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.

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Review – Billion Dollar Lessons

Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years
by Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui, published 2008, 2009

The seven deadly business sins

The authors of Billion Dollar Lessons identified seven “failure patterns” that typify the path to downfall of most businesses:

  1. synergy; overestimating the cost savings or the profit-enhancement of synergy
  2. aggressive accounting; becoming addicted to creative accounting practices which eventually invites outright fraud to keep up with
  3. rollup acquisitions; assuming the whole is greater than the sum of the parts
  4. blindness to catastrophe; dancing on the deck of the Titanic, ignoring that the ship is sinking
  5. uneconomic adjacency acquisitions; assuming there are benefits to combining similar businesses which are actually dissimilar
  6. disruptive technology; committing oneself to the wrong technology and betting it all
  7. consolidation indigestion; assuming that consolidation is always the right answer and that it solves all corporate problems

In Part I, each chapter addresses one of these failure patterns, explaining the principles and problems of the failure pattern, giving numerous real-world examples of the pattern in action and finishing with a list of tough questions for managers and shareholders/board members to ask before pursuing one of the potentially flawed strategies mentioned.

In Part II, the authors offer a behavioral/psychological explanation for why companies and individuals routinely make these same mistakes, basing their assertions on the idea of “human universals.” The idea is that being aware of them is not enough– one must also put into place processes and self-check systems that are independent of any one person’s self-honesty (or lack thereof) to allow a company to essentially “check itself before it wrecks itself.” The most important corporate institution suggested is the Devil’s Advocate.

Illusions of synergy

According to the text,

A McKinsey study of 124 mergers found that only 30 percent generated synergies on the revenue side that were even close to what the acquirer had predicted… Some 60 percent of the cases met the forecasts on cost synergies

In general, there are three main reasons why synergy strategies fail:

  1. synergy may exist only in the minds of strategists, not in the minds of customers
  2. companies typically overpay for an acquisition, meaning the benefits from synergies realized are not enough to overcome the initial investment cost
  3. clashes of culture, skills or systems often develop following an acquisition, killing the potential for synergies

Double-check your synergy strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • Do you need to buy a company to get the synergies, or could you just form a partnership?
  • How do you know that customers will flock to a new product, service or sales channel?
  • If you think you’re going to improve customer service, then how exactly will that look from the customer’s perspective?
  • What could competitors do to hurt you, especially during the transition while you integrate the company you’re taking over?
  • Who in the combined organization will resist the attempts for revenue synergies? Whose compensation will be hurt?
  • What are the chances you’re right about revenue synergies?
  • What percent of your customer base might go elsewhere following this corporate change?
  • Acquisition cost:
    • What is the target company worth on a stand-alone basis?
    • What would the business be worth if you achieved all synergies mapped out?
    • What would the business be worth if you discounted the synergies, based on the fact that few companies achieve all the synergies planned?

Faulty financial engineering

Many companies find themselves in hot water because they believe their own creative accounting too much. They let sophisticated financial legerdemain conceal the uneconomic nature or riskiness of their business. Managers often become addicted to this accounting, finding themselves stuck on the “treadmill of expectations” and give in to the temptation to commit outright fraud to keep it going, destroying the business in the process.

There are four primary risks to financial engineering strategies:

  1. encourage flawed financial products which are attractive to customers in the short-term but expose the seller to incommensurate risk of failure over time
  2. hopelessly optimistic levels of leverage
  3. aggressive and unsustainable financial reporting
  4. positive feedback loops which cause the system to implode

Double-check your financial engineering strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • Can the strategy withstand sunshine? (Would you be embarrassed if it was widely known and understood?)
  • Can the strategy withstand storms? (Is it fragile and susceptible to being tipped over by less-than-perfect conditions?)
  • Will that accounting generate positive cash flow or just make the profit-and-loss statement look better?
  • Does the strategy make any sense? (ex, does it make sense to offer long-term financing on short-term depreciating assets?)
  • When does it stop?

