, read all the time. Ted Weschler

“[Investing] requires endless curiosity, the relentless pursuit of additional information, the raising of questions, and the search for answers.” Seth Klarman

"Curiosity is the engine of civilization. If I were to elaborate it would be to say read, read, read, and don't forget to talk to people, really talk, listening with attention and having conversations, on whatever topic, that are an exchange of thoughts. Keep the reading broad, beyond just the professional. This helps to develop one's sense of perspective in all matters." Peter Cundill

“My whole life I’ve been a reader. I’m curious; I want to know how things work. Even more importantly I want to know what is going to happen. And what’s going to happen is often related to what has happened. I read history, I read psychology, I read finance and business. I read a lot of biographies. I’m drawn to anything that makes me a better person, makes me a better investor and makes me a better philanthropist or just makes me more knowledgeable about the world.” Seth Klarman

“I learn and I’m curious about all businesses. That’s why when opportunities come, within a few seconds you can smell it. How can you develop that smell? The only way to really do that is just reading page after page. Li Lu

Curiosity, hard work and more than a little luck goes a long way” Chuck Akre

Often they'll stumble on a snippet of information that provides inspiration for further analysis.

“Who knows when some little fact stored in the back of your mind pops up and really does make a difference.” Warren Buffett

When Buffett reads annual reports he's seeking as much information as he can about the person running the business and how they think about what's really going on in the business. At the 1996 Berkshire meeting Buffett expanded on the idea:

"What I’m trying to do as I read [annual reports], I like to understand just generally what’s going on in all kinds of businesses. If we own stock in a company and in an industry, and there are eight other companies that are in the same industry, I want to own or be on the mailing list for the reports for the other eight, because I can’t understand how my company is doing unless I understand what the other eight are doing. I want to have the perspective of, in terms of market share, what’s going on in the business or their margins or the trend of margins, all kinds of things. If I’m thinking about investing in a specific company, I try to size up their business and the people that are running it. And over the years, I have found reading a lot of reports to be quite useful in terms of making business decisions at Berkshire."

"The way you learn about businesses is by absorbing information about them, thinking, deciding what counts and what doesn’t count, relating one thing to another. And, you know, that’s the job. And you can’t get that by looking at a bunch of little numbers on a chart bobbing up and down about a — or reading, you know, market commentary and periodicals or anything of the sort. That just won’t do it. You’ve got to understand the businesses. That’s where it all begins and ends." Warren Buffett

Buffett is curious; he's a learning machine. Alice Schroeder, Buffett's biographer, explains;

"[Warren] expends a lot of energy checking out details and ferreting out nuggets of information, way beyond the balance sheet. He would go back and look at the company's history in depth for decades. He used to pay people to attend shareholder meetings and ask questions for him. He checked out the personal lives of people who ran companies he invested in. He wanted to know about their financial status, their personal habits, what motivated them. He behaves like an investigative journalist. All this stuff about flipping through Moody's Manual's picking stocks, it was a screen for him, but he didn't stop there." Alice Schroeder

It's unlikely you'll find the information you need without asking questions. I'm often amazed when I attend company briefings and investment managers don't ask any questions. I always try to come from the angle that there are no stupid questions.

“There are no foolish questions and no man becomes a fool until he has stopped asking questions.” Charles Proteus Steinmetz

Always ask questions and never be afraid to do so. The only dumb question is the one you do not ask.” Jim Rogers

"[It's important] not to be afraid to be ignorant and ask questions" Jim Leitner

Most companies presentations focus on what they think investors want to hear, the positives. Only by asking questions can you address areas of likely concern. Directed questions can facilitate learning and understanding and give you the confidence to do the right thing in times of uncertainty. Be attentive and ask questions.

"You have to be very careful to look hard at what’s really happening. You know, as Yogi said, 'You can observe a lot just by looking.'” Warren Buffett

"If you want to get smart, the question you’ve got to keep asking is: Why? Why? Why? Why?" Charlie Munger

"You just keep asking questions." Warren Buffett

If you find a business with characteristics that defy expectations, it is vitally important to determine how they have been achieved. And the answer to that question starts with a question.

“Well, I love [the] example of State Farm. I mean, the idea of picking some extreme example and asking my favorite question, which is 'what in hell is going on here?'; that is the way to wisdom in this world.” Charlie Munger

It's little wonder a hallmark of the Investment Masters is curiosity.

"We made some of our luck by being curious and seeking wisdom, and we certainly recommend that to anybody else." Charlie Munger

"You have to have a real curiosity about it. I mean, you — I don’t think you can do it because your mother’s telling you to do it, or something of the sort. I think you — it really has to turn you on." Warren Buffett

“A broad curiosity blended with some contrarianism and a sense of what makes you money is the right combination of traits.” Seth Klarman

"People who are curious are going to be better investors and better stewards of others’ money. If there’s no curiosity, you’re basically doing something that’s already been done by someone else." Henry Kravis

“I’m curious; I want to know how things work. Even more importantly I want to know what is going to happen.” Seth Klarman

"If you have a passionate interest in knowing why things are happening, you always are trying to figure out the world in terms of why is this happening or why is this not happening, that cast of mind, kept over long periods, gradually improves your ability to cope with reality. And if you don’t have that cast of mind, I think you’re destined, probably, for failure, even if you’ve got a pretty high IQ." Charlie Munger

“Good ideas generally come from individual curiosity.Michael McConnell

“I generally find the best investors are very open and have almost a child-like curiosity about how everything works. They don’t come to the table with preconceived notions.” Oliver Kratz

"You have to keep at it with a lot of curiosity for a long, long time." Charlie Munger

“You have to be naturally interested in interested and curious about everything – any kind of businesses, politics, science, technology, humanities, history, poetry, literature, everything really effects your business. It will help you. And then occasionally you will find a few insights out of those studies that will give you tremendous opportunities that other people couldn’t think of.” Li Lu

"We like people who are intellectually curious. I don't see how you can wise up over time if you aren't working at it." Charlie Munger

Even better, the results from asking questions, digging deeper, being attentive, observing anomalies and testing ideas are unlikely to be competed away by computer systems. It is the qualitative factors rather than quantitative factors that often explain extraordinary company results.

“There are a lot of things that involve thinking that artificial intelligence isn’t going to find.Ed Thorp

"Curiosity is an inherent kind of arbitrage that no amount of computer technology can overcome." Alice Schroeder

Computers will never, in my opinion, replace the judgement and intellect, and the ability to connect the dots, that people do.Ken Griffin

In his latest letter, Oaktree's Howard Marks surmised a similar train of thought...

"Computers can do an unmatched job dealing with the things that can be counted: things that are quantitative and objective. But many other things – qualitative, subjective things – count for a great deal, and I doubt computers can do what the very best investors do:

  • Can they sit down with a CEO and figure out whether he’s the next Steve Jobs?

  • Can they listen to a bunch of venture capital pitches and know which is the next Amazon?

  • Can they look at several new buildings and tell which one will attract the most tenants?

  • Can they predict the outcome of a bankruptcy reorganization where the parties may have motivations other than economic maximization?

The greatest investors aren’t necessarily better than others at arithmetic, accounting or finance; their main advantage is that they see merit in qualitative attributes and/or in the long run that average investors miss.  And if computers miss them too, I doubt the best few percent of investors will be retired anytime soon." Howard Marks

It's little wonder Ray Dalio places curiosity at the top of the list of priorities he looks for when hiring someone to work at Bridgewater.

"[I look for the] five Cs—character, curiosity, creativity, common-sense, and consideration." Ray Dalio

Curiosity is a vital tool for investors. In fact it may be the most vital. We need information to make our investment decisions, and Munger's view that you have to keep asking 'why?' is one of the simplest ways to get there. I once read that the CEO of Toyota had a belief that to get to the heart or root of any problem, you had to ask 'why?' seven times. And that makes sense. If we are curious, and really want to know something, we should never stop seeking information and we should never stop asking that most simplest of questions. Just think what would have happened had Thomas Edison not been curious. Or Isaac Netwon, or Henry Ford. Or Marie Curie or DaVinci for that matter.  Would we possess their incredible inventions or innovations today?

