Profiles in Heroism: Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian F1 driver, three time world champion and former go-kart racer who died in a crash during a race at the San Marino GP (May 1st, 1994). Tragically, he was the second driver to die at the track that weekend, the first being Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying earlier in the weekend.

Senna was a devoutly religious individual who attributed much of his success to the influence and providence of god. This may have been an irrational flaw of his, but it seemed balanced by his rational characteristics– humility, honesty, discipline, perseverance and determination to continually improve himself both as a driver and as an individual.

Senna was fiercely competitive and hated the politics of the F1 world, which put many drivers like him at risk all in the name of making the sport more entertaining and sensational. His original relationship with teammate and former world champion French driver Alain Proust quickly turned from a seasoned pro mentoring the young upstart rookie into a battle for survival and supremacy that ultimately resulted in a nasty and dishonest move by Proust in an attempt to deny Senna a chance at the championship title. Secure in his points leadership so long as Senna did not finish the race, Proust forced a collision that disabled his car and nearly eliminated Senna from the race several laps before the finish, pushing both cars off a chicane and into a safety tire barricade.

Undeterred, Senna restarted his vehicle from a standstill, navigated around the tire barrier and back onto the track and ultimately won the race. Still, he was denied the championship by inside F1 politics revolving around technical interpretations of the governing regulations whose interpretation had no prior precedent.

Senna got his revenge the following season when the roles were reversed. Secure in the points lead himself so long as Proust did not finish, and having won pole position in qualifying but having been relegated to the outside of the track at the start of the race because of insider politics, Senna took matters into his own hands by forcing a collision between he and team mate Alain Proust moments after the start. Proust was finished and Senna claimed his title at the end of the day, though he would’ve preferred to win in an honest fashion.

A proud Brazilian, Senna finally won the Brazilian GP in 1993 despite a failed gearbox which locked his car into 6th gear for the final few laps of the race. Luckily, his lead was so great that even with the inability to utilize any other gears, Senna was able to achieve victory. He was so excited upon finishing that he first passed out, then suffered debilitating shoulder weakness that caused him to be almost unable to raise the trophy above his head in the winner’s circle. The lesson to be learned? Never take the lead for granted, push for every marginal advantage you can find because you never know when you’ll be incapacitated and have to rely on coasting to the finish for victory.

Senna was not perfect. He attributed part of his success to a faith in a make believe entity in the sky. He was not above playing dirty if that was what it took to get revenge against those who had done the same to him.

But he was still a hero. He followed his passion in life– to be a championship racer. He refused to give up. He spoke his mind about the realities of F1 politics and the dangers of his profession and was not afraid to defend his understanding of justice. He was committed to personal excellence because he realized that even if his career would be short, his life might be long, and self-improvement was a journey he could carry on with for his entire life no matter his circumstances.

Competitive Dynamics In Foreign Markets

I like to think that wait staffing is a pretty standard economic activity in any country but watching carefully in Florence, Verzanna (Cinque Terre) and Santa Margherita (Portofino) is giving me second thoughts. All the waiters and waitresses we’ve encountered seem harried and overwhelmed. Its especially puzzling because they appear to handle volume which is half or two thirds of what someone might be responsible for in a larger establishment in the United States.

Its got me wondering…

–what are the average ratios of tables/patrons to waitstaff in the US vs Italy?
–average sales per wait staff?
–average profit?
–average kitchen size to waitstaff?
–average profit per restaurant sqft?
–average patrons per sqft per day?
Etc.

Another thought I had as we were waiting for the ferry in Vernazza was that I might see the prospect of a tourist business in Italy as appealing if I were a local but I’m not sure I could summon the same enthusiasm for potential market entry as someone looking from the outside in. I wonder how many others like me had that thought?

Ignoring possible legal restrictions, it seems most of the businesses are local owned whereas in the United States people come from all over the world to compete. It seems like that’d be a recipe for great, protected profits and market position. But its such a grind! I can’t stand tourists. And El Dorado rarely exists. So there must be some catch here I’m not getting.

Maybe its just the high taxes.

Notes – The Art Of Profitability

Notes from The Art of Profitability, by Adrian Slywotzky

Chapter 1, Customer Solution Profit

The Customer Solution Profit (CSP) model encapsulates the idea of understanding the customers problems and then providing them with a solution to their problems.

In the narrow sense, the CSP model captures the idea of having an intense, personal and detailed understanding of the challenges a customer faces and then providing them with a unique, custom-tailored solution that meets their needs. Such a relationship requires upfront investment of time and resources from both parties (the business and the customer) and it entails high switching costs because finding a competing business who can offer that same level of personalized service would require the loss of previous investments made in the existing relationship. This helps to create a “moat” around a CSP model business. Some examples of a narrow-CSP business would be a software solutions firm (a company producing custom back-end software that an operating company runs off of), a consultancy business, the professional relationship of a trusted lawyer or doctor, or a manufacturer of custom fabrications. The recent rise of information analytics engendered in data mining through web browsing activity also represents a form of narrow-CSP business modeling– think about the way Google can track your browsing habits to serve up targeted ads, or the way Amazon tracks your browsing and purchasing history to suggest items you may be interested in purchasing from them.

