Review – Repeatability

Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change

by Chris Zook, James Allen, published 2012

What’s this book about?

I finished reading this book over three weeks ago. Since then, I have struggled to get myself to sit down and write a review. The primary reason I’ve struggled is because I am not sure I can say with confidence what this book is about, or to which genre it belongs. Is it about strategy? Business management? Business planning? Organizational theory? Something else?

“Repeatability” chants about simplicity, but it’s full of so many buzzwords, different-but-related ideas and proprietary-sounding business catchphrases that it’s hard at times to keep up. And perhaps I’ve dropped into the late middle of an earlier conversation, as the book references a “focus-expand-redefine” growth cycle elaborated upon in three earlier works known as “the trilogy”.

A more charitable explanation of my confusion might place the blame with the authors themselves. Take the way in which they describe the main shifts in strategy they say they are witnessing, which led them to write the book:

  1. less about a detailed plan and more about general direction and critical initiatives
  2. less about anticipating how change will occur, more about having rapid testing and learning processes to accelerate adaptation to change
  3. effective strategy increasingly indistinguishable from effective organization

The central insight from their research, the authors claim, is that,

complexity has become the silent killer of growth strategies

Why? The authors don’t take pains to explain or justify the assumption that the world is more complex and that “traditional” strategic notions no longer work in this new world order. They just accept it as common wisdom and run with solutions for responding to it.

Building “Great Repeatable Models”

The next several chapters detail what Zook and Allen call “Great Repeatable Models”, which are businesses defined by the following three principles:

  1. a strong, well-differentiated core
  2. clear non-negotiables
  3. systems for closed-loop learning

According to the authors, GRMs (germs?) were

sharply, almost obviously, differentiated relative to competitors along a dimension that also allowed for differential profitability

which I think is another way of saying they have a lucrative competitive advantage.

Similarly, the authors suggest that non-negotiables are a company’s

core values and the key criteria used to make trade-offs in decision making

while systems for closed-loop learning enabled GRMs to

drive continuous improvement across the business, leveraging transparency and consistency of their repeatable model

which I understood to mean that the businesses had a culture and process for improving their practices over time.

The Cult of the CEO

Chapter 5 of “Repeatability” seeks to demonstrate how the CEO is the guardian of the three principles of GRMs. While it clearly makes sense that the CEO, as the chief strategist and top of the organizational pyramid would have a role in implementing and enforcing a GRM, the authors offer little here to help other than numerous examples of success and failure in following the three principles followed by a hopeful conclusion that the “right leadership” will be in place to manage the delicate balancing act they specify as ideal. It seems to place the book in the Cult of the CEO genre (idealizing the role and superhuman nature of corporate chief executives) while simultaneously causing much of their writing up to that point to seem extemporaneous.

It’s almost as if the presence of the “right leadership” implies the presence of a GRM, and the absence of a GRM implies the absence of the “right leadership.” The book suffers from hindsight bias and tautological reasoning like this in numerous areas.

My own simple interpretation

The central tenets of this book are confusing, poorly defined and at times self-contradictory. Its research methodology (inductive empirical study to explain complex social phenomena) is frowned on by this Austrian economist. Ironically, it is the occasional element touched upon at the periphery of the book’s argument, rather than its core, where the authors manage to share something meaningful to solving the dilemmas of business people.

Unfortunately, the encouragement to keep the distance between the CEO and the customer minimal and to articulate a simple vision that even lower-level employees can grasp and rally behind, for example, is rather intuitive and obvious. Why would adding layers of bureaucracy and arbitrary decision-making, or creating a business plan so elaborate your employees don’t understand it, ever be a sound practice?

There’s a lot here including many case studies and other reference materials, but not all of it is useful or makes sense when viewed through the prism of the Great Repeatable Model. For some the digging required to find the occasional nugget of wisdom may be worth it but I can’t recommend such exertion for everybody.

Review – The Outsiders

The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success

by William N. Thorndike, Jr., published 2012

Capital allocation uber alles

“The Outsiders” rests on a premise, that the increase in a public company’s per share value is the best metric for measuring the success of a given CEO, which lends itself to the book’s major thesis: that superior capital allocation is what sets apart the best CEOs from the rest, and that most modern CEOs seem to be only partially aware, if at all, of its critical performance to their companies long-term business success.

Notice! This book is examining the efforts and measurements of CEOs of public companies, not all businesses (public and private), so as a result in comes up a bit short in the “universal application” department. Yes, capital allocation is still critical even in a private business, but you can not measure a private business’s per share value (because there isn’t a marketable security price to reference) and the CEO of a private company is missing one of the most powerful capital allocation tools available to public CEOs, the share buyback (because there is no free float for them to get their hands on at periodically irrational prices).