So never stop being curious. "Why?" I hear you say. Because quite simply it makes all the difference in the world.

 

 

 

Learn more with us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

 

 

 

 

Culture, Enculturation and the Cult of Home Depot

Have you heard the story about the two guys who were fired from their jobs running a US hardware chain, who then went on to build a hardware powerhouse that delivered investor returns that made the S&P500 and even Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway look pedestrian? That's right, I'm talking about Home Depot, which since inception has been an astounding compounding machine

Like Buffett himself, Home Depot's co-founders, Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, have shared the secrets to their success in the 1999 book 'Built from Scratch - How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew the Home Depot from Nothing to $30b'. Home Depot turned the hardware industry upside down. They introduced big box stores which utilised high volume turnover and direct product sourcing to offer unbeatable prices, they encultured and empowered their staff to harvest customer relationships and they grew the market for do-it-yourselfers by teaching their customers the needed skills to save money. Fast forward to today and Home Depot's market capitalisation is an astonishing $229b!

The history of retailing is filled with once-great companies that disappeared off the face of the earth. It's one of the toughest industries to survive in, let alone prosper, given the minimal barriers to entry, changing customers demands and ruthless competition.

"Retailing is a tough, tough business, partly because your competitors are always attempting and very frequently successfully attempting to copy anything you do that's working. And so the world keeps moving. It's hard to establish a permanent moat that your competitor can't cross." Warren Buffett

In light of the above, it's should come as no surprise that the defining characteristic underpinning Home Depot's success is Culture. In recent posts we've learnt the importance of culture and you'll see how Marcus and Blank have leveraged it to phenomenal success. 

Buffett has long advised studying great businesses as case studies to improve one's investment skills.  'Built from Scratch' is one of the most enlightening business books I've had the pleasure to read. It tells the tale of what the two founders learned about customers, associates, competitors, growing a business, building a brand, and many other topics everyone in business needs to know. You won't find anything in the way of margin guidance, inventory turns, staffing ratios or comparable store sales; all that stuff that tends to fill analyst models. This is all qualitative stuff. 

Below you'll find some some of my favourite passages from the book, nuggets of wisdom that can help you frame the questions you ask and worthwhile observations in your own quest to find compounding machines

Push Boundaries

"We were always pushing boundaries beyond where our industry's conventional wisdom suggested we could go."

"No one believed we could do it, and very few people trusted our judgement."

Culture

"Ten years ago, The Home Depot advertised stores that were bigger than two and a half football fields. That was a point of difference. Today, who isn't bigger than two and a half football fields? We also said we carried more than 30,000 items. That was a point of difference. Well, who doesn't have more than 30,000 items today? And who doesn't have low-price guarantee? If all those things have become a commodity, why is The Home Depot still so successful? It is the culture of the people."

"The numbers are important as a measure of our success. But we've attained them because of a culture that is agile and flexible enough to change direction as quickly as events demand it."

"You can copy a Black & Decker drill and sell it for the same price that we do, but you can't copy The Home Depot culture. We think we're very difficult to emulate without believing in the same values that we do."

"Another important issue for us in considering an acquisition is culture. If ours is not akin to what we're acquiring, it represents a major problem. Is what they believe in similar to what we believe in? If not, we're going to have to work very hard to make it fit, and it may not be worth it. That's why we generally prefer to build from within."

 Home Depot Share Price vs S&P500 and Berkshire Hathaway.     Source: Bloomberg

Home Depot Share Price vs S&P500 and Berkshire Hathaway.     Source: Bloomberg

Competitors

"The Home Depot is far ahead of Lowe's in every major measurement of success. We produce on average about 40 percent more volume out of our big boxes than they do at a 40 percent greater rate of profitability."

"When you only copy somebody and don't really understand why they're doing what they're doing, you're never going to be as good as the original. That's Lowe's problem vis-a-vis The Home Depot. They copy almost everything we do, from store design to marketing. But the reason they still only achieve about 60 percent of our volume is that they don't understand the essence of what we do: take care of the customers."

"The industry knew we were edging closer and closer to them but they never prepared for us. They all knew that we would eventually present a direct threat, but they couldn't think in terms other than the way they had for decades."

"The way we did business was hard for old-timers to understand. They couldn't understand sales volume and velocity as opposed to gross margin. Their key was selling less at a higher price; ours was selling more at a lower price. They couldn't understand our dynamics or the numbers."

"The fact we were able to design our company on a clean sheet of paper and weren't hampered by years of tradition and years of people being committed to a certain sort of business form played to our advantage with both customers and the industry."

The Customer

"Whatever it takes, serve the customer."

"Nobody could compete with us on price."

"Never, ever take the customer for granted."

"The key is not to make the sale. The key is to cultivate the customer."

"We believe in doing more than customer service. We call it customer cultivation. If you cultivate it will bear more fruit."

"Every business is there to please the customer."

"One of our values: caring for the customer. Care for them today and they'll be back tomorrow."

"We don't just develop an intellectual relationship with our customers and associates. There also needs to be a tight emotional bond. At the end of the day, we're in the people business. And people need bonds with each other."

"The reason we have our business is because customers trust us."

"We did not for one minute take the customers coming own our store for granted. We really wanted them back, and our entire service culture developed from that. It wasn't some lofty idea written by out-of-town consultants in a policy book nobody read. It was necessary."

"The job of the people working in the stores [is] to do whatever it takes to make customers happy."

"We are in the business not to destroy a competitor but to serve the customer. If, as a result of that, we end up hurting a competitor, that is fine, but it can't be our focus. Our focus has to be on the customer. The truth of the matter is, we have to win the customer. We don't have to beat the competitor, we have to win the customer."

"The way to win the hearts and minds of customers is with merchandise, price comparisons, and sufficient stock. But that is the mechanical part of the business. We win their hearts and their minds with our people."

"If I ever saw an associate point a customer toward what he or she needed three aisles over, I would threaten to bite that associate's finger. You won't even see aisle numbers in our stores. There is not a retailer on the face of the globe with 1,000,000 square foot stores other than Home Depot without some aisle numbers. Why? Well, if we had aisle numbers, when a customer asks, "Do you know where I can find this widget?" it would be very easy for our associates to point and say, "aisle eight." If there are no aisle numbers, the employee has to say, "Let's take a walk and we'll find it together.""

"Our people were already instructing weekend warriors in an informal way. Putting on How-To-Clinics became a way of formalising the teaching and making it available to all of our customers and further cultivating their interest in do-it-yourself home improvement. We saw people who were all thumbs before they came into The Home Depot go on to do room additions or build their own homes. That's a big part of how we created demand that never existed before."

"We gave customers the knowledge to do it themselves at the right price. Today, you could install a Mills Pride kitchen yourself for $3,000 that would have cost you $25,000 and the services of a pro twenty years ago."

"Home Depot is and always will be evolving to find new and better or additional ways to serve our customers."

People

"Why have I been successful my whole life? Because I've always surrounded myself with people who are better than I am."

"The company didn't blossom from miracles. It came from our instincts, knowing whom to do business with and whom to avoid."

"The single most important reason for the Home Depot's success is our effort to take care of associates."

"You can teach anyone about a drill, but you can't teach people how to smile and be kind to other people."

"We learned that love and compassion do a hell of a lot more than just buying people."

"Hire the best people. Payroll is not an expense to us; it's an investment." 

"The people at the stores are the most important - after customers - because they interface with the customer, and since Bernie and I really couldn't begin to tell you how to wire a house, we are the least important when it comes to satisfying a customer."