In the broad sense, the CSP model actually applies to ALL businesses. Every business seeks to create customers, and the way businesses create customers is by finding problems customers have that the business can solve. In Chapter 1, the guru David Zhao asks the protagonist, Steve, “Can you be profitable without knowing the customer?” It’s possible to think of semantic games you could play to answer this question in the positive, and surely there are some businesses which know their customers better than others, but in a general sense the answer is clearly “No.” To provide someone with a solution, you have to know them enough to know their problem.

The context of this question is partly related to Chapter 1’s exploration of the company Steve works for, Delmore, which by Steve’s judgment is a business which has seen growth in the past but seems to be stumbling and may even be heading for a downfall. Steve believes Delmore has lost its way and is not focused on serving the customer. Zhao’s question resonates even more in this regard because Delmore’s management seems more focused on administering the business rather than knowing its customers. In the present, Delmore still appears to be profitable (though much less profitable than its heyday), which seems to suggest that even a company that doesn’t know its customer can be profitable. But the implication of Zhao’s questioning is that over the long-run, Delmore will not be profitable if it can not find a way to focus on understanding its customers better.

Another idea explored in Chapter 1 is the role of company culture. Zhao talks about consulting for a company after learning the secret sauce of their competitor. He says he hand delivered the total solution to the business he was advising and they only ended up implementing part of it– they saw a pick-up in their business as a result, but it was not as dramatic as it could have been if they had implemented his ideas wholesale. Why, Steve asks, do some businesses behave this way?

To succeed in business you need to have a genuine, honest-to-goodness interest in profitability.

This suggests that differences in margin structure and net profitability for companies in the same industry could come down to the “profit culture” of the business, likely established by the original founders and permutated by succeeding hires and executives. They could have the “technology” or strategic know-how to earn a profit, but simply be disinclined to work hard enough or with a unified purpose or without the ego necessary to fully capture the opportunity available to them. This idea also introduces additional context for why much M&A activity rarely seems to bring the “synergy” promised by combining two companies into one– if they have wildly disparate cultures, getting the same performance out of the new company as was available in the two separate companies may be impossible, and cultures may clash so wildly that the overall profitability is in fact harmed by corporate unification.

The subtext to the entire chapter on Customer Solution Profit models is that to really understand the value of a business, you must look at what customer problems the business solves, and how. By studying what is unique about the customer solutions the business offers, you are able to have a better analytical window into the durability of its competitive position, the source of its profitability and profit potential, its opportunities for growth and the stability of its margin structure.

Chapter 2, Pyramid Profit

The Pyramid Profit model consists of multiple quality and price tiers for products, targeted at multiple types of customers (and customer preference), which creates two powerful dynamics for the business:

  1. Protects them from competition from market entrants below (commodity market)
  2. Creates profitable “customer migration” opportunities as loyal customers move up the steps of the pyramid (franchise market)

Why is this model so powerful?

As guru David Zhao teaches,

Your pyramid has to be more than just a collection of different products at different price points. A true pyramid is a system in which the lower-priced products are manufactured and sold with so much efficiency that it’s virtually impossible for a competitor to steal market share by underpricing you. That’s why I call the lowest tier of the pyramid the firewall. But the most important factor is the nature of your customer set. The customers themselves form a hierarchy, with different expectations and different attitudes toward price.

The competitive environment all businesses would prefer to have is that of a franchise, where their product is deemed uniquely valuable and essential such that the business can capture a franchise premium in its margin structure, a premium which is enduring and protected from competition over time by the proverbial “moat.”

Simultaneously, the competitive environment all businesses fear is that of a commodity market, where the only way to distinguish your product from someone else’s and incite the customer to buy is by offering the lowest price. It is a true race to the bottom and the turnover for businesses in commodity markets can be quite high.

As discussed in Clayton Christensen’s classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma, most innovators arrive in a market as low-cost entrants. Incumbent firms see no problem in giving the low-margin business dregs to them as they’re happy to play in the higher-margin markets upstream. The hungry commodity firms are constantly looking above them at the juicy margins available in this other market– can they apply their innovative, low-cost practices to this higher-margin space and move in for the kill? As Christensen details, so often they try and succeed.

This is the genius of the Pyramid Profit model. Incumbent firms are protected from innovative, low-cost competition by offering a low-to-no margin product that creates a competitive “firewall” at the most vulnerable place in the market, the violently dynamic commodity space. Then, they are free to play in the middle and higher margin markets without stress.

There is an additional benefit, as well. By capturing new customers even at the low-margin end of the market, the firm is able to increase customer loyalty and brand familiarity over the customer’s lifecycle. Over time. these (presumably) younger, poorer customers turn into older, richer customers following the circumstances of life.

The value of a Pyramid Profit model depends on the shape of the pyramid. A pyramid with a wide base and a narrow top is relatively inefficient and less valuable as most of the business volume is captured in the low/no-margin mass market whereas the high-margin premium market remains under-promoted. An ideal shape would resemble something more like a skyscraper tower– the same width for all tiers, all the way up, with enough segmentation via price/quality tier to progressively move customers up the pyramid at a rapid pace. The more business that is concentrated at the upper levels of the pyramid, the better the margins and the more profit the firm can earn.