The CEO capital allocation toolkit

Thorndike describes five capital allocation choices CEOs have:

  1. invest in existing operations
  2. acquire other businesses
  3. issue dividends
  4. pay down debt
  5. repurchase stock

Along with this, they have three means of generating capital:

  1. internal/operational cash flow
  2. debt issuance
  3. equity issuance

With this framework, Thorndike proceeds to review the business decisions of 8 different “outsider” CEOs, so labeled because they tended to use these tools in a contrary fashion to the mainstream wisdom of their time and to much improved effect as per comparison to their benchmarks. Some of the CEOs are well known and oft mentioned and studied (Warren Buffett, John Malone, Kay Graham, Tom Murphy) and a few are known to the value cognoscenti but may have managed to escape notice of the wider public, academic or otherwise (Henry Singleton, Bill Anders, Bill Stirlitz and Dick Smith).

The author tries to tie together the various common threads, such as how,

All were first-time CEOs, most with very little prior management experience

and many of which (such as Singleton, Buffett and Graham) were large or majority equity holders in their companies, making them part of the vaunted owner-operator club with its resulting beneficial incentives.

Thorndike also tries to use the hedgehog vs. fox metaphor, claiming,

They had familiarity with other companies and industries and disciplines, and this ranginess translated into new perspectives, which in turn helped them to develop new approaches that eventually translated into exceptional results

Interestingly, the share buyback stands out as a particularly effective capital allocation tool for all and the author claims that during the difficult inflationary conditions and market depression of the 1974-1982 period,

every single one [emphasis in the original] was engaged in either a significant share repurchase program or a series of large acquisitions

In broad strokes, Thorndike’s efforts to paint these CEOs with a common brush works, but there are numerous times where his attempt to establish commonality  in genius comes across as forced and unworkable. Often, one of these CEOs will operate in a way inconsistent with Thorndike’s major thesis and yet he’ll end up praising the CEO anyway. In poker, we’d call this the “won, didn’t it?” fallacy– judging a process by the specific, short-term result accomplished rather than examining the long-term result of multiple iterations of the process over time.

Some quibbles

This is actually one of the things that rubbed me rather raw as I read the book. In every chapter, Thorndike manages to strike a rather breathless, hagiographic tone where these CEOs can do no wrong and everything they do is “great”, “fantastic,” etc. Unfortunately, this kind of hyperbolic language gets used over and over without any variety to the point it’s quite noticeable how lacking in detail and critical analysis Thorndike’s approach is at points.

Eventually, I reached a point where I almost wanted to set the book down, take a deep breath and say, “Okay… I get it, this guy is absolutely amazing… can we move on now?”

The editing seemed a bit sloppy, too. Thorndike is a graduate of Stanford and Harvard and runs his own financial advisory. He’s obviously an accomplished, intellectual person. Yet his prose often reads like an immature blog post. It’s too familiar and casual for the subject matter and the credentials of the author. I’m surprised they left those parts in during the editing process. I think it makes Thorndike’s thesis harder to take seriously when, in all likelihood, it’d probably be quite convincing if you happened to chat with the author on an airplane.

From vice to virtue

Something I liked about “The Outsiders” was the fact that there were 8 profiles, rather than one. It was reinforcing to see that the same principles and attitudes toward business and management were carried out by many different individuals who didn’t all know each other (though some did) and ALL had huge outperformance compared to their benchmark.

And I think for someone who is just jumping into the investing, management and agency problem literature, “The Outsiders” is a good place to start to get a broad outline of the major thesis which is that companies that are run by owner-operators, or by people who think like them, where the top management focuses on intelligently allocating capital to its highest use (which, oftentimes when the company’s stock remains stubbornly low compared to its estimated intrinsic value, makes buybacks in the public market the most intelligent option versus low margin growth) consistently outperform their peers and their benchmarks on a financial basis.

I think if this was one of the first books I had read on this theme, I would’ve found it quite illuminating and exciting, a real eye-opener experience. As it were, I read this book after reading a long train of other, often times significantly more comprehensive and detailed literature, so my personal experience was rather flat– I came away thinking I hadn’t learned much.

More to the story

There’s more to this story in two senses.

In the first sense, I actually highlighted many little comments or ideas throughout the book that are either helpful reminders or concepts I hadn’t fully considered myself yet, pertaining to best operational and management practices for businesses and the people who invest in them. In other words, the book is a little deeper than I bothered to share here. As a collection of anecdotes and principles for mastering the concept of capital allocation, it’s a good resource.

In the second sense, I think there’s a lot more to the success of the businessmen and their companies profiled (along with many others) than just good capital allocation. The text alludes to this with quotes from various figures about how they operated their businesses and managed people aside from the specific challenges of capital allocation. But it never goes into it because that isn’t in focus.

And as a business person myself, I know from my own reading, thinking and personal experience that capital allocation IS a critical factor in successfully managing and growing a business over the long-term — after all, if you can’t find good places to put your cash, you’ll inevitably end up wasting a lot of it — but you won’t have capital to allocate if you aren’t operating your business and managing your relationships with employees and customers well, in addition. The book just doesn’t do much in the way of explaining how it was that Ralston Purina, or General Dynamics or Teledyne or what have you, had so much capital to allocate in the first place.

I think people like this book so much because it’s exciting to read about outsize success, regardless of how it happened.