Review – Good To Great

Good To Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t

by Jim Collins, published 2001

The G2G Model

“Good To Great” seeks to answer the question, “Why do some good companies become great companies in terms of their market-beating stock performance, while competitors stagnate or decline?” After a deep dive into varied data sources with a team of tens of university researchers, Collins and his team arrived at an answer:

  1. Level 5 Leadership
  2. First Who… Then What
  3. Confront The Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)
  4. The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity Within The Three Circles)
  5. A Culture Of Discipline
  6. Technology Accelerators

The first two items capture the importance of “disciplined people”, the second two items refer to “disciplined thought” and the final pair embodies “disciplined action”. The concepts are further categorized, with the first three components representing the “build up”, the ducks that must be gotten into a row before the second category holding the last three components, “breakthrough”, can take place. The entire package is wrapped up in the physical metaphor of the “flywheel”, something an organization pushes on and pushes on until suddenly it rolls forward and gains momentum on its own.

This book found its way onto my radar several times so I finally decided to read it. I’d heard it mentioned as a good business book in many places but first took the idea of reading it seriously when I saw Geoff Gannon mention it as part of an essential “Value Investing 101” reading list. I didn’t actually follow through on the initial impulse until I took a “leadership science” course recently in which this book was emphasized as worth covering.

I found G2G to be almost exactly what I expected– a rather breathless, New Age-y, pseudo-philosophical and kinda-scientific handbook to basic principles of organizational management and business success.  The recommendations contained within range from the seemingly reasonable to the somewhat suspect and the author and his research team take great pains to make the case that they have built their findings on an empirical foundation but I found the “We had no theories or preconceived notions, we just looked at what the numbers said” reasoning scary. This is actually the opposite of science, you’re supposed to have some theories and then look at whether the data confirms or denies them. Data by itself can’t tell you anything and deriving theory from data patterns is the essence of fallacious pattern-fitting.

Those caveats out of the way, the book is still hard to argue with. Why would an egotistical maniac for a leader be a good thing in anything but a tyrannical political regime, for example? How would having “the wrong people on the bus” be a benefit to an organization? What would be the value in having an undisciplined culture of people who refuse to see reality for what it is?

What I found most interesting about the book is the way in which all the principles laid out essentially tend to work toward the common goal of creating a controlled decision-making structure for a business organization to protect it from the undue influence of big egos and wandering identities alike. In other words, the principles primarily address the psychological risks of business organizations connected to cult-like dependency on great leaders, tendency toward self-delusional thinking and the urge to try everything or take the easy way out rather than focus on obvious strengths. This approach has many corollaries to the value investing framework of Benjamin Graham who ultimately saw investor psychology as the biggest obstacle to investor performance.

I don’t have the time or interest to confirm this hypothesis but I did wonder how many of the market-beating performances cataloged were due primarily to financial leverage used by the organization in question, above and beyond the positive effects of their organizational structure.

A science is possible in all realms of human inquiry into the state of nature. Man and his business organizations are a part of nature and thus they fall under the rubric of potential scientific inquiry. I don’t think we’re there yet with most of what passes for business “research” and management or organizational science, but here and there the truth peeks out. “Good To Great” probably offers some clues but it’s hard to know precisely what is the wheat and what is the chaff here. Clearly if you inverted all of the recommendations of the book and tried to operate a business that way you’d meet your demise rather quickly, but that is not the same thing as saying that the recommendations as stated will lead in the other direction to greatness, or that they necessarily explain the above-average market return of these public companies.

I took a lot of notes in the margin and highlighted things that “sounded good” to me but on revisiting them I am not sure how many are as truly useful as they first seemed when I read them. I think the biggest takeaway I had from the book was the importance of questioning everything, not only as a philosophical notion but also as a practical business tool for identifying problems AND solutions.

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Review – Losing My Virginity

Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way

by Richard Branson, published 2011

Spoiler alert– this book is choppy and inconsistent in the pacing and entertainment factor of its narrative. You really need to read between the lines a bit to get the most value out of it. That being said, it’s surprisingly literary for a dyslexic former publisher of a student magazine and I found Branson’s repeated reference to his high-altitude balloon voyage trials to be an outstanding metaphor for his life as a businessman and entrepreneur.