The Pyramid Profit model can be found in many well known businesses, even though it is a rarer circumstance than that of the Customer Solution Profit model discussed in chapter 1. A good example is the automobile industry with its “economy” and “premium” brands (for example, Honda and Acura, or Chevy and Cadillac). Even within each brand, many manufacturers have managed to create a “pyramid” of quality, price and even features/capabilities (for example, Honda has the LX base model, EX, EX with leather and EX-L with navigation; it also has the Civic for the entry buyer, the Accord for the more sophisticated, the Odyssey for the family buyer, etc.). Another example would be the airline industry, such as Virgin Atlantic’s “Economy”, “Premium Economy” and “First Class” seating and service tiers. However, no airline seems to have created separate brands/carriers that focus on one tier of the pyramid over another, instead this segmentation always occurs per aircraft (contrast this to a “single class” carrier such as JetBlue or Southwest Airlines, though notice that even these firms have begun to offer new passenger tiers for additional money such as early boarding, extra luggage capacity, etc.)

Speaking of the auto industry again, one of the most prodigious Pyramid Profit employers has been Toyota. Toyota offers three brands in the United States: Scion, Toyota and Lexus. Scion was a brand developed specifically for the young car buyer, initially offering lower price points, simpler model choices and a “no bargaining” purchase experience that was supposed to capture a first-time buyer and put them into the “Toyota system” for the rest of their automobile-buying lives. Then, there was the mass market, multi-trimmed and multi-segmented Toyota brand, offering cars, vans, SUVs and light trucks to the everyman. And finally, there was Lexus, the flagship brand for wealthy, older, image-conscious and highly-demanding customers.

Toyota’s pyramid is awkwardly shaped, however. It’s base, Scion, is minuscule and definitely low/no-margin. The middle step is enormous and fairly profitable relative to the rest of the industry. And the top is much wider than one would expect it to be, being both relatively high-volume for a luxury market and quite profitable despite ongoing margin erosion in the industry overall. Indeed, Lexus auto dealership franchises are consistently one of the most valuable and sought-after brands in the industry alongside BMW and Audi, commanding high market multiples reflective of their premium value.

The key to a successful and highly profitable pyramid is twofold. First, you must be lucky enough to operate in a market that is conducive to segmentation of customers (especially self-segmentation). Second, you must know your customers well– the Customer Solution Profit at work again! The better you understand your customers and their specific needs, the better you will be able to create custom quality and pricing tiers in your pyramid that will meet their subjective needs.

Chapter 3, Multi-Component Profit

The central idea to the Multi-Component Profit is “same product, several businesses,” in contrast to the Pyramid Profit which targets distinct customer sets with distinct product offerings (differentiated in terms of quality and price). The example given in the book is Coca-Cola, which may be offered at several prices in several different venues ranging from a 6-pack at a gas station to a 2-liter bottle at the grocery store to a glass at a restaurant. The price per unit is different in each case,  meaning variable margin structure, but the customer is captured nonetheless at each consumption opportunity.

While each of these margin structures and business opportunities combine to average out to one margin for the controlling firm, Coca-Cola, each product represents a unique business opportunity from the standpoint of marketing and advertising, competitive dynamics and ultimately, profitability. And this is where the secret of the Multi-Component Profit lies– just as an entire economy can benefit from the division of labor by breaking large tasks into smaller ones that individuals can specialize in, an individual firm can benefit from identifying ways to segment its large business into several smaller, distinct components, managing each one uniquely.

How is this possible? If the price of a firm’s good is set at one price regardless of the volume, and marketed in a uniform way, the firm can miss opportunities to sell their product to a.) people who don’t see value in marketing not aimed at their needs and tastes and b.) people who would be willing to buy the product at a different price and in different quantities than how it is normally offered. By catering to these preferences as distinct markets, the business is able to offer optimum combinations of price and quantity that meet each markets needs better, thus increasing total volume and profit.

Another example of a Multi-Component Profit model at work would be a software operating system company, such as Microsoft, which has different business units for Business/Enterprise, Government/Education and Retail and Wholesale channels. Each user buys a different amount of software licenses and pays a different price for them. This would also be a principle at work in a computer manufacturer’s business, such as Dell (same business lines), or a networking component company like Cisco.

Would an oil producer qualify, such as Exxon Mobil? An oil producer actually produces a number of slightly differentiated products depending on source and quality of the oil sold (West Texas Intermediate, Brent, etc.) which would seem to put it more into a Pyramid Profit model, though even that relationship is tenuous because oil is a nearly ideal commodity product in the sense that it is hard to create a “firewall” product as well as to move customers up a pyramid structure, especially with the fact that oil tends to trade at a uniform price across world markets no matter where it is produced (if it is of the same type). An oil firm probably does not give significant discounts to “different customers” based on quantity ordered, either.

