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Leadership Style at Berkshire Hathaway
Leadership Style at Berkshire Hathaway - May 9th, 2011
Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A, NYSE: BRK.B) is a conglomerate holding company headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, United States, that oversees and manages a number of subsidiary companies. The company averaged an annual growth in book value of 20.3% to its shareholders for the last 44 years, while employing large amounts of capital, and minimal debt. Berkshire Hathaway stock produced a total return of 76% from 2000–2010 versus a negative 11.3% return for the S&P 500.
Warren Buffett is the company's chairman and CEO. Buffett has used the "float" provided by Berkshire Hathaway's insurance operations (paid premiums which are not held in reserves for reported claims and may be invested) to finance his investments. In the early part of his career at Berkshire, he focused on long-term investments in publicly quoted stocks, but more recently he has turned to buying whole companies. Berkshire now owns a diverse range of businesses including railroads, confectionery, retail, home furnishings, encyclopedias, manufacture of vacuum cleaners, jewelry sales; newspaper publishing; manufacture and distribution of uniforms; as well as several regional electric and gas utilities.
If you were asked to select a person and told that you could retain 10 percent of his or her earnings for the rest of your life, whom would you choose? Someone with the highest SAT or IQ test scores? Probably not. Chances are that you would pick someone with a steadfast character, whom you could trust to function well through life. Conversely, what kind of person would you shun? Most likely, the type who cuts corners and is generally undependable. Each of these qualities is a characteristic of choice and can make the difference between success and failure. That insight into the link between character and success comes from Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire-Hathaway, the world's second richest man after Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and arguably the most successful investor the world has known.
Developing characteristics such as trustworthiness and integrity, Buffett believes, is a matter of forming the right habits. "The chains of habit are too light to be noticed until they are too heavy to be broken," he says. People who stray from these values often show up on Wall Street; they may initially even shine; but eventually they self-destruct. "That is sad, because it does not need to happen," says Buffett. "You need integrity, intelligence and energy to succeed. Integrity is totally a matter of choice — and it is habit-forming."
Speaking to a packed audience of students, faculty members and staff at the Wharton School on April 21, Buffett offered insights into the investment philosophy that has turned Berkshire-Hathaway into a $120 billion powerhouse, with holdings in industries ranging from soft drinks to insurance. Jeremy Siegel, a professor of finance at Wharton, reckons that a person who had invested $1,000 with Buffett when he was starting out four decades ago would have turned that investment into $61 million today. In contrast, had that $1,000 been invested in S&P 500 stocks, it would have grown to $100,000.
Asked what advice he could provide to young people on the verge of careers in managing investments, Buffett boiled down his principles into four cardinal rules:
1. Understand the business in which you are investing. "You can't make money in stocks unless you understand the business," he said. "I look for businesses within my circle of competence." Having a large circle of competence is less important than having one with a well-defined perimeter.
2. Look for sound fundamental economics. Investors should seek out companies that have a sustainable economic advantage — a phenomenon Buffett called "a castle with a moat around it." Consider Coca Cola, for example. The company's brand name has represented enjoyment for generations, which no competitor can buy for millions of dollars. "Share of market follows share of mind," noted Buffett.
3. Find competent leadership. Companies with a sustainable economic advantage need honest, capable and hardworking leaders to retain their lead. Berkshire-Hathaway's managers have one instruction: Widen the moat. That keeps the castle valuable.
4. Buy at the right price. Purchases must be made at the right price if they are to pay off.
Buffett cited example after example to show how he had used these principles to make investment decisions during his career. As a young investment manager, he took Moody's manuals and went through them page by page until he found the companies he sought. A bus company in Bedford, for example, had $100 a share in cash, but its stock was being traded at $40 a share. Buffett found such deals because he went looking for them. "No one will tell you about them," he said. "You only get told about things someone is pushing for some reason." Buffett invested in companies like Coca Cola and The Washington Post for similar reasons. Berkshire-Hathaway built its empire on the success of these investments.
Asked why he has not retired despite his phenomenal wealth, Buffett said the reason is that he has more fun doing what he does than anything else. "The fundamental thing is that the process should be fun," he said. "I had just as much fun when I had $10,000 to invest as I do now. It's crazy to do things for your resume. It's like saving up sex for your old age. You should do what you enjoy as you go along, and work with people you admire. I look forward every day to the next day. I'm wired for this game."Over the weekend I read Warren Buffett’s letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. I admire Buffett. I’ve met him, followed him closely over the years and I own Berkshire stock. I’ve also written about Buffett in The Economic Times and spoke about his leadership style in leadership training workshops I conduct and in this brief training video I recorded for Athenaonline.com (click on the link to see the video).