You see, in Branson’s ballon journeys, the key factors of any consistency were that: a.) Branson was knowingly and openly taking what he perceived to be a potentially life-threatening risk b.) Branson was almost always underprepared for it, or decided to go ahead with his attempt despite early warnings that something was amiss and c.) nonetheless, he somehow managed to survive one disaster after another, only to try something bigger and bolder the next time around.

And this is quite similar to the way he comported himself as an entrepreneur on so many occasions. Again and again, he’d make a daring foray into a business, market or industry he didn’t quite understand, the company would stumble after an early success leaving them all on the brink of failure and yet, each time they’d double down and somehow win.

In that sense, Branson is a perfect example of survivorship bias. On the other hand, having so many narrow misses that turn into massive accelerators of a person’s fortune start to make you wonder if isn’t mostly luck but rather mostly skill.

As an entrepreneurial profile, “Losing My Virginity” is full of all kinds of great successes and astounding failures. With regards to the failures, something I found of particular interest was the fact that Branson’s company were victims of some of the most common pitfalls of other businesses throughout its early history: taken for a ride by indomitable Japanese owners/partnerships in the 80s, repeated victim of the LBO-boom and the private/public buyout-cycle in the 80s and 90s. When you read these stories in the financial press it always seems to happen to the rubes of the business world, but Branson’s foibles help one to realize even rather sophisticated types can get taken in now and then.

The volatility in Branson’s fortunes do leave one with a major question though, namely, why did Branson’s company ultimately survive?

This isn’t a Harvard Business School case study so I don’t mean to pass this off as a qualified, intelligent answer to that question, but I will attempt a few observations and, in typical HBS fashion, some or all of them may be contradictory of one another and none will be provided with the precise proportional contribution they made to the end result:

  • the group had a cultural commitment to change and dynamism; they were not so much their businesses, but a culture and group of people who did business a particular way, a true brand-over-merchandise, which allowed them to reinvent themselves numerous times
  • the group strategically focused on being the low-cost provider in their industry, usually while simultaneously attempting to pursue the seemingly mutually exclusive goal as being seen as the highest quality offering as well
  • the group focused on serving customers but equally saw treating its employees with concern as an important value
  • the group consciously created a brand that could be applied to diverse businesses (see point #1)
  • the group pursued businesses that seemed “interesting” or sensually appealing to it, which ensured that everyone involved was motivated to do well because they liked the work they had chosen

Another thing I noticed about Branson and the development of his company was the attention he paid to the composition of management and owners and his dedication to weeding out those who were not good fits in a charitable way. Channeling the “best owner” principle, Branson made a conscious effort to buy out early partners whose vision and tastes did not match the current or future vision of the group. In this way, the company maintained top-level focus and concentration on a shared strategic vision at all times, sparing itself the expense and distraction of infighting and wrangling over where to go next and why.

Another aspect of the company’s resilience had to do with its operational structure. Branson built a decentralized company whose debts and obligations were kept separate. In an environment where new ventures were constantly subject to total failure, this arrangement ensured that no one business failure would bring the entire group down.

The final lessons of the Branson bio were most instructive and had to do with the nature and value of forecasting.

The first lesson in forecasting has to do with the forecasts others make of us, or the world around us. For example, Richard Branson had no formal business training, he grew up with learning disabilities (dyslexia) and he was told very early on in his life by teachers and other adult and authority figures in his life that he’d amount to nothing and his juvenile delinquency would land him in prison. Somehow this worthless person contributed a great deal to society, through business and charity, and by most reasonable measures could be considered a success, making this forecast a failure. If one had taken a snapshot of the great Warren Buffett at a particular time in his adolescence, when the young boy was known to often take a “five-finger discount” from local department stores, it might have been easy to come up with a similar forecast about him.

I’m not sure how to succinctly sum up the concept there other than to say, “Things change.” Most forecasts that involve extrapolating the current trend unendingly out into the future will probably fail for this reason.