Similarly, an oil refiner would seem to be a Multi-Component Profit model with its different kinds of refined products marketed in different ways (kerosene for lamps, or kerosene for jet engines) but again, these markets are so commoditized and regularized across world markets that it is hard to imagine these businesses creating separate marketing and pricing initiatives for differing customer demand, instead just dumping their product into various wholesale markets that then re-sell the products to end users (though perhaps these businesses are in the Multi-Component Profit model).

Over time if I think of other examples, which there undoubtedly are, I’ll post them but for now I will close out these notes with this summary from the book’s protagonist:

Different parts of a business can have wildly different profitability. The customer behaves very differently on different purchase occasions. Different degrees of price sensitivity.

The value of this lesson, as the book’s guru says, is that constant innovation is a key ingredient to maintaining and growing the profitability of any business, and one way to innovate is to find ways to break your existing business into smaller and smaller components which can be separately managed with unique marketing, growth and profit trajectories.

Chapter 4, Switchboard Profit

The Switchboard Profit model combines three essential elements to generate outstanding profit:

  1. Packaging; the provision of necessary component resources for a task in one place/package that can be hired together instead of separately
  2. Monopolization; control of a critical resource that all users need to hire
  3. Market share; control of a critical mass of the total market (approximately 15-20% minimum in practice) which gives the perception of dominance and incentivizes economic actors to utilize the switchboard firm, thereby creating a multiplicative network effect that enhances the value of the switchboard with every additional increase in market share

Those are the essential ingredients. The way they work together to create outstanding profit opportunities is like so: limiting competition and reducing transaction costs. Those are the primary principles at work. By putting together various resources which would normally be hired separately (and thus, would be exchanged each in their own competitive markets), the Switchboard Profit model brings these resources under one roof where they can be hired together (packaging), where they can be hired no place else (monopolization) and where other similar resources, typically skilled labor, are thus attracted to because they see the probability of being hired at advantageous rates themselves to be much higher by participating in the network effect of the Switchboard Profit model firm (market share).

The result is a constrained supply which can negotiate for a higher total hire price. It is valuable for those hiring the products of the Switchboard Profit model firm to pay this higher price because they save on search costs and they also face the alternative option of hiring lower quality substitutes. The more that the resources in question come under the control of the Switchboard Profit model firm, the greater profit the firm can generate from being the central hub for hiring the resource out.

One company that sounds like a Switchboard Profit model on its face is Amazon, a logistics giant that aggregates numerous consumer goods in one place. This satisfies the packaging criteria, and it almost satisfies the market share criteria as suppliers of goods want to participate in Amazon’s marketplace because it can increase their market exposure and thus the chance that the product will be purchased. But Amazon does not maintain anything close to a monopoly on these goods because they’re widely available “commodities” rather than unique or limited supply products carried only by Amazon.

The example given in the book was the Hollywood talent agency of Michael Ovitz. Ovitz combined top star power with “total production resources” (writers, actors, directors, etc., all in one place) and he commanded a large share of the market such that additional writers, actors, directors, etc., had a strong incentive to join his firm and thus increase his profitability as his market share grew. An obvious additional example would be any other large, dominant talent agency such as for sports stars, musicians or other celebrities who each represent unique products that can be easily “controlled” and “constrained” by one firm.

The network effect seems to be a key aspect to the profitability of the Switchboard Profit model. Google’s dominance in search means it is largely the central hub by which people conduct their internet searches, meaning a person buying ad space in the Google network is getting a better package deal than other search network ad buyers.

A television network might also qualify as a Switchboard Profit model: if you have the best shows on TV and a large market share with all the kinds of shows in one place that people might want to watch, advertisers will be more attracted to you and so will TV show producers and so, too, will TV viewers. And the more people who utilize your TV network, the more valuable it is to everyone involved.

Other examples might include a health insurance network which includes top medical professionals under the insurance plan; a legal association with the best legal minds in a market in one place; or even a top university or research institution known to have the brightest minds.

Something interesting about the Switchboard Profit model is that most of these businesses seem to revolve around human resources, rather than non-human resources (commodities which are common or rare alike).

Chapter 5, Time Profit

Many of guru David Zhao’s profit models come with simple illustrations which capture the essential ingredient of the profit model. The image of the Time Profit model is an X-Y axis with “$/unit” on the Y-axis and “time” on the X-axis. Plotted across this chart is one line, which runs from the top left corner toward the bottom right corner at a 45-degree angle reading “Price”, and another line below that labeled “Cost” at a more mild angle, eventually intersecting with the “Price” line near the right side of the chart and then overtaking it.

The concept is simple: Time Profit is generated by being the first to market a new product or service because over time imitators will compete and eventually drive price toward cost. Time, therefore, is of the essence.

In TAOP, Zhao and Steve discuss Time Profit models in the context of firms without special legal protections (such as patents or copyrights) on their works which serve to shield them from competition. However, whether such legal protections are permanent or limited in duration, the Time Profit model principle is the same– only by being first to market would you even be afforded such legal protections in the first place, so there is an incentive to be first else you finish last.