"Everyone who works at the Home Depot is an associate of Bernie and me."

"[Sales Associates] are the heroes of the company, the ones who create a cult among our customers. We're trying to make our customers bleed orange."

"We value what the salesperson on the store floor says just as much - sometimes more - than what a district manager says, if they're right. That's because the salesperson touches the customer more."

"We also put a larger percentage of our overall sales back into store payroll, putting more people on the sales floor than anyone else."

"We're only as good as our people - especially the men and women working in our stores. If the front line isn't absolutely committed to the cause we can't win."

"Setting the stores gives our people ownership. We don't own these stores; they do."

"We pay people what they are worth. That is the cornerstone of the culture of the company."

"When it comes to people, you must look past the numbers, past the resumes, and look at their heart and soul. And you must treat people as you would want to be treated."

"One of our values is caring for our people. If we expect them to take care of our customers, we've got to take care of our associates." 

"Our theory has always been that if we were going to get rich, we wanted our associates to get rich with us. If we were going to benefit, they were going to benefit as well. That has always been a part of our philosophy."

"Everyone has a stake in the company that goes beyond earning a day's wage. Associates have a real vested interest in cultivating customers and building lifelong relationships with them."

"Our associate turnover is very low for the home improvement industry."

"Our competitive advantage is having knowledgeable salespeople."

"As good as we are on price, that is never the most important decision. More important is product and project knowledge."

"Our Atlanta Training Center teaches new and existing store managers and district managers how and why our culture, philosophy and leadership approach works."

"What makes us so different from anyone else in our industry is that we take the inverted management structure so seriously."

"Bernie and I believe it's all about trust. With the right value system and the right knowledge to do their job, people can be trusted to make the right decisions. If you can operate with that kind of trust, you don't have to micromanage. And people will do more good for the company than anyone could ever dictate."

"There is a cultural adjustment that must take place for anyone to be valuable to this company."

Head Office

"The sign at the front entrance of our main offices in Atlanta says "Store Support Center" Not "World Headquarters." It is not a corporate ivory tower. It is truly the store support center. We want everybody in this building to know that we are here to support the stores." 

"Everyone's career depends on how the associates in the stores function. If the people in the Store Support Centre or divisional offices don't feel like they are selling a product to customers in the stores, then they are part of a bureaucracy, and they will stymie the stories, not help them."

"We don't care what your job is. What have you done to sell a product to our customers? What have you done to bring a customer into our stores? What have you done to make a manufacturer want to sell to our company? You have a role, and if you don't think you do, you don't belong here. If you don't know what that role is, you need to find out."

Decentralisation and Empowerment

"Our store managers and their assistant managers have more operating and decision-making leeway than in any other retail chains in America. We want them to roam and test parameters to see how far they can move out on the fringe of the property."

"One of our big advantages that we have over most of our competitors is being decentralised. It allows us to be close to the customers and access the best knowledge in the field. That way we can do not only what is right for the stores, but also respond to the marketplace and support the associates in the stores."

"We insist, we demand that our people take risks, and then take responsibility for those risks. "It is your business, your division, your market, your store, your aisle, and your customer. It is not a Home Depot customer, it is your customer.""

"Don't wait for some Home Depot bureaucrat to give you an answer or fix your problem. And don't blame somebody else. If you have something that needs to be fixed, fix it."

"We expect the associates to run their store like it is their own business, tailoring a great deal of the product selection to local needs and buying local products."

"Our people are shopkeepers. As long as they run their business well or reasonable well, we don't bother them."

"Our culture is about making sure people understand that they are empowered to do what is right. We worry about the other stuff; just do what is right now."

Values

"Our values are the magic of Home Depot. By consistently and emphatically teaching and enculturating them through the ranks of managers and on to the people working in the stores, we know that each and every one of these 160,000 folks will take care of the customer and each other. The rest takes care of itself."

"If a company's values are nothing more than words hanging in the lobby of a corporate headquarters for visitors to see, they're a fantasy, dead on arrival."

"A sure way to grow the company is to clearly state our values and install them in our associates. Values are beliefs they do not change over time; they guide our decisions and actions. They are the principles, beliefs, and standards own our company. We call this process of enculturation 'bleeding orange.'"

"Our values empower our people to be their best. If we can implant a value system that lets them apply their basic goodness and ingenuity to the Home Depot and its customers, that's all we need to succeed."

"These values are our company. They are out belief system, and we believe in them as much today as when the first Home Depot stores opened in June 1979. Without them, we're no different than our competition. Our competitors could copy them just as they've copied our stores, products, and merchandising ideas. But they would have to believe in the ideas underlying these values to make them effective, and that's a tough step to take."

"We believe there is no perfect, ongoing formula, as long as your values remain constant."

Transparency

"Managers can ask any kind of question no matter how blunt, invasive, or even offensive it might be. These meetings are intended to be naked, honest exchanges of information and opinions. Bernie insists on it - no pussyfooting around."

A Vision

"A great company goes beyond making money. A great company has a mission, a vision, a dream."

"You must stick to a vision and turn people into believers."

Setting examples

"If an associate picked something up off the floor, it was because we did it first. We set the example. Few people ever felt that they were working for somebody."

"Let me go back to the essence of what the company is: Role-modelling. Every manager and every district manager in this company is a trainer and a teacher."

Change

"The world changes, the environment changes, competition changes, people change, everything changes. Retailers can't ever stay the same. If you don't change you are a dead duck. You must wake up every morning and wonder, "Who will destroy me today if I don't keep my eyes open?" You must constantly think about ways to out-manoeuvre the competition and be the number one horse."

"Responding to change is one of the reasons for the success of the Home Depot."

Innovation

"Much of our success through the years has resulted from a love of discovering and inspiring new products, putting a new sales spin on reliable classics, and our passion for seeing them move through the cash registers."

"We are always looking over our shoulders. The essence of keeping our company great is its non-stop reinvention, because if you are in constant motion, nobody can catch you. You must maintain that motion, whether it be physical layout of the store, merchandising, advertising, or a thousand other factors. It is no different than changing your clothes everyday. If your spouse wore the same clothes everyday, after a while, you'd stop looking at him or her."

"No matter what your business, you cannot stay still for any length of time, or our competitors will scratch and crawl over you."

"[We do] workouts. This involves getting all the people closely tied to any given business problem and to lock themselves in a room together - for as long as two days - and work out potential solutions. Even if it's something we're doing well, how can we do it better?"

Flexibility

"Our flexibility and our enhanced ability to adapt, is not only to positive developments but to negative ones, too. That was a very, very important issue that goes back to finding out what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong."

Planning Ahead

"One of the key strategies of this company has always been to do things before we needed to do them. That might sound obvious, but lots of companies get painted into a corner, then have to react instead of pre-act."

Humility & Studying Failure

"You can't ever, ever take it for granted that you own the business. Because everybody who does eventually disappears of the face of the earth. We learned that by studying people who failed and understanding why they failed. Failures - especially our own - are great teaching tools. If someone fell on his face prior, why would you do the same thing again?"

"Bernie and I relearn our business firsthand from people on the floor of the stores. The associates know more about the products and what the customers are looking for than we do. It is a changing, teaching experience."

"We are not more important that the customer."

"Even our investors find it hard to believe the founders of the company still participate in training managers, expounding the The Home Depot explicit values, as if that were beneath us."

Store Walks

"Store walks are such an important and valuable tool to this company, that they're required not just of our executives, but of our board of directors, too."

"It flattens the management pyramid by creating communication from the very top to the very bottom of the company."

"Some managers manage by walking fast and looking worried. We would rather them take their time, focus, see what the customer is seeing, talk to the customer, and interact, because that is where you get all your answers."

"Bernie and I probably spend 25 to 30 percent of our time in the stores. The balance is spent training managers in our culture and teaching merchandising."

