CEO Warren Buffett’s recipe for business and life success is revealed in Berkshire Hathaway’s 2014 annual report released last weekend. It’s simple:
Culture + Leadership + Trust = Wealth
This formula shows how Berkshire’s unique culture and leadership has established a foundation of trust on which Buffett has built a business that gushes cash like Old Faithful. As a steward of capital, he creates wealth to produce more gushers and more wealth. It’s a virtuous circle.
Buffett has been Berkshire’s CEO for 50 years. At 84 he’s not slowing down. Ask anyone who spends time with him. What accounts for this long CEO tenure and Berkshire’s market performance, increasing almost 2 million percent since 1965 versus the S&P 500’s 11,000 percent increase? Consider these two tips – Culture and Leadership.
Culture (“Show me the cash!”) Berkshire’s business culture is based on economic, not accounting principles.
It’s straightforward. Focus on cash generation and protection of capital and always be faithful to producing long-term results.
This means: don’t spend time on quarterly earnings calls with investors and traders. Instead, focus on the balance sheet. Make intelligent capital investment decisions based on what you know and do best. Treasure and measure your results – honestly. Don’t obsess about the ups and downs of the stock market. Instead, grow intrinsic value, Buffet’s measure of true business value.
Book value per share is a reasonable proxy for intrinsic value. But how many CEOs discuss their book values per share in their annual reports as does Buffett? Over the past 10 years, I have read and analyzed over 2,000 shareholder letters published by CEOs of over 150 publicly traded corporations. Count the number of fingers on your hand. Now you know how many CEOs have reported this metric to their owners.
Next develop a business model based on these economic principles. Create a diffuse conglomerate. What does this look like?
1) Hire a headquarters staff of about 25 people to govern an enterprise with over 340,499 employees in businesses that range from candy, machine tools, jewelry, railroads, auto insurance, and wind power. Set an example. Keep overhead as low as possible.
2) Grow by acquiring businesses that share these values and are led by trustworthy founders and entrepreneurs who love their businesses and treat employees fairly. Grant autonomy so these leaders can continue to do what they do best: operate, create tangible value and nurture the cultures that made them successful.
3) Acquire insurance businesses if you are rigorously disciplined in your underwriting. Then accumulate float and get paid to hold cash. Avoid the lure of self-delusion and protect your capital. Keep large amounts of cash on your balance sheet so that when markets collapse, you can become banker to quality companies caught in a cash squeeze.
4) Gather excess cash from all your businesses and allocate this wisely. Make smart passive investments in publicly traded stocks, give cash to operating businesses so they can grow profitably, and use it to acquire new businesses that also steward capital.
Leadership (“I trust you, you trust me.”) The second tip for success is not so simple.
Berkshire Vice Chair Charlie Munger in his retrospective essay credits Buffett’s leadership for Berkshire’s success, specifically his “constructive peculiarities”. One “peculiarity” is his ability to create loyalty. Never forget. To gain loyalty, first you must give it. Trust is the same. When you trust and are trustworthy – you’ll be trusted.
I’ve experienced this personally. To write my first book in 2002, Do Business with People You Can Tru$t, Buffett gave me carte blanche to quote from his shareholder letters. After publication, and knowing how preciously he guards his words, I asked why he never wanted to review galleys. “Didn’t you want to see how I was using your words?” Buffett replied simply, “I trusted you.”
How has this ability to trust served Berkshire shareholders? First, like a magnet, it attracts the right kind of managers to join the Berkshire family. Because Buffett strives to keep his promises, opportunity likes to knock on Berkshire’s door.
Prospective business sellers want to see if Buffett’s actions embody the Berkshire values. When assured they do, sellers are more likely to accept a fair price for their businesses and not hold out for the highest price.
Munger believes the most important task of Buffett’s successor will be to cultivate and spread wisdom. He expects a new Berkshire CEO to reserve “much time for quiet reading and thinking, particularly, that which might advance his determined learning, no matter how old he became.”
The chart below illustrates how Berkshire has adapted and evolved over the years. First as an investment fund manager, then as a cash accumulator, then as an insurance acquirer experiencing the joy of float, and then as a safe home for entrepreneurs with cash-strong businesses and resilient moats. The most recent evolution is partnering with 3G Capital to become a private equity investor.
Buffett never diagrammed this back in 1965. It evolved as he awoke to the benefits of each new business opportunity and adapted to fit the Berkshire Hathaway model. It’s easy to forget that Berkshire earns significantly more profit from its operating businesses, than from its passive investments.
Munger believes that Buffett’s firm commitment to stewarding capital and cultivating trust – as well as his intellectual curiosity and insights into human nature – created a “weird devotion” among his investors. This enabled him to run Berkshire without quarterly earnings calls, to dispense with an investor relations department and to report the lowest corporate conglomerate overhead in the world.
Buffett cultivates devotion because of what Berkshire stands for: to do what is right for owners. He has protected and grown their wealth for half a century.
It’s a tall order for anyone to follow. But to focus continually on the question of who will succeed him is to miss the point. For all the noise about who will fill Buffett’s shoes, let’s not lose sight of two key questions:
Where are the future business leaders with the smarts, courage and wisdom to nurture sustainable cultures and build companies based on economic, not accounting principles?
Who will copy Buffett’s example to seek wisdom that leads to wealth?
This article was written by Laura Rittenhouse from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.