Zhao and Steve discuss the Time Profit model within the context of an investment bank constantly innovating with new financial products. But this model could also easily apply to pharmaceutical and software development companies (which enjoy legal protections on their products), as well as a tech product manufacturer, such as a smartphone manufacturer, whose core product features are likely not subject to legal protections. Here, the Time Profit model is essential as the first firm to get a product to market with a valuable innovation that creates a consumer craze can capture a premium for their products while competing firms figure out how to duplicate this technology and make it standard in their follow-up product offerings. These “second place” firms are doomed to earn commodity returns on their products, only the first-mover gets to enjoy a profit premium.

Like the Customer Solution Profit model, the Time Profit model is more than just a specific business model, it is something of an essential feature to the competitive conditions of any firm in any industry facing innovative development which, practically speaking, is all firms in all industries. Whether a new product, a new service or a new internal or customer-facing process, all businesses seek to adopt one another’s best practices to save costs and increase profitability. The first firm to innovate something that is eventually imitable by others gets a profit advantage during the period of time between innovation and imitation by others. Time Profit models can be thought of as temporary competitive advantages due to periodic innovation.

As David Zhao teaches, a key component of the Time Profit model that is often overlooked is the role diligence in the innovative process plays:

Tedium is the single greatest challenge for a business that’s built on innovation

The first act of innovation is thinking, the arriving at of a brilliant new idea. The second act, and far more important, is the doing, the translation of an innovative idea into an innovative product, service or process. This part requires the same rigmarole of standard business practice: making phone calls, sending emails, training people, holding meetings, crunching numbers, keeping people on task and pulling in the same direction, etc.

Innovating, idea-making, is sexy and fun. But turning innovative ideas into real profit is often boring, common and time-consuming. The people and firms that are able to apply energy and determination to this part of the process are the ones who can most consistently capture the Time Profit. As innovator Paul Cook says, “What separates the winners and losers in innovation is who can master the drudgery.”

Ancillary Notes

Chapter 5 had a few other points worth mentioning, some of which were connected to carryover discussions from earlier chapters.

The first point concerns the power of critical numerical thinking. When working through a number problem, Zhao advises,

Getting the order of magnitude right is what matters, not the details

This is similar to Buffett and Munger’s “approximately right versus precisely wrong” dictum. Zhao also talks about using the numbers to ask and answer critical questions; the numbers of business (assumptions, projections, actual results, etc.) can tell us a story, but we have to be curious about the numbers. It’s not enough to wonder, “Why are the numbers what they are?” we have to be able to put forth some effort to attempt to answer such questions ourselves. As Zhao says,

Being able to take the measure of the world is one of the most crucial skills we can develop

The second point, which is arrived at in a discussion of business innovation, is the “paradox” Zhao observes in the semiconductor industry, which is that the firms involved “copy each other’s chips, but not each other’s business models.” It is the business model which is responsible for mastering the Time Profit concept and other models discussed in TAOP– why don’t more managements focus on copying successful business models rather than imitating successful products and services?

It brings to mind a question for potential investors, too. Which businesses could see their value dramatically improved by focusing the company’s efforts on copying the leading business model in the industry rather than engaging in the rat race of perpetual product innovation/imitation?

The final point has to do with the nature of learning. Steve the student asks Zhao for a copy of his notes from a previous meeting. Steve wants to see how Zhao solved a problem they both worked on. Zhao suggests,

you’ve got to learn how to solve these problems in your own way

the idea being that true knowledge means being able to solve a problem in your own way, not by imitating somebody else. This is why some firms are innovators while the rest are imitators. Innovators are capable of solving problems their own way; imitators just copy the innovator’s solution. But it’s a lesson that’s important to the budding business analyst, as well. How will you solve problems when there is no guru there to teach you? You have to find your own path and do your own thinking.

Until you can do that, though, as Steve says, copying a few “Picassos” to practice a known master technique can be helpful.

Progress Requires Innovation, Innovation Requires Freedom; No Freedom, No Progress, That’s Government

Joe Quirk on seasteading:

Benjamin Franklin participated in several major innovations in his day. He helped discover and control electricity, and he helped design the US Constitution. The control of electricity set off a cascade of innovations, driving almost every modern technology we can name. Yet the instrument of government he helped invent has not progressed.

Consider that Franklin’s many inventions have advanced beyond his wildest imagination: the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, refrigeration, the flexible urinary catheter (my favorite). Yet, the methods of government he helped invent have not evolved. And why?

Because inventors and entrepreneurs had the freedom to experiment with Franklin’s technological ideas, but not his political ideas. More importantly, as Patri [Friedman] says, customers had power to choose amongst gadgets competing to please them, while citizens are captive to the political system they inherit.

One day, people will laugh at the idea of government (legitimized, institutional theft and murder) just as today people laugh at the idea of monarchy as a system of government.

Government is a technology– it is a means for achieving particular ends. What people don’t understand right now is that

  1. government is a means, not an end and
  2. government is an inappropriate and contradictory means for the end of “living in a harmonious, civilized and prosperous human society”

Government reduces human relationships to the Laws of the Jungle, the very thing we all claim to be striving so mightily to avoid.