Common Sense & Bureaucracy

"Common sense was an overriding factor in everything we did. Nothing but our values, ethics, and morality were set in concrete."

"Bureaucracy is giving in to stupidity and ignoring common sense. When you know something is wrong and you don't challenge it, you have become bureaucratic. The root cause of creating a bureaucratic environment is when people are afraid to make mistakes. We want our people to be unafraid of making mistakes."

"The culture of this company intentionally beats down our associates' fear of bureaucracy, opening up very honest face-to-face interaction. Smart associates are not afraid of us."

"If anything ever kills the personality of this company, it will be creeping bureaucracy."

Summary

Payroll is not an expense, its an investment. Place customers at the forefront and encourage staff to interact with them. Learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others. Have Management and Board Members walk the store floors. Empower your people. Share the winnings. Set the example. Innovate and drive constant change. Remove bureaucracy. Support your staff.

But why do all of this? Because great Culture is a competitive advantage that is hard to compete against. And its hard to argue against when you look at Home Depot's returns since inception. $100 invested in 1981 would have earned you $2,377 on the S&P, $9,719 within Berkshire Hathaway, and an astonishing $569,000 in Home Depot.

And you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that in the end it's very easy maths indeed. Great Culture = Great Business.

 

 

 

Follow us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

 

Further Reading: 
Investment Masters Class: Learning from Arthur Blank

The Home Depot: Built from Scratch

 

 

Widening Moats + Culture

If you've been keeping abreast of my posts in the last twelve months, you will no doubt have noticed the common trend of the Investment Masters to want to buy Great Businesses. These of course are companies with healthy rates of returns, strong future earnings potential and usually come with a significant competitive advantage. And when the Investment Masters look for competitive advantages, one of the most important a company can possess is a strong corporate culture. 

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a speech by Kurt Winrich about just that subject: 'Corporate Culture'. Winrich and his partner Paul Black run WCM Investment Management, and together manage a $26b global equities portfolio out of Laguna Beach, California. 

A good corporate culture is key to business performance. It is clear that Companies with good cultures outperform those with poor ones. In the recent Robert Cialdini post we talked about a 'cultural flywheel' driven by the powerful trait of human nature, reciprocation. If Corporates treat their staff well, the staff reciprocate by working harder, customers benefit and reciprocate, and the company prospers. In a recent CNBC interview, Paul Tudor-Jones discussed research showing companies that look after their staff and customers and produce quality products, typically earn an average 7% higher ROIC and heavily outperform those that don't. Basically, companies that prioritise staff and customers above shareholders and management perform better.

Culture can be a competitive advantage that's almost impossible to replicate. Winrich and Black's WCM spend 95% of their time looking for companies whose moats are growing and who have corporate cultures that are aligned with those competitive advantages.

And they're not alone in recognising that an expanding moat is a key trait to success. Buffett himself has said that widening the moat is more important in any given year than a company's profit.

"If you are evaluating a business year-to-year, you want to — the number one question you want to ask yourself is whether the — could the competitive advantage have been made stronger and more durable before — and that’s more important than the P&L for a given year." Warren Buffett

Widening the moat.. that is essential if we are to have the kind of business we want a decade or two from now. We always, of course, hope to earn more money in the short-term. But when short-term and long-term conflict, widening the moat must take precedence." Warren Buffett

"We think in terms of that moat and the ability to keep its width and its impossibility of being crossed as the primary criterion of a great business. And we tell our managers we want the moat widened every year. That doesn’t necessarily mean the profit will be more this year than it was last year because it won’t be sometimes. However, if the moat is widened every year, the business will do very well." Warren Buffett

It's WCM's recognition of culture as a key input into a company's competitive positioning that makes their investment process somewhat unique. And with outperformance of 500bps pa over the last 10 years, they were clearly something worth digging into. In my quest to learn more about WCM's partners, I found some great interviews and podcasts. One of my favourites was Ted Seides, Capital Allocator's podcast interview with Paul Black. Below you'll find insights from that interview and a few others with links below.

Learning From Failure

"We got here from a lot of hard work, a lot of good fortune and learning from past mistakes and making almost every one you could possibly make, but using that as a source of strength to get better and better. Anyone who doesn't believe that most of life is learning from your failures just doesn't quite get it or they're too young to get it." Paul Black

Focus on Great Companies

"A growth stock investor has a different perspective on the world. You have to be optimistic about the future. I like it because I tend to see the world more positively. It's consistent with where I am psychologically. To me optimists rule the world. I think optimists are the ones who ultimately get it right. Buffett says it all the time, 'Never bet against America'. I'd say never bet against great growth companies with superior cultures that are highly competitively advantaged." Paul Black

People Matter

“A lot of people think it is all in the numbers, we think it’s all in the people Kurt Winrich

"If you read Phil Fisher's book Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, I think he has a 25 point checklist on how to analyse a company and interestingly of the twenty-five, probably fifteen are qualitative elements. Which is just the reverse of what most people on Wall Street do." Paul Black

“My favourite example in the US is Costco vs Sam’s club (Walmart division). Those businesses look the same but Costco sales per square foot are more than double, revenue per employee stronger, employee turnover much lower (Sam’s club 44%). Costco pays employee more. Employees are the starting point of customer satisfaction. When people are really happy they give more. A lot of people think company should treat shareholders best. Costco thinks key is to treat employees best.” Kurt Winrich

Focus on the Direction of the Competitive Advantage

"95% of our work is around identifying businesses with growing competitive advantages." Paul Black

"A couple of things define a great growth company. [What we do] is very different from what most people do. We've found if you're just looking for high quality, wide-moat businesses selling cheaply, today you are going to find yourself in a lot of value traps. We've made the mistakes in the past buying high quality, wide-moat businesses cheaply. What we learned because of our mistakes of significantly under-performing the market, is that you have got to stay focused on the direction of the competitive advantage. Everybody's businesses is either getting strong versus your competitors or you're getting weaker. You want to be able to make the case, through pattern recognition and other tools around 'moat-typologies' as we classify it, that the company you're looking to invest in has a strong likelihood of growing its competitive advantage over the next five, ten and fifteen years. If you get that right, any valuation work you do is going to look ludicrously cheap five and ten years out. That's a huge part of what we do that's different." Paul Black

"A lot of people think you just want the biggest moat. Our contention is you need to pay attention to a moat that is growing. A moat that is shrinking can be dangerous. If we find a growing moat how do we have any confidence it will keep growing. We found the number one way that convinces us of that is the culture is aligned to the moat. We want to see behaviours that enhance the competitive position.” Paul Black

"What's more important than just a big competitive advantage is buying a business where the competitive advantage is actually getting stronger. Where you can make the case over the next 5, 10, 15 years the competitive advantage is going to be stronger. If you get that part of the equation rights your going to go a long way to having a successful investment." Paul Black

Place a Premium on Culture

Culture is a huge differentiator between successful organisations and unsuccessful organisations.” Kurt Winrich

"The second thing we do that's really significant and very different is that we put a huge premium on corporation's culture. That doesn't mean we just want shareholder friendly management team. We want to understand the DNA of the business. We want to know what the core values of the business are, and how those core values relate to the competitive advantage. Because if you can buy a company where the core values of the organisation are aligned with its competitive advantage." Paul Black

"To us the distinguishing characteristic in any investment has got to be determining what the core values are, what animates that culture and making sure there is an alignment." Paul Black

Ensure Culture aligns with Competitive Advantage

"We worked with a guy named James Heskett, a Harvard Business Professor, and wrote a book called the Culture Cycle. It's one of the more interesting books on culture. He's really the person who helped us understand that when you're assessing a culture, the strongest companies are going to be where the cultures and value are aligned with he competitive advantage." Paul Black