Deflated rollups

According to business research,

more than two-thirds of rollups fail to create any value for investors

The rollup strategy is initially attractive because

the concept makes sense, growth is unbelievable, and problems haven’t surfaced yet

But they rely a lot on positive momentum to succeed because

Rollups have to keep growing by leaps and bounds, or investors disappear, and the financing for the rollup goes with them

There are four major risks to a rollup strategy:

  1. rollups often wind up with diseconomies of scale
  2. they require an unsustainably fast rate of acquisition
  3. the acquiring company doesn’t allow for tough times in their calculations
  4. companies assume they’ll get the benefits of both decentralization and integration, when in reality they must choose between one or the other

Double-check your rollup strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • Will your information systems break down if you increase the size of your business by a large factor?
  • What other systems might break down at the new scale?
  • How much of senior management’s time is going to go to putting out fires, coordinating activities, etc.?
  • How much business will you lose in the short run as competitors use takeover confusion to try to poach business?
  • What regulations might change and how will they affect the business?
  • Will your cost of capital really decline? If so, how much? How do you know?
  • If you think your pricing power will increase, why?
  • What will you have to spend, both in time and money, to get the efficiencies you expect from a takeover?
  • Who has a vested interest in keeping you from achieving all the efficiencies you expect?
  • How much will prices of acquisitions rise over time, as your rollup intentions become clear?
  • If you’re financing with debt, just how big a hit to your business can you withstand? What if you take a hit to cash flow for a period of years? If you’re buying with stock, what do you do if your stock price falls by 50%?
  • How do you prevent people from cooking the books when the bad times come?
  • Have you discounted the gains you expect to get from integration?
  • How much loss of revenue are you assuming if you replace local managers and systems?
  • What is the end game? How big do you need to get?
  • How slowly can you go?
  • Do you have to be a national rollup, or would a regional one make sense? Can you at least start as a regional rollup and work out the kinks?

Staying the (misguided) course

Businesses often adhere to a failed strategy or a dying technology because they either can’t envision how they’d adapt or can’t admit that they’re on a failed business course.

The three main risks to staying the course are:

  1. tend to see the future as a variant of the present
  2. tend to consider whether to adopt a new technology or business practice based on how the economics compare with those of the existing business
  3. tend not to consider all their options

Double-check your core strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • Are you considering all your options?
  • Declining business model, based upon Michael Porter’s five forces:
    • does your industry have a favorable structure for decline, where, like steel, it will provide profits even as it declines? Or, is your industry like traditional photography, which would mostly disappear once digital took hold?
    • can you compete successfully for the remaining demand, like Kodak, with a great brand? Or do you not only lack a brand but also lack other assets, such as a low cost structure?

Misjudged adjacencies

Adjacent market expansion entails attempting to sell new products to existing customers, or existing products to new customers, by building on a core organizational strength to expand the business in a significant way.

But sometimes, businesses expand into markets that seem adjacent, but are not– just because your branded-sunglasses customers like your sunglasses brand, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily like it on their sportscar tires, or on their surfboards, because you imagine your market is “sport lifestyle.”

There are four fundamental risks to an adjacency strategy to be aware of:

  1. the move is driven more by a change in a company’s core business rather than by some great opportunity in the adjacent market
  2. lack of expertise in the adjacent market, causing misjudgment of acquisitions and mismanagement of the competitive challenges of the new market
  3. overestimation of the strengths of importance of core business capabilities in the new market
  4. overestimation of the hold on customers, creating expectations of cross-selling or up-selling that won’t materialize

Double-check your adjacencies strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • How do the sales channels differ in the new market?
  • How do the customers differ?
  • How do the products differ?
  • Are the regulatory environments differ?
  • Do you have at least a 30% advantage on costs before entering the new market?
  • What if the economy goes seriously south?
  • What if the sector you’re moving into goes into decline?
  • What if your expectations about opportunities for efficiency and revenue growth don’t happen?
  • How much do you have to be off in your estimates of cost savings or revenue increases for the adjacency strategy to be a bad idea?
  • What don’t you know about your new market?
  • What don’t you know about making acquisitions?
  • How many of your acquisitions will be lemons?
  • Will your customers really follow you into your new market?