As Allen Thornton wrote in the early 1980s,

And just what is this government? It’s a man-made invention. It’s not some natural phenomenon or a special creation of God. Government’s an invention, just like the light bulb or the radio.

The state was invented for me, to make me happier, but a funny thing has happened: If I don’t want this invention, people are outraged. No one calls me unpatriotic for refusing to buy a light bulb. If I don’t choose to spend my money on a radio, no one says that I’m immoral. Why should anarchy upset everyone?

Anarchists are ahead of their time, even though the truth they speak is itself timeless– conservatively, probably 200-300 years ahead of their time. The gradual evolution of the “human collective social consciousness” over time has been away from absolutism and toward individualism, with various depressing but ultimately temporary and regional setbacks along the way. Most visionaries DO look like kooks to their neighbors and countrymen before their vision is realized.

But it is the “market purists” who will have the last laugh, and ultimately deliver every one into the closest thing to a perfect society that one can get while still remaining firmly in the grips of reality in this universe.

They’ll be naysayed and boohooed and shouted at quite a bit along the way, though. Good thing most of us are of stout heart and strong mind.

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 5

Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn

Looking for competitive advantages through industry analysis

One way to approach competitive analysis is by critically examining two key measures of performance:

  • operating margins; most useful when comparing firms within an industry
  • return on invested capital; useful for comparing between industries and within

These ratios are both driven by operating profit so they should track one another; when they do not, changes in how the business is financed may be the cause.

As the authors state,

Though the entries on the income statement are the consequences, not the cause, of the differences in operations, they tell us where to look for explanations of superior performance.

Learning by example: the Wal-Mart (WMT) case study

The explanations for Wal-Mart’s success have been numerous and diverse:

  1. WMT was tough on its vendors
  2. WMT monopolized business in small towns
  3. WMT had superior management and business systems
  4. WMT operated in “cheaper” territories in the Southern US
  5. WMT obtained advantages through regional dominance

Let’s examine these claims in order.

The first explanation fails the sniff test because WMT in fact had a higher Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) than it’s competitors. Additionally, its gross profit margins did not increase as it grew larger, implying it was not getting better and better economies of scale with suppliers by buying in bulk.

And while Wal-Mart did manage to generate additional income from higher prices charged in monopoly markets, this advantage was more than offset by its policy of “everyday low prices” in more diverse markets where WMT did higher volumes.

Technologically, WMT was a buyer of logistics and distribution technologies, not a developer of them. Anything it used, its competitors could use as well. Managerially, WMT appeared to have no advantage when it expanded its retailing into hardware, drug and arts and crafts stores. Why would WMT’s superior management be effective at discount general merchandise retailing but not add additional value in these markets?

The fourth explanation fails because Wal-Mart’s opportunities for expansion in the home markets of the South were not very large. Much of Wal-Mart’s growth and success took place in larger markets outside the South.

Wal-Mart’s secret sauce was regional dominance

Competitive advantages occur in numerous, often complementary ways. In the case of WMT, the initial competitive advantage was centered around a concentrated, regional dominance. Though smaller than its competitor Kmart, by focusing on one local region WMT was able to create a number of other competitive advantages for itself, including local economies of scale, that were not available to its competitor:

  • lower inbound logistics due to density of Wal-Mart stores, distribution facilities and vendor warehouses
  • lower advertising costs due to concentration of stores and customer base in target markets
  • concentrated territories which allowed managers to spend more time visiting stores rather than traveling to and from

Looking at Wal-Mart’s activities within the relevant boundaries in which it competed, it was far larger than its competition.

Eventually, economic law won out and growth took its toll on WMT’s great business,

it was unable to replicate the most significant competitive advantage it enjoyed in these early years: local economies of scale combined with enough customer loyalty to make it difficult for competitors to cut into this base.

WMT’s margins and return on capital both began to fall during the 1980s as it began its aggressive growth into the national market. Until then, WMT enjoyed the absence of established competitors.

What could WMT have done if it wanted to grow but maintain its competitive advantages?

If it had wanted to replicate its early experience, Wal-Mart might have targeted a foreign country that was in the process of economic development but that had not yet attracted much attention from established retailers.

Lessons learned from the WMT case study

The WMT case study leaves several general impressions:

  1. Efficiency always matters
  2. Competitive advantages matter more
  3. Competitive advantages can enhance good management
  4. Competitive advantages need to be defended
Learning by example: the Coors case study

From 1945 to 1985, the brewing industry experienced significant consolidation due to the following factors:

  • demographic trends, as home beer consumption rose at the expense of tavern consumption
  • technological disruption, as the size of an efficient plant grew from 100,000 bbl/y to 5M bbl/y, leaving many smaller brewers in a position where they could not afford to keep up
  • advertising trends, as the advent of television meant national brewers could spread fixed advertising costs over a larger revenue base
  • growth in brands, the market segmentation of which did not lead to growth in consumption but did result in larger advertising burdens for smaller brewers
The organization of Coors business

Coors’ business operations were characterized by a few fundamental structures:

  1. vertical integration, Coors produced its own strain of barley, designed its own cans, had its own bottle supplier and even had its own source of water, none of which produced a meaningful cost advantage
  2. operated a single brewery, which required it to transport all its product to national markets at great cost rather than producing within each market and shortening transportation routes
  3. non-pasteurization, which led to shorter shelf life than its rivals, adding to spoilage costs
  4. a celebrity aura, which, like most product differentiation strategies, did not result in a meaningful premium charged for a barrel of Coors compared to its rivals
For Coors, geographic expansion brought with it higher costs and reduced competitive advantage as these business organization decisions interacted with the wider distribution network in unforeseen ways:
  • longer shipping distances from the central plant in Golden, CO, resulted in higher costs that could not be passed on to consumers
  • the smaller share of new local markets it expanded to meant it had to work with weaker wholesalers
  • higher marketing expenses were incurred as Coors tried to establish itself in new markets and then keep up with the efforts of AB and Miller
The net result was that Coors was “spending more to accomplish less.”

Why Coors expansion was so costly

First, although Anheuscher-Busch, the dominant firm in the brewing industry, spent almost three times as much in total on advertising compared to Coors, it spent $4/bbl less due an economy of scale derived from larger total beer output.

Second, Coors experienced higher distribution costs because distribution has a fixed regional component which allows firms with a larger local share of the market to drive shorter truck routes and utilize warehouse space more intensively.

Third, advertising costs are fixed on a regional basis. Again, the larger your share of the market in a given region, the lower your advertising costs per unit. Coors never held substantial market share in any of the national markets it expanded into.

If Coors had “gone local” (or rather, stayed local), all of its competitive disadvantages could’ve been turned into competitive advantages. Advertising expenses would’ve been concentrated on dominant markets instead of being spread across the country. Freight costs would’ve been considerably lower as it would not have been transporting product so many thousands of miles away from its central plant. With a larger share of the market it could’ve used stronger wholesalers who might have been willing to carry Coors exclusively because it was so popular in local markets.

Additionally, Coors sold its beer for less in its home regions, allowing it to win customers from its competitors by lowering prices, offering promotions and advertising more heavily. Expansion, when and if it occurred, should’ve worked from the periphery outward.

The Internet and competitive advantages

Greenwald and Kahn are skeptical of the virtues of combining the Internet with traditional competitive advantages:

The main sources of competitive advantages are customer captivity, production advantages and economies of scale, especially on a local level. None of them is readily compatible with Internet commerce, except in special circumstances. [emphasis added]

With the Internet,

competition is a click away,

and furthermore,

economies of scale entail substantial fixed costs that can then be spread over a large customer base

a state of affairs which often doesn’t exist with virtual, e-businesses.

The Internet is great for customers, but its value to businesses as a promoter of profits is questionable. The Internet doesn’t provide a strong barrier to entry because it is relatively inexpensive to set up an e-commerce subsidiary. Additionally, there are no easily discernible local boundaries to limit the territory  in which a firm competes which is another essential element of the economies of scale advantage.

In other words,

the information superhighway provided myriad on-ramps for anyone who wanted access.

Questions from the reading

  1. Greenwald and Kahn argue that management time is the scarcest resource any company has. Is this true? Why can’t companies solve this simply by hiring more managers and increasing the manager-employee ratio?
  2. In the case study with WMT, why couldn’t Kmart at least match WMT’s efforts in establishing critical infrastructure organization and technology and compete on that basis?
  3. What were the sources of WMT’s customer loyalty?
  4. Which publicly-listed firms have regional dominance as a specific strategy they follow? Do these companies’ financial performance seem to suggest they derive a competitive advantage from this strategy?
  5. In the case study with Coors, what were the industry conditions in beer brewing that made national competition more efficient than local competition?
  6. Standard Oil, another producer and distributor of “valuable liquids” was vertically integrated. Why was vertical integration beneficial in the oil industry but not in the brewing industry for Coors?

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 4

Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn

Putting it all together (so far)

All business analyses should begin with a study of competitive advantage by exploring the following, in order:

  1. identify the competitive landscape; which markets? who are the competitors?
  2. test for existence of competitive advantages; stable market shares? exceptional profits for extended periods of time?
  3. identify the likely nature of competitive advantages; supply, demand, economies of scale, regulatory hurdles?

Carrying out the analysis

Start by identifying the market segments that make up the industry as a whole and make a list of the leading competitors in each one, by market share. This is an organizational tool to study the breadth and depth of a competitive market place where the target firm’s role can be placed within.

Then, look for signs of existing competitive advantages by observing the stability of incumbent market shares and the profitability of firms within the market segments.

The more movement in and out, the more turbulent the ranking of the companies that remain, and the longer the list of competitors, the less likely it is that there are barriers and competitive advantages.

Quantitatively,

if you can’t count the top firms in an industry on the fingers of one hand, the chances are good that there are no barriers to entry.

And,

if over a five- to eight-year period, the average absolute [market] share change exceeds 5 percentage points, there are no barriers to entry; if the share change is 2 percentage points or less, the barriers are formidable.