"What are the core values of great retailers? It's about taking care of your people. We take the example of Costco versus Sam's Club. Those are two companies in the same industries where the stores look the same. But you look at the financial metrics of Costco, they're twice Sam's Club on every metric. Same store sales 4-5% at Costco versus 1-2% at Costco, Sales per Sqft $1,000 versus $500, Employee Turnover 12% versus 50% at Sam's Club. ROIC 12% versus 4%.  What account for that? To us it has to come down to the culture and the values in the business. In Costco they truly care about their people, they want happy employees. In retail you want happy employees, because when people get a great experience they are going to come back and spend more. The whole value side comes directly from the top. The founder of the company, Jim Sinegal owned a lot of shares but never made more than $300k a year. How different is that from other companies where the CEO is making $20m, $30m, $40m or gets fired and gets a $200m golden parachute. That doesn't usually bode well for the long term cultural success of the firm." Paul Black

"Sam Walton really embraced the notion that you have to bring people along, you have to get people excited, you have to make people happy. You have to pay people well and tie them into the bottom line. He built this culture where people just loved coming to work and they had a lot of fun doing it. As a result they took on these old stale bureaucratic centralised organisations. That works for a retailer. But do you really need happy employees to run a railroad? Probably not. You want people that are highly accountable, that probably think in certain way, more linear, because it's all about delivering an on-time product in an efficient cost effective manner. There is a high cost of failure. Different stresses. Very difficult corporate culture is needed for that than for a retailer. We found there are different cultures you for different businesses that are effective." Paul Black

Assessing Culture and a Widening Moat

"When you are trying to assess a culture one of the best things to do is not just talk to the CEO or CFO but it would be to talk to people who have left on good terms. Of course you to talk to suppliers, vendors and competitors to find who do they/don't they respect. If you talk to people who used to work there and left on good terms you usually get a pretty good picture. What you are doing is building a mosaic when you're going after culture. A lot of people don't do it because you can't quantify it, you can't put it in a box and score it, or scale and number ranking. You really have to build a mosaic." Paul Black

"You can't just walk into a business and say tell me about the culture. If someone goes on for 30 minutes on culture it's important to them." Kurt Winrich

"One question [we ask on culture] is 'what would you tell a friend on how to be successful in your company? What are the three things to tell them to be successful? What's really hard for new hires to really get used to? What are some difficult scenarios? Tell me about your failures, where have you made mistakes. Most people don't want to talk about their mistakes. They move on as if their career was just filled with success." Paul Black

How do you measure if a moat is getting stronger? It’s pretty easy ex-post. It’s probably best seen in ROIC. Think about it from a competition perspective.  If you have a very profitable business and you have protection then your profits can continue to grow. If your competitors can attack you and copy you, your profits disappear. A rising ROIC is a great ex post measure of growing competitive advantage. Only one problem is that it’s practically useless because the good news is already in the stock price long before its shows up in the financials. You need to find a reliable ex ante measure. We settled on a simple form of pattern recognition. It comes from studying great examples of growing competitive advantages and their life cycle in the past. We’ve studied the great businesses of the past in a case study way and we’re trying to identify and catalogue the markers that tell us in a contemporaneous way whether the moat is growing or shrinking. We can learn something from these things. The ideas are that if the markers are present we feel confident, when they disappear we lose our confidence.” Kurt Winrich

“When you have a culture that isn’t empowering or doesn’t encourage engagement, you’re already hamstrung. A great incentive for engagement and empowerment is ownership - not just from the CEO but other employees.” Kurt Winrich

“To really know which businesses have an edge you’ve got to do the in-the trenches-research, it’s not getting more numbers, it’s just talking to people who know the business. That’s why we us a large network to talk to current employees, former employees, customers, vendors, competitors. Ask questions about competitive advantage and culture. Phil Fisher called it scuttlebutt research. That’s critical.” Kurt Winrich

Rising ROIC Correlates with Returns

"Most managers screen for a hurdle on ROIC over last 5 years. What we've found more valuable that just the level of the ROIC is the direction. There is a 1: 1 correlation between the direction of the ROIC over a 5 year period of time and stock performance. If you break the market down into five quintiles from the top quintile where they have the most rapidly rising ROIC to the bottom where they have declining ROICs, there is a 1:1 relationship between the best performing stocks on the top quintile and the poorest performing stocks on the bottom." Paul Black

"We'd prefer a company that maybe five years ago had a 4% ROIC  growing to five , six, seven, eight. That's a much better investment than a company that's at a 12% ROIC that might be stagnant over that period of time." Paul Black

Models Won't Give You The Answers

"Most people spend 95% of their time crunching numbers, running DCF models, which by the way has zero competitive advantage because you have thousands upon thousands of people doing the same work. Where we can get a massive competitive advantage is by doing the things that other people are not." Paul Black

Long Term Horizon

"There aren't that many great cultures with alignment to their competitive advantage, but when you find them, you hold them for a long time, ten years."  Paul Black

"In investing, time is your friend. The people who make a lot of money in investing are those that buy great businesses, in our case with expanding moats, and they give them time to work for them over 5, 10 and 15 year pulls. All the people that have created a lot of wealth for themselves didn't do it in a week, or 3 months or 6 months. They did it over a generation." Paul Black

A Tailwind

"You certainly want to have tailwinds. It's just an acknowledgement that is how life works. Anyone that doesn't acknowledge that is just not being honest. I think having tailwinds is essential to success. I think a big advantage we have is we tend to own businesses in the growthier sectors like tech, healthcare and consumer. If you think about the emerging middle class around the globe, as people get wealthier in Brazil, Indonesia, India and China, they're going to buy products from the companies we own. They sell products as these people get richer - that's a beautiful tailwind that not going away for fifteen or twenty years, it's something you can really take advantage of." Paul Black

Manage the Downside

"Everything we do in this portfolio is to manage on the downside. One way is being more times than right on direction of competitive advantage. Because in difficult times if you can own the company that isn't constrained by the financial markets and can allocate capital in to the space their weaker competitors cannot. what you find is that those companies hold up really well. Of course we do the basic portfolio construction and diversifying among sectors and industries and making sure we never have more than 4-5% in anyone name. At the end of the day, everything we manage is to to do well in tough markets. Where we really expect to do well is tough markets. Very counter intuitive. But to me it goes to the heart of what we are doing differently" Paul Black

Ignore the Pessimists

Our advice is ignore the pessimists. I think humans are naturally wired to look at everything that can go wrong and we tend to miss what is good which dominates most of the time. You watch the news are all you see is crises. Yet when you look back over the 20th century and into the 21st  you find out things end up working really well. Kurt Winrich

Out of Town

"It's a massive competitive advantage for us [being in Laguna Beach]. There's so much noise in New York and San Francisco and Chicago. The beauty of being in Laguna Beach is that you're not subject to the constant chatter that goes on, which really forces you to be short term in your orientation - to make decisions in 3 and 6 months periods of times versus five and seven year periods of times. We are able to be more thoughtful." Paul Black

Summary

I really like Winrich's comment that you can't just walk into a business and say, "tell me about the culture." Those without good cultures will lack substance in their reply. It clearly is not something they rate. If, as Kurt says someone goes on about culture for thirty minutes, however, then its obviously important to them.

It's clear that companies who build effective Corporate Cultures are better performers. They have a competitive advantage that sets them apart from the rest of the market, giving them a wide moat. And moats are hard to cross. Those businesses that can continually widen their moat each year will likely also continue to grow earnings for long periods of time because they become harder and harder to compete against. Its a no-brainer. Even Buffett says so. 

 

 

Follow us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

 

 

Sources:

Gratitude, Fun and Growth Stocks - Capital Allocators
Global Investing Webinar with Paul Black
The Rules of Investing: Is value dead? - Livewire

 

Note: This post is for educational purposes only. I have no relationship with WCM IM.