Fumbling technology

Businesses often bet the farm on a technology that turns out to be nowhere close to as profitable and revolutionary as they initially expect it to. Often, market research is created which suffers from “confirmation bias”.

There are three important technological “laws” to be mindful of, which are often ignored, as well:

  1. Moore’s Law; computer processors double in power every eighteen to twenty-four months
  2. Metcalfe’s Law; the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users
  3. Reed’s Law; new members increase a network’s utility even faster in networks that allow arbitrary group formation

There are four major mistakes businesses make when evaluating a technological strategy:

  1. evaluate their offering in isolation, rather than in the context of how alternatives will evolve over time
  2. confuse market research with marketing
  3. false security in competition, believing the presence of rivals equates to a validation of the potential market
  4. design the effort to be a front-loaded gamble instead of developing it piece-by-piece

Double-check your technology strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • What will your competition look like by the time you get to market? What if you’re six months late? A year?
  • How does your performance trajectory compare with the competition’s?
  • Do your projections incorporate Moore’s Law, for both yourself and your competition?
  • Have you allowed for Metcalfe’s Law and what it says about the relative value of networks? Is Reed’s Law relevant?
  • Is the market real?
  • Do you have to do it all at once? Or can you try things a bit at a time and learn as you go along?

Consolidation blues

Consolidation seems to be a fact of maturing industries. As an industry matures, smaller companies go out of business or are acquired. Most business people figure they want to be the acquirer; in the process, they ignore the possibility that they might be more valuable as a target, or by sitting and doing nothing (neither consolidating, nor selling out).

There are four main issues that tend to muck up consolidation strategies:

  1. you don’t just buy assets as a consolidator, you buy problems
  2. there may be diseconomies of scale
  3. assumption that the customers of the acquired company will be held
  4. may not consider all options (being an acquisition target, doing nothing)

Double-check your consolidation strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • What systems might fail under the weight of increased size? How much would it cost to fix them? How long would it take? What revenue might be lost in the interim?
  • What relationships might be harmed?
  • What departments are too small, or are for some other reason not up to the task of handling the new size? Which people aren’t up to the task?
  • How much will be lost as people jockey for position in the new organization?
  • How much drag will develop as you try to find efficiencies by standardizing processes?
  • Who will resist change? How effective will they be?
  • What are all the reasons why customers might defect?
  • How does consolidation benefit the customers?
  • What percentage of customers do you think might leave? How much do you think you’ll have to pay to entice these customers to stick around?
  • What are some potential results if you sold out or did nothing, instead of consolidating?

Coda

In summary, the most common problems that result in business failure are:

  • Underestimating the complexity that comes with scale
  • Overstating the increased purchasing power or pricing power or other types of power that come from growing in size (beware of “critical mass” strategies)
  • Overestimating your hold on customers
  • Playing semantic games (any strategy that relies on a turn of phrase is open to challenge)
  • Not considering all the options
  • Overpaying for acquisitions

Avoiding these mistakes: the Devil’s Advocate

How can you avoid these mistakes?

Put in place a process for reviewing the quality of past decisions.

Watch out for cohesive teams who develop the traits of dehumanizing the enemy and thinking they’re incompetent; limiting the number of alternatives they will consider; show even more overconfidence than members would as individuals; create “mind guards” who stomp out dissent.

Probably most important, establish the institution of Devil’s Advocate. Either assign an in-house, permanent DA (who gains experience with each episode, but carries the risk of being labeled as the “naysayer” and ignored) or assign the role on a rotating basis with each new decision (preferable).

The Devil’s Advocate is a powerful tool for avoiding business failure because

More often than not, failure in innovation is rooted in not having asked an important question, rather than having arrived at an incorrect answer

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?