The second lesson in forecasting has to do with how we might attempt to forecast and plan our own lives. When we have 50, 60, 70 or more years of a person’s life to reflect on, it is easy to employ the hindsight bias and see how all the facts of a person’s life were connected and led them inexorably to the success (or infamy) they ultimately achieved. And certainly there are some people, again using Buffett as an example, who from an early age were driven to become a certain something or someone and so their ability to “predict their future selves” seemed quite strong.

But the reality is that for the great many of us, the well-known and the common alike, we really don’t have much of a clue of who we are and what we’ll ultimately become. The future is uncertain and, after all, that’s the great puzzle of life that we all spend our lives trying to unravel. Richard Branson was no different. He was not born a billionaire, in a financial, intellectual, personal or other sense. He had to learn how to be a businessman and how to create a billion dollar organization from scratch. Most of the time, he didn’t even know he was doing it. In other words, HE DID NOT KNOW AHEAD OF TIME that he would become fabulously wealthy, and while he was hard-working and driven, it doesn’t even appear he purposefully intended to become so.

Maybe we should all take a page from Branson’s book and spend less time trying to figure out what’s going to happen and more time just… happening. We could sit around all day trying to figure life out, or we could follow the Branson philosophy where he says, “As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.”

Review – Free Capital

Free Capital: How 12 Private Investors Made Millions In The Stock Market

by Guy Thomas, published 2011

A methodical review of investors and their strategies

The greatest strength of “Free Capital” is its organization and layout– it’s truly like visiting an expertly-designed website in that the author has organized his investor interviews by four major descriptive categories:

  • geographers; top-down investors who begin with a macro thesis then look for companies and financial instruments which will benefit from that trend
  • surveyors; bottoms-up investors who start looking at individual companies and then sometimes check to see what kind of macro conditions might affect them
  • activists; investors who tend to get personally involved with their investments, taking large stakes and developing a close relationship with management
  • eclectics; people who don’t really fit any mold, but might be day-traders, value investors, sometimes activists, etc.

Within each categorical section are profiles of 12 (in total) investors that Guy Thomas spoke with, many of whom are anonymous, most of whom he came into contact with via investor message boards he participates on, and all of whom are UK-based and have managed to grow their capital into millions even over the last decade or less.

Though many were once employed by others and some came from financial backgrounds, all are now independent, full-time investors who live off of their investment returns and it is this kind of self-directed lifestyle and the resources which are needed to finance it that primarily lend themselves to the book’s title.

What’s really great is that in each chapter, Guy Thomas begins with a quick “tearsheet” profile of the investor’s strategy, key phrases, holding period, etc., then neatly organizes the interview material into background on the investor’s life and development as a financial person, outlines their strategy, experiences and any particularly demonstrative coups or failures they’ve enjoyed (or suffered) and finally and extremely helpfully, summarizes all the material again in a table at the end with the major themes or ideas explored for quick reference.

As if this weren’t enough, Guy Thomas has written a lengthy (and for once, interesting) introduction to the book that serves as a combination summary of the main themes of the book as well as a how-to manual for those looking to get the most out of their reading. Thomas is correct in suggesting that the book can be read all the way through as a complete work, or explored at random based on what, if anything, sounds interesting to the reader.

It’s touches like this that show a thoughtfulness on the part of the author that leave the reader painfully aware of their absence in comparison to many other books in the genre. Frankly, it’d be nice if authors and publishers took Thomas’s lead on this point!

My favorite part: inspiration

I was excited to dig into the book in part because a friend had mentioned it to me and had commented favorably on it. He said a lot of the material covered wouldn’t be original but that I might find it inspirational to read other people’s stories of how they got where they are.

Maybe it’s where I am in my life right now, maybe it’s the subtle suggestion my friend made planted in my mind, or maybe it’s the shining spot for the book but the inspiration was one of the most important things I took away from the book. Some of the profiles were admittedly unhelpful (such as the day-trader, an investment style I can’t see any point in) or just not interesting to me (a few of the investors followed research processes I don’t have the time or motivation to emulate), but there were a couple I identified with, which made me feel empowered and hopeful about myself as I read them.