Learning from Robert Cialdini - Part II

If you read Part 1 in this series on Robert Cialdini's wonderful book 'Influence', or even the book itself, I hope you've started to notice some of the six key principles of influence all around you. In investment circles, you will witness these mental shortcuts being practiced every day by peers, clients or fellow investors. All of these groups are human beings and because of this, unless we are aware of these things we will practice them ourselves without thinking.

In the last post we discussed the principles of Commitment & Consistency and Reciprocation and how each is relevant to business and investing. We also looked at some methods to ensure they don't detract from investment performance. In this post we'll touch on two of the remaining four principles. You'll notice, like the first two, these principles strike at the heart of investing. They are Social Proof and Authority. Let's consider each and look at some investment analogies.

Social Proof

We are all social animals and we conduct ourselves in a manner that fits in with others. As a general rule, in everyday life we make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it. I'm sure you've witnessed a situation where someone is looking up at the sky. Not long after, a crowd gathers, doing the same thing. As Charlie Munger has observed "Monkey See, Monkey Do."

"The otherwise complex behaviour of man is much simplified when he thinks and does what he observes to be thought and done around him." Charlie Munger

Cialdini tells the powerful true story of a North American doomsday cult which was infiltrated by a few journalists. The cult leader informed his members that their town was to be flooded, however they, as the chosen ones were going to be saved by aliens arriving by spaceship on a forthcoming date. 

On the 'specific' date at the specified time, not surprisingly, no spaceship turned up. The group seemed near dissolution. As cracks emerged in the believers confidence, the researchers witnessed a pair of remarkable incidents. The cult leader told the members she had received an urgent message from the Guardians stating the "little group had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction." Having previously shunned publicity, the cult leader then at once called the newspaper, to spread the urgent message. The other members followed suit placing calls to media outlets. 

So massive was the commitment to the cult that no other truth was tolerable. The member's previous beliefs should have been destroyed from the physical reality that no saucer had landed, no spacemen had arrived and no flood had come. In fact, nothing had happened as prophesized. 

There was but one way out of the corner for the group. They had to establish another type of proof for the validity of their beliefs: social proof. The fact the leader was still believing let other members also believe.

Social proof is most powerful when we are uncertain. Cialdini notes "when people are uncertain, they are more likely to use other's actions to decide how they themselves' should act." And the principle of social proof is most powerful when we are observing the behaviour of people just like us. Furthermore, the more people that are doing the same thing, the more we're inclined to believe they must know something we don't.

In ambiguous situations, there is a tendency for everyone to be looking to see what everyone else is doing. This can lead to a phenomenon called 'pluralistic ignorance'; something happens and no one acts; each person decides that since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. The inaction of others can be as powerful a guide to action as action itself. 

"Especially when we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd. Second, quite frequently the crowd is mistaken because they are not acting on the basis of any superior information but are reacting, themselves, to the principle of social proof," Robert Cialdini

When it comes to investing, Social Proof is one of the most common, powerful and dangerous influences. Perfect information is unattainable in investing and because of it, uncertainty reigns.

"No matter how much research is performed, some information always remains elusive: investors have to live with less than complete information." Seth Karman

It's easy to see why investors are often swayed by the crowd. When prices are rising we look to others behaviour and buy. Conversely when a sell-off ensues, we panic and sell. The tech boom, nifty-fifty mania, and bitcoin are all good examples. More recently, long dated sovereign bond yields went negative around the world. This smacks of 'pluralistic ignorance.'

"When speculation gets rampant, and when you’re getting what I guess Charlie would call 'social proof' — that it’s worked recently — people can get very excited about speculating in markets." Warren Buffett

“The crowd madnesses recur so frequently in human history that they must reflect some deeply rooted trait in human nature. A bull market, for example, will be sweeping along and then something will happen – trivial or important – and first one man will sell and then others will sell and the continuity of thought toward higher prices is broken.” Bernard Baruch

We can overcome the pitfalls of social proof by relying only on the facts and taking the time to think. It is important to recognise that share prices are often a function of the crowd, and crowds are often wrong. In addition, just because a share price hasn't reacted to some news doesn't imply it shouldn't have. 

"We focus on the facts of an investment case and ignore the crowd." Bruce Berkowitz

"You can’t look around for people to agree with you. You can’t look around for people to even know what you’re talking about. You know, you have to think for yourself." Warren Buffett

“It is always easiest to run with the herd; at times, it can take a deep reservoir of courage and conviction to stand apart from it.  Yet distancing yourself from the crowd is an essential component of long-term investment success.” Seth Klarman

"You have to think for yourself. It always amazes me how high-IQ people mindlessly imitate. I never get good ideas talking to other people" Warren Buffett

“You will not be right simply because a large number of people momentarily agree with you... You will be right over the course of many transactions, if your hypothesis are correct, your facts are correct, and your reasoning is correct.” Warren Buffett

"A basic ingredient of outstanding common stock management is the ability neither to accept blindly whatever may be the dominant opinion of the financial community at the moment nor to reject the prevailing view just to be contrary for the sake of being contrary. Rather, it is to have more knowledge and to apply better judgement, in thorough evaluation of specific situations, and the moral courage to act 'in opposition to the crowd' when your judgement tells you you are right." Phil Fisher

"Learn how to ignore the examples of others when they are wrong; because few skills are more worth having." Charlie Munger

While acting in concert with the crowd can be disastrous, taking advantage of the crowd can be highly profitable. It's the social-proof aspect of the public markets that creates mis-pricing opportunities for those who have done the work and can think independently. These opportunities don't arise in private markets where business or property owners tend to be less emotional and choose the optimal time to sell their asset.

"Auction driven markets have a great quality that tends to undershoot and overshoot underlying value quite significantly. So for example, if I took a dart and threw it at any stock in the New York Stock exchange and look at the 52 week range on it, there will be something like 70 to 130. If I look at a business that’s for sale and I asked the owner of the business what the selling price is, it’s hardly going to move over the year. Maybe +/- 15% at most. So auction driven markets create opportunity to buy when they are cheap and sometimes to sell when they are overpriced." Mohnish Pabrai

Public market opportunities have a tendency to be contrarian and therefore can make us feel uncomfortable and lonely.

"The ultimately most profitable investment actions are by definition contrarian; you're buying when everyone else is selling (and the price is thus low) or you're selling when everyone else is buying (and the price is high). These actions are lonely and, uncomfortable." Howard Marks

“You have to be willing to have the courage to stand by your convictions and that can be a very lonely place to be at times." Chris Mittleman

Corporate leaders, Wall Street analysts and Investment Committees are not immune from social proof tendencies. In the former, aggressive corporate takeovers, bidding wars, buybacks at market highs, and mis-aligned incentive structures are often implemented because of what others are doing.

"In the highest reaches of business, it is not all uncommon to find leaders who display fellowship akin to that of teenagers. If one oil company foolishly buys a mine, other oil companies often quickly join in buying mines." Charlie Munger

"The herd-like behavior of companies and their managements never loses its power to astound. All to often one company decides that buybacks are the thing to do, then its competitors will play the game too. By the same token, capital raising often appears at the same time among multiple companies in the same industry" Marathon Asset Management

Wall Street analysts are just as guilty; better to maintain a view consistent with the other analysts than step out on a limb and make a bold contrarian call. When the whole market loves or hates a stock, it's hard to think so many smart people are wrong. Better to raise your price target to where the stock is currently trading.

"Man is extremely uncomfortable with uncertainty. To deal with his discomfort, man tends to create a false sense of security by substituting certainty for uncertainty. It becomes the herd instinct. The irony is that the greater the uncertainty, the greater the similarity of predictions, as the experts 'shout together in the dark'." Bennett Goodspeed

"Too many sell-side analysts whisper in each other's ears, and few want to stick his or her neck out too far." John Neff

“Specialist analysts operate in a cocoon, in which they are overexposed to company management and peer analysts and underexposed to what is going on in the rest of the world.  Herding instincts may tend to reinforce similar opinions among peer analysts.” Marathon Asset Management

Authority

You might be surprised to know that we have been trained from birth to acknowledge that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong.