Profitability across an industry is best measured by the use of return on equity (ROE) or return on invested capital (ROIC). As a broad rule of thumb:

After-tax returns on invested capital averaging more than 15 to 25 percent — which would equate to 23 to 38 percent pretax return with tax rates of 35percent — over a decade or more are clear evidence of the presence of competitive advantages. A return on capital in the range of 6-8 percent after tax generally indicates their absence.

Utilize the principle of Occam’s Razor in your industry analysis, keeping things simple until there is a clear need to make them more complex.

Questions from the reading

  1. In the case study in the book, Apple (AAPL) seemed to have spread itself thin by trying to compete in multiple computer industry market segments where it had no clear competitive advantage. Eventually, Apple abandoned manufacturing its own chips and adopted the industry-standard hardware while focusing its efforts on smaller niche markets that had no clear incumbent (including new market segments it created, such as the tablet computer market). Was this the brilliant strategic move responsible for Apple’s current success, or was it something else entirely? Does Apple actually have a clear, sustainable competitive advantage?
  2. A lot of Greenwaldian strategic analysis seems dependent on the observation of historical trends in profitability and market share to arrive at conclusions about the existence of competitive advantage. Is there a way to predict and identify competitive advantage in a new or immature industry without the benefit of historical hindsight?

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Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 3

Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn

Economies of scale depend on market share

Economies of scale are a competitive advantage that work most effectively in combination with another advantage such as customer captivity.

With some degree of customer captivity, the entrants never catch up and stay permanently on the wrong side of the economies of scale differential.

In general, smaller markets (in terms of geography or product space) present easier realms to obtain a competitive advantage, even with regards to economies of scale. As a market grows in absolute size, it becomes easier and easier for competitors to obtain their own economies of scale and erode the incumbent firms advantages in terms of fixed costs.

By keeping a competitive market small, the incumbent firm can outspend entrants in absolute dollars even if each firm spends the same proportion of revenues on things like R&D, advertising, marketing, distribution, etc.

Erosion in market share are the greatest threat to a firm with competitive advantages derived from economies of scale because as market share falls, the proportion of total costs which are fixed rises and thereby defeats the cost advantage of economies of scale.

Maintaining market share through customer captivity is critical

Customer captivity can be enhanced a number of ways:

  • habit – make purchases more frequent and spread their cost out over time to create a relationship that is easier to continue than replace; encourage repeated, nearly automatic purchases that don’t allow time for critical consideration of alternatives
  • switching costs – extend and deepen the range of services offered, thereby increasing the opportunity cost of switching to a competitor
  • search costs – integration of multiple features into one pricing plan complicates comparison shopping and increases risk of picking a half-effective service or product
The strategy of economies of scale

Economies of scale…

  1. tend to be the longest lived of the three major types of competitive advantage
  2. are vulnerable to gradual erosion and therefore must be defended vigorously
Establishing dominance in a local market and then expanding outward gradually from that hub is the best strategy for firms relying on EoS. Small, local markets only have room for a few competitors, at most, meaning the firm that gains dominance will also gain EoS (if possible) while preventing the competitor from obtaining that same advantage.

Markets grow rapidly because they attract many new customers, who are by definition non-captive. They may provide a base of viable scale for new entrants.

Both incumbents and entrants should focus on niche markets, characterized by:

  • customer captivity
  • small size relative to the level of fixed costs
  • absence of vigilant, dominant competitors
  • readily extendable at the edges
Ultimately, the more variable costs can be shifted to fixed costs, the stronger will be the competitive advantage from EoS.

Remember:

Competitive advantages are invariably market-specific. They do not travel to meet the aspirations of growth-obsessed CEOs.

Questions from the reading

  1. The authors mention an example of Aetna vs. Oxford in the metropolitan insurance market. They argue that because medical service is a local market, Aetna’s national network confers no economies of scale advantage because Oxford has a larger market share of in-network medical providers in specific local markets, such as NYC (60% of market vs. 20%). But part of Aetna’s cost advantages come from general administrative overhead, where EoS at the national level become important. How do you weigh the value of EoS in adminstrative/overhead costs at the corporate level against specific EoS in supply/inventory costs at the local level?
  2. Suggested case study– In 2006, Nintendo (NTDOY) introduced their  Wii home video game console as a part of their effort to achieve the corporate goal of “Gaming Population Expansion“. However, this is a goal with strategic implications as well as tactical ones because it serves to broaden the total market for NTDOY as well as competitors’ (MSFT, SNE) products and thereby changes the way NTDOY competes in that market. Considering the lessons of Chapter 3, how would you judge NTDOY’s strategy? Is this a brilliant way to create a new market niche (casual gamers) that have traditionally been ignored and underserved by the market that NTDOY can profitably keep to itself? Or will this decision result in a growing market that invites new entrants while eroding any advantages NTDOY may have had as a result of EoS? Additionally, NTDOY has been criticized for ignoring the massive, wildly profitable “hardcore gamer” market. Would you criticize NTDOY for this decision? Would you recommend they attempt to make inroads? What broad strategic recommendations might you make to NTDOY with regards to maximizing competitive advantages related to EoS and customer captivity?