I particularly liked the two named investors, John Lee (who is a dividend-oriented value investor of sorts) and Peter Gyllenhammar (who bankrupted himself twice before hitting his stride and amassing his current fortune). I believe all of the investors lives and experiences illustrated this point well, but these two in particular were examples of the phrase “Patience is a virtue.” If a man can dust himself off after two bankruptcies and still make something of himself he can probably do just about anything given the time and the patience. Seeing as how I haven’t suffered personal bankruptcy (yet) I felt greatly advantaged to learn from this example of perseverance and triumph over failure.

Wise aphorisms

Another theme oft explored in “Free Capital” is the role simplicity plays in good investing. To that effect, I found a lot of great investing ideas captured in brief, simple aphorisms that made them both easily digestible and sufficiently memorable to make use of them myself in my own deliberations. Some examples include:

  • Good investing “requires only a few good decisions” (a helpful reminder given the way many seem to imply that a true investor is marked by the numerousness and hyperactivity of his ideas)
  • An activist is an investor who goes looking for trouble
  • “Quiet freedom is itself exotic” (in this way, independent investors lead quite adventuresome and even exciting lives!)
  • Exposure to some chances can only arise through deliberate and possibly unpopular and eccentric choices
  • Investment skill consists in not knowing everything, but in judicious neglect: making wise choices about what to overlook
  • Freedom is like income that cannot be taxed
  • To make good decisions, you need to look actively for reasons not to buy a company. And then invest only in those where you can live with the reasons
  • Time is a limited resource with strongly diminishing returns. The first hour you spend researching a company is much more important than the tenth hour
  • If an investment decision requires detailed calculations, you should pass, because it’s probably too close
  • The sun shines even on the poor man

Also of note is the author’s book-companion blog, which goes into a bit more detail on some of the investment themes captured in the book and which I’ve found to be a good supplement to the reading seeing that I was still interested to learn more even after I put it down.

Conclusion

“Free Capital” is a unique offering. It has a styling and organization that many books in its genre lack and I hope this effort is continued in any future titles from the author. And it treads original ground in profiling anonymous, “everyman” successful investors that no one has heard of yet who have interesting stories, experiences and lessons to share all their own. We can all learn from more than just Warren Buffett, after all.

It’s not without its flaws, of course. As the author himself states, the book doesn’t cover losing investors, people who took some of the risks investors profiled took, and failed, or who took other risks that didn’t turn out right, and then explores what lessons can be learned from their shortcomings. This probably could be a worthwhile book in itself, as there is a growing literature on “failure studies” and as the first lesson every investor must learn is “don’t lose what you’ve got”, learning of common mistakes to avoid could be helpful. Additionally, as an avid deep value (Benjamin Graham) guy myself, I could’ve done without the day trader and some of the other guys who seem like GARPy, momentum-based swing traders with short time horizons and questionable “value” metrics.

But those are minor quibbles and things that Guy Thomas could easily rectify by simply writing us more great books to read! Overall, “Free Capital” was entertaining, at times enlightening and best of all, extremely gracious with my free time as I read the entire thing in just three or four hours. Given the focus on the value of time in the book, I appreciated the fact that I could digest the meat of the book and walk away with some great insights to help my own investing… and still have time left in the day to get other things done!

Recession Risk, The Ultimate Risk Paradigm Of Modern Business Operations

The business cycle rotates periodically between boom and bust. This is one of the inevitable consequences of centrally planning the economy’s interest rates and forcing them below their market equilibrium levels. Because it is inevitable, it is “predictable” and thus every business person must conduct their affairs in light of the fact that at some point in the future they will be faced with a recession. The key measure of risk for a business person operating in a central bank-managed economy, then, is “How will I feel when the recession comes?”

If a recession poses no risk to the financial structure of his holdings and he is positioned in his operations to weather a storm, he may be termed “low risk.” If instead a recession represents an existential threat and/or the potential for severe hardship for his operations, he may be termed “high risk.”

