Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Buffett: Building A Company of Giants - Berkshire Shareholder Letter Highlights

An excerpt from Warren Buffett's 1986 Berkshire Hathaway (BRKa) shareholder letter:

"Charlie Munger, our Vice Chairman, and I really have only two jobs. One is to attract and keep outstanding managers to run our various operations. This hasn't been all that difficult. Usually the managers came with the companies we bought, having demonstrated their talents throughout careers that spanned a wide variety of business circumstances. They were managerial stars long before they knew us, and our main contribution has been to not get in their way. This approach seems elementary: if my job were to manage a golf team - and if Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer were willing to play for me - neither would get a lot of directives from me about how to swing.

Some of our key managers are independently wealthy (we hope they all become so), but that poses no threat to their continued interest: they work because they love what they do and relish the thrill of outstanding performance. They unfailingly think like owners (the highest compliment we can pay a manager) and find all aspects of their business absorbing.

(Our prototype for occupational fervor is the Catholic tailor who used his small savings of many years to finance a pilgrimage to the Vatican. When he returned, his parish held a special meeting to get his first-hand account of the Pope. 'Tell us,' said the eager faithful, 'just what sort of fellow is he?' Our hero wasted no words: 'He's a forty-four, medium.')

Charlie and I know that the right players will make almost any team manager look good. We subscribe to the philosophy of Ogilvy & Mather's founding genius, David Ogilvy: 'If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But, if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.'

A by-product of our managerial style is the ability it gives us to easily expand Berkshire's activities. We’ve read management treatises that specify exactly how many people should report to any one executive, but they make little sense to us. When you have able managers of high character running businesses about which they are passionate, you can have a dozen or more reporting to you and still have time for an afternoon nap. Conversely, if you have even one person reporting to you who is deceitful, inept or uninterested, you will find yourself with more than you can handle. Charlie and I could work with double the number of managers we now have, so long as they had the rare qualities of the present ones.

We intend to continue our practice of working only with people whom we like and admire. This policy not only maximizes our chances for good results, it also ensures us an extraordinarily good time. On the other hand, working with people who cause your stomach to churn seems much like marrying for money - probably a bad idea under any circumstances, but absolute madness if you are already rich.

The second job Charlie and I must handle is the allocation of capital, which at Berkshire is a considerably more important challenge than at most companies. Three factors make that so: we earn more money than average; we retain all that we earn; and, we are fortunate to have operations that, for the most part, require little incremental capital to remain competitive and to grow. Obviously, the future results of a business earning 23% annually and retaining it all are far more affected by today's capital allocations than are the results of a business earning 10% and distributing half of that to shareholders. If our retained earnings - and those of our major investees, GEICO and Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. - are employed in an unproductive manner, the economics of Berkshire will deteriorate very quickly. In a company adding only, say, 5% to net worth annually, capital-allocation decisions, though still important, will change the company's economics far more slowly."

It's a unique approach among large companies. It's tough to judge how successfully it will work beyond the Buffett and Munger era.

Adam

Long BRKb
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