In his letter to shareholders, Buffett displays some of the attributes I’ve described as being part of his leadership style, namely he loves to praise and give credit to his managers while being humble (or critical) about his own performance. Here are just a few excerpts that provide more evidence that Buffett is as great a leader as he is an investor:
Dave Sokol and Greg Abel, the managers of this operation, have achieved results unmatched elsewhere in the utility industry. I love it when they come up with new projects because in this capital-intensive business these ventures are often large. Such projects offer Berkshire the opportunity to put out substantial sums at decent returns.
During 2008 I did some dumb things in investments. I made at least one major mistake of commission and several lesser ones that also hurt. I will tell you more about these later. Furthermore, I made some errors of omission, sucking my thumb when new facts came in that should have caused me to re-examine my thinking and promptly take action.
Our partners in ownership of MidAmerican are its two terrific managers, Dave Sokol and Greg Abel, and my long-time friend, Walter Scott. It’s unimportant how many votes each party has; we make major moves only when we are unanimous in thinking them wise. Nine years of working with Dave, Greg and Walter have reinforced my original belief: Berkshire couldn’t have better partners.
There are two reasons for our confidence. First, Dave Sokol and Greg Abel are going to run any businesses with which they are associated in a first-class manner. They don’t know of any other way to operate.
Clearly our insurance CEOs have not had the wind at their back. Yet these managers have excelled to a degree Charlie and I never dreamed possible in the early days. Why do I love them? Let me count the ways.
At GEICO, Tony Nicely – now in his 48th year at the company after joining it when he was 18 – continues to gobble up market share while maintaining disciplined underwriting. When Tony became CEO in 1993, GEICO had 2.0% of the auto insurance market, a level at which the company had long been stuck. Now we have a 7.7% share, up from 7.2% in 2007.
General Re, our large international reinsurer, also had an outstanding year in 2008. Some time back, the company had serious problems (which I totally failed to detect when we purchased it in late 1998). By 2001, when Joe Brandon took over as CEO, assisted by his partner, Tad Montross, General Re’s culture had further deteriorated, exhibiting a loss of discipline in underwriting, reserving and expenses. After Joe and Tad took charge, these problems were decisively and successfully addressed. Today General Re has regained its luster. Last spring Joe stepped down, and Tad became CEO. Charlie and I are grateful to Joe for righting the ship and are certain that, with Tad, General Re’s future is in the best of hands.
Our third major insurance operation is Ajit Jain’s reinsurance division, headquartered in Stamford and staffed by only 31 employees. This may be one of the most remarkable businesses in the world, hard to characterize but easy to admire. From year to year, Ajit’s business is never the same. It features very large transactions, incredible speed of execution and a willingness to quote on policies that leave others scratching their heads. When there is a huge and unusual risk to be insured, Ajit is almost certain to be called. Ajit came to Berkshire in 1986. Very quickly, I realized that we had acquired an extraordinary talent. So I did the logical thing: I wrote his parents in New Delhi and asked if they had another one like him at home. Of course, I knew the answer before writing. There isn’t anyone like Ajit.
The most noteworthy of these acquisitions was Iscar’s late-November purchase of Tungaloy, a leading Japanese producer of small tools. Charlie and I continue to look with astonishment – and appreciation! – at the accomplishments of Iscar’s management. To secure one manager like Eitan Wertheimer, Jacob Harpaz or Danny Goldman when we acquire a company is a blessing. Getting three is like winning the Triple Crown. Iscar’s growth since our purchase has exceeded our expectations – which were high – and the addition of Tungaloy will move performance to the next level.
I told you in an earlier part of this report that last year I made a major mistake of commission (and maybe more; this one sticks out). Without urging from Charlie or anyone else, I bought a large amount of ConocoPhillips stock when oil and gas prices were near their peak. I in no way anticipated the dramatic fall in energy prices that occurred in the last half of the year. I still believe the odds are good that oil sells far higher in the future than the current $40-$50 price. But so far I have been dead wrong. Even if prices should rise, moreover, the terrible timing of my purchase has cost Berkshire several billion dollars.
I made some other already-recognizable errors as well. They were smaller, but unfortunately not that small. During 2008, I spent $244 million for shares of two Irish banks that appeared cheap to me. At yearend we wrote these holdings down to market: $27 million, for an 89% loss. Since then, the two stocks have declined even further. The tennis crowd would call my mistakes “unforced errors.”
How would you feel if you were one of these managers reading Warren Buffett’s words of praise. If I were one of them, I would feel very proud and connected to Buffett. That’s one of the ways Buffett keeps these independently wealthy managers leading the companies they helped build and it’s why Buffett is the buyer of choice for private companies who want to sell to a buyer who will treat them and their legacy well.
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