As an ideal, a sufficiently low risk operator should eagerly anticipate a recession as it will represent a cheap buying opportunity during which he will consolidate the failing enterprises of his competitors, scooping up their assets at bargain prices and thereby leap ahead of them without the use of leverage or cheap competitive tactics. Conversely, a sufficiently high risk operator will find the economic Sword of Damocles plunging through his neck in a recession, permanently severing the connection between himself and his former assets. How then to manage financial and operational risk so that continued growth can occur in a manner that is sustainable in all possible economic environments?

In terms of financial risk, we could sort our assets in two ways, by asset quality and by financing quality. The asset with the highest asset quality is the one which has the largest earnings yield relative to its current value. The asset with the highest financing quality is the one which is cheapest to own (ie, annual interest cost).

Practically speaking, sorting assets by asset quality and financing quality and then selling low quality assets and paying down outstanding debt would move an organization toward a more favorable balance between asset quality and finance quality, with an emphasis on equity in the balance sheet. The capital that is freed up in the process is now available to purchase a higher quality asset in the future.

In a recession, the cash flows from low quality assets dwindle while the finance charges on debt remain fixed; not only does such a mixture create a problem in a recession but it falsifies the true “free cash” position of the company in a boom because, to operate prudently, extra cash must be maintained on the balance sheet to offset the risk this low quality asset and debt represent should a recession appear.

The insistence on focusing on the management of financial risk first offers us clues as to a sound growth strategy overall. To be successful and sustainable through all potential economic conditions, growth must be purposeful and planned and should only occur when three conditions are met: there is abundant free cash on the balance sheet, the organization has people “on the bench” and ready for new opportunities and a good buying opportunity (represented by a fair or discount to fair value price) presents itself.

A debt-laden balance sheet is not cash rich because the cash which may be present is actually encumbered by the debt as an offset in a recessionary environment. When we are talking about a cash rich balance sheet, we’re by implication talking about an unlevered balance sheet. Otherwise, the cash is not “free” but rather is “phantom” cash– it will disappear the moment adverse economic conditions present themselves.

The organizational bench condition may be harder to evaluate objectively, but there is a decent rule of thumb. When people in each position in the organization are sufficiently organized to handle their own responsibilities with time to spare, there is organizational bandwidth to spend on promotions and new responsibilities, such as management of newly acquired assets. In contrast, when people in relatively higher positions within the organizational hierarchy are spending their time doing the work of people relatively lower in the organizational hierarchy, it indicates that there is a shortage of quality personnel to fill all positions and that those personnel available are necessarily being “mismanaged” with regards to how they are spending their time as a result.

Further, it implies the risk that growth in such a state might further dilute and weaken the culture and management control of both legacy assets and those newly acquired. This is a risky situation in which every incremental growth opportunity ends up weakening the organization as a whole and creating hardships to come in the next recession. If it’s hard to find good people, inside the organization or without, and there is a general attitude of complacency about what could go wrong in a recession, it is a strong indicator that underperforming assets should be sold and the balance sheet delevered to reduce organizational risk in the event of a recession.

Growth should be fun, exciting and profitable. If it’s creating headaches operationally, or nightmares financially, it should be avoided. You shouldn’t own or acquire assets you don’t love owning. Perhaps the best rule of thumb overall is to ask oneself, “Does owning this asset bring us joy?” If yes, look for opportunities to buy more. If no, sell, sell, sell!

Ultimately, there are three ways to get rich: randomly, with dumb luck and unpredictable market euphoria for the product or service offered (billion-dollar tech startups); quickly, with a lot of leverage, a lot of luck in terms of market cycles and a lot of risk that you could lose it all with poor timing (private equity roll-up); and slowly, with a lot of cash, a lot of patience and a lot less risk while taking advantage of the misery of others during inevitable downward cycles in the economy.

If you were fearful in the last economic cycle, it suggests your financial and organizational structures were not as conservative as you might have believed. It may be an ideal, but it’s one worth reaching for: a recession represents a golden buying opportunity for a cash rich organization to leap ahead of the competition and continue its story of sustainable growth and success.