"The essential message [of obedience] fills the parental lessons, the school-house rhymes, stories, and songs of our childhood and is carried forward in the legal, military, and political systems we encounter as adults. Notions of submission and loyalty to legitimate rule are accorded much value in each." Robert Cialdini

Our obedience takes place is an automatic fashion with little or no deliberation.

Cialdini provides colourful examples where people make irrational decisions and/or unthinkable mistakes because of some authoritative directive. Authority can come in many forms, it could be clothes [a uniform or even a business suit], a title [ie an 'expert', a 'rated analyst', a PhD, CFA?], or personal trappings of authority [a nice Wall Street Office with an electronic LED ticker behind?].

I can't tell you the number of times I've seen investors make irrational decisions based on some authority figure's viewpoint. You'll always find some Wall Street expert predicting the market will crash, the USD/Euro/Yen is going to rally/collapse, gold is going to $3,000 etc .. take your pick. Wall Street analysts are paid to act and sound confident in their forecasts. Its worth noting that the Investment Masters are highly skeptical of forecasts.

"I'd advise you to approach the entire subject of forecasts and forecasters with extreme mistrust." Howard Marks

Testing a forecasters' track record from a few years ago can be both enlightening and entertaining.

"Old forecasts are like old news - soon forgotten - and pundits are almost never asked to reconcile what they said with what actually happened."  Philip Tetlock

"One of my greatest complaints about forecasters is that they seem to ignore their own records. The amazing thing to me is that these people will go on making predictions with a straight face, and the media will continue to carry them."  Howard Marks

“I was recently involved in a situation where projections were a part of the presentation. And I asked that the record of the people who made the projections, their past projections also be presented at the same time. It was a very rude act. Believe me, it proved the point. I mean, it was a joke. So, we’ll leave it at that.” Warren Buffett

And never forget, there is always someone who picked the last few winners. The problem is, next time it's likely to be a different person.

"In both economic forecasting and investment management, it’s worth noting that there’s usually someone who gets it exactly right… but it’s rarely the same person twice." Howard Marks

"Consumers of forecasting will stop being gulled by pundits with good stories and start asking pundits how their past predictions fared - and reject answers that consist of nothing but anecdotes and credentials." Philip Tetlock

“Organizations that take the word of overconfident experts can expect costly consequences … however, optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers.” Daniel Kahneman

“People are also attracted to the titles and degrees of academics because finance is not a credential-sanctioned field like, say, medicine is. So the appearance of a Ph.D. stands out. And that creates an intense appeal to academia when making arguments and justifying beliefs – “According to this Harvard study …” or “As Nobel Prize winner so and so showed …” It carries so much weight when other people cite, “Some guy on CNBC from an eponymous firm with a tie and a smile.” A hard reality is that what often matters most in finance will never win a Nobel Prize: Humility and room for error.” Morgan Housel

It's important to get the facts and make up your own mind. Remember, even the world's best investors are rarely right more than 6 out of 10 times. Analysts and Wall Street experts are likely inferior. Don't follow them blindly.

"You will not be right simply because important people agree with you." Warren Buffett

“In every great stock market disaster or fraud, there is always one or two great investors invested in the thing all the way down. Enron, dot-com, banks, always ‘smart guys’ involved all the way down.” Jim Chanos

Authority + Social Proof

Oftentimes the interaction of Authority and Social Proof amplify outcomes. Asset bubbles are a good example.

"Avoid the Pied Piper. Just because someone has been right seven times in a row is no guarantee that number eight will work. When he is finally wrong, the size of the herd will be at its maximum - just as it plunges over the cliff and into the sea. As investors walk in lockstep with the guru over the cliff, a new guru who pointed the way correctly (though only a few listened) is thrust to the forefront. When he too falls, investors will again frantically search for a new guru so as to perpetuate the guru loser's game." Bennett Goodspeed

“Groupthink” frequently causes an individual to capitulate to crowd thinking simply because he or she finds it difficult to believe that such a large group of people could be wrong particularly when an authoritative figure lends his or her stature to the proposition.  The spread of epidemics and information cascades – where a faulty thesis proliferates by word of mouth like a forest fire leaping from tree to tree, without the validity of the original thesis again being contested – further explains the suppression of the constraints of rational and independent thought.”  Frank Martin

As is Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme .. 

"Bernard Madoff showed, thirteen thousand investors and their advisers didn't do elementary due diligence because they thought the other investors must have done it." Ed Thorp

And corporate management disasters... 

"In the ambit of social proof, the outside directors on a corporate board usually display the near ultimate form of inaction. They fail to object to anything much short of an axe murder until some public embarrassment of the board finally causes their intervention." Charlie Munger

"Pressure to meet those numbers any way possible is something all employees feel despite their manager's denials. The non-verbal signals, the phraseology, the tone, the authority figure syndrome, and the implications of what is said count more than good intentions and assumed ethical parameters." Marianne Jennings

"Confrontation at a meeting where one side has authority and the other needs the job can breed strange and unintended responses." Marianne Jennings

It takes courage to think independently, and it takes a lot more of the same to be able to act that way. The concept of Social Proof occurs around us every single day, and being able to run against the tide is something that we know can make us feel uncomfortable and very, very alone. And if you add Cialdini's concept of Authority to the mix, it only makes us feel worse to work against the herd. If someone with a title and a large sense of self-importance with little in the way of track record is offering conviction on an opinion, it is almost impossible for most of us to go the other way. But this is a key difference between the Investment Masters and the rest of us. Courage to take a different path, humility to know when they're wrong and a healthy wariness to forecasters and their crystal balls. 

It's a conscious choice; to blindly follow the loudest voices or the biggest crowds, or to actively choose to go on your own, independent path.

  

 

 

Follow us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER

 

Your Investment Style

runway.JPG

Everybody is different. Each and every one of us. We all have unique personalities which we apply to our everyday actions and beliefs, which in turn denote our individual style. Authors have different styles, as do coaches, business people and even musicians. And naturally, because of this, every investors' style is also different. 

While all of the Investment Masters have great track records of long term success, they naturally all have their own styles. Whether it's running highly concentrated portfolios, focusing on a select type of asset or having a different time horizon, each has had their own path to success. As Buffett likes to say, there's more than one way to get to investment heaven. 

"I’ve said in investing, in the past, there’s more than one way to get to heaven." Warren Buffett

"There are many, many different ways to make money in the investment business and the one I describe as ours, its not necessarily the only right one but it's the one we like." Howard Marks

"Looking at the careers of the great investors, it is clear that there are many different, often contradictory, ways to succeed. Each has been highly successful in his own way" Roy Neuberger

Buffett, for example, often says his style is a combination of Ben Graham and Phil Fisher. He's taken elements from both and combined them.

“I think I’d rather think of myself as being a sort of a hundred percent Ben Graham and a hundred percent Phil Fisher in the points where they don’t — and they really don’t — contradict each other. It’s just that they had a vastly different emphasis.” Warren Buffett

As a student of Graham, Buffett started out with a focus on buying companies whose underlying asset values exceeded their share prices. As his asset base grew, he leaned more towards Fisher, seeking wonderful businesses. But Buffett never forgot the three key tenets of Graham's approach. 

"The three basic ideas that underlie successful investing — look at stocks as businesses; have the proper attitude toward the market [use it to serve you and not to instruct you], and to operate with a margin of safety." Warren Buffett

And while all of the Investment Masters have their own unique style, those three ideas underpin the majority of their investment philosophies; Karman, Greenblatt, Akre, Pabrai and many more.