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 2

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

Differentiation is not a competitive advantage

The tired old story that many companies tell their investors (and many managers tell themselves) is that they can avoid the commoditization of their product through “differentiation”. Convince your customers that your limestone is not generic limestone but “Jeff’s Best limestone”, for instance, and they’re sure to pay a premium price!

The trouble with this strategy is not the gullibility of the consumer, but the mutual ability of the competitor to adopt it for himself.

The reality of the competitive market is that high profits attract competition and without real, sustainable barriers to entry, high profits will be eroded by market fragmentation and declining margins. Product differentiation may allow a firm to charge a “premium” for their product, but it will not protect their market share and as market share falls, the effects of fixed-costs on margins will rise.

Firms producing differentiated goods and services will still face the economics of commodity markets, namely, if they can not produce at a cost at or below the price established in the market, they will fail. This is because differentiated products require additional investments in advertising, marketing, sales and service, product distribution, etc., to make the differentiated claims credible, and these higher costs ultimately lower returns.

Barriers to entry = competitive advantages

As the authors note,

Systems can be replicated, talent hired away, managerial quality upgraded

The only way to obtain real, sustainable competitive advantages is through barriers to entry: obstacles and costs that competitors can not overcome or do not have the resources to cover. These barriers to entry apply only to incumbents, as entrant competitive advantages are essentially available to everyone and therefore are available to no one in the long run, being of limited and transitory value (once you establish yourself in a market, you’re now and incumbent and have lost your competitive advantage).

There are three basic, authentic types of competitive advantage:

  1. supply advantages
  2. demand advantages
  3. a combination of the two

The authors specifically note that,

Measured by potency and durability, production advantages are the weakest barrier to entry; economies of scale, when combined with some customer captivity, are the strongest.

Supply advantages

Supply advantages essentially translate to lower cost structures, which provides the firm with two benefits:

  1. higher profitability through wider margins
  2. ability to strategically lower prices to resist potential entrants or other competitors while maintaining profitability

These lower cost structures normally come from:

  1. lower input costs (special access to a supply that can’t be replicated by the competition at the same cost)
  2. economies of scale
  3. proprietary technology, normally protected by patents/intellectual property laws (any government grant of monopoly would similarly apply as it has the same effect)

Rapid technological change in supply methods can create entrant advantages as pre-existing incumbents find their out-dated technology confers a cost dis-advantage. Conversely, as the pace of technological change in an industry slows, any incumbent advantage due to technological advances can be eroded as rival firms acquire learned efficiencies of their own.

Many strategic analysts cite the role of “innovation” in imbuing certain firms with competitive advantages but these advantages are only sustainable if these innovations can’t be learned, “stolen” or otherwise acquired by competitors over time. In other words,

Innovations that are common to all confer competitive advantages on none.

Meanwhile, privileged access to raw materials is normally only useful in markets which are local in terms of geography or product space.

Demand advantages

Access to customers that rivals can not match translate to demand advantages. Customer captivity is a result of one of three dynamics:

  1. habit – typically applies to one product, not a firm’s portfolio of products, and is a result of frequent and automatic purchases
  2. switching costs – reinforced by network effects, ie, selecting a technology system that becomes common and popular economy-wide
  3. search costs – common when products or services are complex, customized and crucial
Demand side advantages are typically more durable. However, because they rely on the customer for their power they’re susceptible to customers moving, growing old (developing new preferences and needs) and dying. New customers entering the market are uncommitted and can potentially be captured by anyone.

The strongest possible demand advantage, then, would be one which generates an intergenerational transfer of habit.

Questions from the reading

  1. The authors state on pg. 31 that United’s advantageous geographical position at Chicago O’Hare can not be extended to other airports; is this true? Why or why not? Ultimately, what is the source for United’s supply advantage at Chicago O’Hare?
  2. Many of the supply advantages stem from government interference in the market through patent, copyright and other “intellectual property” laws. How might the strategic/competitive landscape change in a “free intellectual market”?