Notes – Success & Happiness with Vance Caeser

From a talk given by Vance Caeser
  • “To create abundance in life, you must give more than you expect to receive”
  • “How Will You Measure Your Life?” book by Clayton Christiansen
  • Your only job is to make your boss happy without losing your integrity; you are your own boss
  • High achiever definitions
    • relative position in peer group versus peers
    • quantitative measures
    • typically, top 3% of any group
    • but you can be your own judge of high achievement
  • Synonyms for success:
    • peace
    • freedom
    • helping others
    • for some it is a #
    • it’s always inside of a person; individual, diverse answers for each person
  • Leadership is based on emotional intelligence, which is built on self-awareness
  • Families based on gratitude (thankfulness, acknowledging successes, etc.) help children to grow up w/ a mindset of exploring internal happiness
  • Emotions create the drugs in our bodies; belief systems strongly conditions the kind of emotions we have, therefore beliefs lead to the drugs that are in our bodies
  • On an annual basis, review “What are the beliefs we’ve operated on in this past year?”
  • Purpose creates abundance
  • Purpose, beliefs, who we associate with, are the three keys to development of our lives and happiness
  • When life decisions aren’t working, that is the time to sit down, listen to yourself, take inventory of your beliefs, examine which ones are creating anxiety for you
  • “Some day I’m going to be happy when…” means you’ve given up on being happy today
  • “I get to do this today” vs. “I have to do this this today”, demonstrates responsibility versus victimhood mentality
  • Viktor Frankl, use your vision, see success, let it guide you through the daily clutter which will seemingly take care of itself as you focus on envisioning your success
  • Balanced life involves managing energy, not time (see HBR article)
  • Brands: distinctive, relevant, consistent
  • Relationship-building, not networking; connection, not contacts
    • knowing a name
    • knowing their story
    • earning their trust so they want to be around you, too
  • It’s really important to know what your story is, what your values are, what your role in the world is; develop your signature story, can deliver it in 10 seconds or talk about it for 2-3 hours
  • Sharing stories and looking for overlap builds trust with others
  • You can’t trust what a person does, only who they are
  • Leaders are distinguished by the fact that they have followers; leaders are followed for:
    • technical skills
    • authority, title
    • respect, reverent power
  • Cheryl Sandberg, lean-in circles, Nat Geo “blue zone” longevity studies, people with long lives join authentic communities and give to them
  • How do you deal with “poison”?
    • fear and love are our basic emotions
    • hire for character 1st, energy 2nd, competency 3rd
    • you are the CEO of your life, stay away from people committed to living in fear
    • you “hire” your boss, your friends, etc., you can pick different ones
  • It’s important to feel like you’re in charge, cultivate a free agent mentality
  • Nordstrom once encouraged its managers to seek an outside position and get a job offer once a year to give themselves options and work in that free agent spirit
  • It’s important to learn how you learn, and then only work and learn in that way
  • Great leaders are always great educators, they focus on listening to people to use their own brilliance to help them grow faster
  • You have all the answers already, the answer isn’t out there, it’s inside of you
  • Be clear on why you’re here, know why first, then how, then what
  • Have clarity about your vision so you know what you need to do to get there; you vision will serve you if it’s inspiring
  • Live a conscious life, be aware of what you do, use your heart as a scorecard, listen to your feelings
  • Do what you love, with people you love ~Steve Jobs
  • You choose your consequences, choose wisely; Stoic philosophy
  • Toltec, 4 beliefs:
    • Be impeccable with your word
    • Don’t take anything personally
    • Don’t make assumptions
    • Do your best, learn from your efforts
  • Simon Sinek, TED talks
  • Human connection is invaluable
  • Don’t bet the farm on your vision, you can have multiple visions and you can update them over time; life is the journey of moving from vision to vision, you can always have more
  • Impediments to integrating these lessons:
    • fear
    • ego-centrism
    • relying on others for answers
  • Purpose can be updated, continual growth of self, embracing one’s flaws along the way
  • For kids
    • get really clear about the life you want to live
    • talk about values
    • talk about roles you want to play
    • structure your life around these things
    • make decisions based on these criteria
  • Discover your purpose, we all have one but we have to find it
  • The questions I ask myself define my life by virtue of the answers I give
  • Examine periodically the questions you spend your time thinking about and make sure they’re the right questions to be asking