"With those three sort of philosophical benchmarks, the exact — the evaluation technique you use is not really that important. Because you’re not going to go way off the track, whether you use Walter’s approach — Walter Schloss’s — or mine, or whatever. Phil Carret has a slightly different approach. But it’s got those three cornerstones to it, I will guarantee. And believe me, he’s done very well." Warren Buffett

And while we should learn from the Masters, we must also recognise we aren't them. Each of us have different knowledge bases and different skill sets; we all have a unique circle of competence.

More importantly, each us are wired differently. It is because of our different psychological make-up that we must find a style that suits us.

"My advice is to learn from the great investors - not follow them. You can benefit from mistakes and successes, and you can adapt what fits your temperament and circumstances. Your resources and your needs are bound to be different from anyone you may want to emulate." Roy Neuberger

Buffett touched on this in 1994 when he was asked about Peter Lynch:

"There’s certainly a fair amount of overlap. There’s some difference. Peter [Lynch], obviously, likes to diversify a lot more than I do. He owns more stocks than the names of companies I can remember. I mean, but that’s Peter.  And, you know, I’ve said in investing, in the past, that there’s more than one way to get to heaven. And there isn’t a true religion in this, but there’s some very useful religions. And Peter’s got one, and I think we’ve got one that’s useful, too. And there is a lot of overlap. But I would not do as well if I tried to do it the way Peter does it, and he probably wouldn’t do as well if he tried to do it exactly the way I’d do it." Warren Buffett

From my own observations, I'd say Charlie and Warren's tolerance for volatility is higher than most investors. Share price volatility doesn't scare them. Munger has often said that if you can't stomach a 50% fall in a stock price, the markets are no place for you. 

"If you're not willing to react with equanimity to a market price decline of 50% two or three times a century you're not fit to be a common shareholder, and you deserve the mediocre result you're going to get compared to the people who do have the temperament, who can be more philosophical about these market fluctuations." Charlie Munger

Many shareholders can't stomach such returns.

"Large losses, though initially only on paper, often derail an otherwise rational investor. An illogical fear of loss insidiously exerts an undue influence on portfolio decision making. (Rationally, the lower prices go, ceteris paribus, the less the likelihood of further loss—a truism that falls on deaf ears when fear has the upper hand.)" Frank Martin

For the last decade or more I've run 'alpha funds' for some of the world's largest hedge funds and long-only investors. Each of these funds have different requirements and risk tolerances; some of these clients want you to manage only long positions, others let you choose your long/short and net/gross exposure, while some want a market-neutral portfolio and others beta-hedge all positions. One commonality is they all want limited losses or drawdowns [usually sub 5%]. This happens to suit my style; a low tolerance for loss, even if it is just quotational [i.e. not permanent loss of capital].

While my tolerance for loss hasn't changed over the years, my style has evolved. I've extended my time horizon, looking out three to five years, to try and establish what a company might be earning. I've shifted from advocating stocks on undemanding multiples to preferring high quality companies with competitive advantages that are getting stronger. I now structure the portfolios I run around companies that meet these criteria. I'll build smaller positions in other opportunities like mis-pricings, takeovers etc, around the core positions.

Once a big advocate for short selling and maintaining a short book, I've found it far less fruitful over the years than spending time finding quality mis-priced companies to buy. (I sometimes wonder if that's a sign we are late in the market cycle). While I focus on individual stocks I spend a lot of time constructing a portfolio which is likely to perform under alternative scenarios. Come what may, I've got a pretty good idea how the portfolio will perform under different scenarios.

While Buffett's core positions since the 1970's have been 'franchise businesses,' he's also invested in silver, oil, takeovers, distressed bonds and preferred stock. Before Berkshire, the Buffett Partnership operated like a multi-strategy hedge fund. Buffett has since evolved.

For example, we know Buffett's always had an aversion to technology stocks. At the Berkshire 2012 meeting Buffett said he wouldn't buy Apple. In years gone by Buffett swore himself off airlines and jokingly enrolled himself in AA ['Airlines Anonymous']. More recently, he's taken large  positions in both. 

"I would not be at all surprised to see them [Apple and Google] be worth a lot more money ten years from now, but I wouldn’t want to buy either one of them. I do not get to the level of conviction that would cause me to buy them. But I sure as hell wouldn’t short them, either." Warren Buffett 2012

And that's a key lesson: Markets change and you need to adapt. A set and forget approach does not work when investing. 

"An investor cannot obtain superior profits from stocks by simply committing to a specific investment category or style.  He can earn them only by carefully evaluating facts and continuously exercising discipline.” Warren Buffett

“Investors who adhere to one particular style are likely to end up in trouble, sooner or later.” Marathon Asset Management

"It is dangerous to rely on a single strategy in a doctrinaire fashion. Strategies and disciplines ought always to be tempered by intelligence and intuition." Peter Cundill

"An investment approach may work for a while, but eventually the actions it calls for will change the environment, meaning a new approach is needed." Howard Marks

"Never adopt permanently any type of asset or any selection method. Try to stay flexible, open-minded, and skeptical." Sir John Templeton

So find an investment style that suits your personality. One that matches your temperament and lets you sleep at night.

“If you fit your nature with your investment style and it makes economic sense, you’ll probably do pretty well.” Shad Rowe

“You have to invest the way that’s comfortable for you.” Walter Schloss

“You need a method that suits your personality.” Colm O’Shea

“You have to adapt your strategy to your own nature and your own talents. I don’t think there’s a one-size fits all investment strategy that I can give you.”  Charlie Munger

“If you are going to be a great investor, you have to fit the style to who you are. At one point I recognized that Warren Buffett, though he had every advantage in learning from Ben Graham, did not copy Ben Graham, but rather set out on his own path, and ran money his way, by his own rules.”  Michael Burry

“Part of the game of investing is to come into your own. You must find some way that perfectly fits your personality. Li Lu

“There is no single correct way to be successful in capital markets. There a multiplicity of approaches and each and every one of them offers the prospect of success. The most likely requirement of success is finding the investment approach that is most emotionally satisfying for you.” Nick Train

"If you are pursuing a style that doesn't fit your temperament, you won't be happy. Show me an unhappy investor and I'll show you an unsuccessful investor." Ralph Wanger

And if you're managing money for others, make sure those investors are aligned with your style. If not, you risk having to liquidate the portfolio at exactly the wrong time.

“We care less about volatility than others and try to find limited partners who are like-minded.David Abrams

"To perform the task of money management properly, there must be a true partnership and understanding between investors and their managers. The partnership does not mean that investors are sitting in the kitchen watching the sausage being made. Rather, it means that investors should have rational expectations based on past performance and current market conditions, and should give managers a strong leeway for the inevitable range of their (the manager's) brilliant and not-so-brilliant decisions within the overall boundaries of trust and confidence." Paul Singer

“People say, “Do you want individual owners? You want institutional owners?” What we want are informed owners who are in sync with our objectives, our measurements, our time horizons, all of that sort of thing.” Warren Buffett

“People ask for advice and I say, ‘The first and most important thing is make sure that you choose your clients carefully.’ Most people either look at me like I had three heads, like ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’, like ‘That’s quaint.’” Seth Klarman

You can see that all investor's styles differ. Warren Buffett is not Peter Lynch. Neither is he Ben Graham or Phil Fisher. And nor are they he. But Buffett has elements of his style which are common to all three. And you'll find that while no two of the Masters investment styles are the same, there are common threads that run through all of them; if you've read any of the Investment Masters tutorials you will have noticed as much. You'll do well to learn from the Masters and adopt some of their approaches, but in the end you must find both a style and investor clients that you're comfortable with, that ultimately suit your personality. 

 

 

 

 

Follow us on Twitter: @mastersinvest

TERMS OF USE: DISCLAIMER