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.

Review – What Makes Sammy Run?

What Makes Sammy Run?

by Budd Schulberg, published 1941

What Makes Sammy Run? (WMSR) is a work of fiction and judging by the title, you’d think the book is about Sammy Glick, the eponymous antagonist. Certainly that is what many reviewers, readers and critics seem to focus on. But WMSR isn’t about Sammy– it’s about the people around him, who tolerate and even tacitly support him, who enable his antics in various ways and thereby lower themselves in the process. WMSR isn’t a study in lite social tyranny, as some think, but rather it is a study in the Stockholm Syndrome. The real villain in this novel is the narrator, the despicable Al Manheim.

It’s easy to be fooled. Sammy isn’t a “nice person” and he clearly isn’t a “happy person.” He’s a wildly imbalanced person with a humongous ambition and not much else of note. He isn’t necessarily handsome or well-spoken. He isn’t an intellectual. He certainly doesn’t have any charm, or empathy for others. It’s easy to dislike him and it’s easy to watch him tread over other people on his way up and make the mistake of thinking he’s the bad guy.

But the question we must always ask ourselves in a tale of moral depravity is, “Where’s the hero, and what is he up to?” Who is keeping this guy in check? Who is going to stop him. In WMSR, the answer is “There isn’t one.” So the people who bear the responsibility for Sammy’s reign are all those who could be the hero and stop him, but don’t, or worse, those who claim to find him distasteful but end up worshipping him.

The best example of worshipping the supposed bad guy in the book is the way Al Manheim falls in love with Kit, a woman who admits to a one-time sexual relationship with Sammy Glick because of her burning curiosity to know what it’d be like to have all of his ambition and energy inside of her. She’s supposed to be the strong, principled and competent femme of the novel yet she couldn’t resist her own base sexual craving for a man she knew was no good. And rather than keep her at arm’s distance, Manheim becomes a soppy wet romantic for her. This is what you call “selling out.”

Sammy’s rise to the top in Hollywood despite having no talent, no money, no experience and no real value to anyone for anything is supposed to serve as a condemnation of the industry and maybe tangentially of the voluntary, for-profit capitalist economy itself. We’re supposed to read WMSR and look around us at all the entitled pricks like him who are our bosses, our owners or are actively in the process of clawing their way to such heights and smirk or despise them. “You’re just another Sammy Glick!” But why then do people secretly admire and envy them and their achievement-less achievement?

The answer is that the Al Manheim’s of the world have no self-esteem. They don’t love themselves enough to say “This is wrong!” on the many occasions they have to say such things. They don’t admire themselves enough to ignore the nuisance Sammy’s, to resist their endless persistence, to insist in return that they go ply their filth somewhere, anywhere but here. Instead, they open the city gates, invite them in and grab them a footstool so they can be comfortable as they bark out their orders. Then, like Al, they drink or smoke or ingest their minds into oblivion when the pressure of thinking about what they’ve done gets too great.

In other words, they’re weak.

Sometimes, they’re so weak, like Al Manheim, that they become accomplices to the madness. Like Nick Carraway, they’re happy to stand silently on the sidelines and observe and oogle as long as they can have the feeling that they’re in on the big adventure, as horrible as they think it may be.

And like Jay Gatsby, the Sammy Glick’s all have a pitiable background. They come from a world without love and so they can’t imagine a world with it. They’re not human, choosing, conscious entities. That experience of life was stripped from them at birth when they entered their perceived loveless world. All they can do is march to their idiot tune and destroy a bit of the world along the way to their doom.

Only they wouldn’t get very far, if it weren’t for the Al Manheims and the Nick Carraways.

The answer to the question What Makes Sammy Run? is less interesting than you hope. It’s so simple, it’s almost stupid– he has no love. It’s also somewhat pathetic because it can’t be helped. Sammy is damaged goods and no amount of therapy or intervention can get him back. The great irony of the novel, of any Sammy Glick, is that someone, somewhere served as the Great Enabler by bringing them into the world and nurturing them long enough to develop their skewed sense of possibility. From there, they’re working on auto-pilot.

A far more interesting question is What Makes Al Go Along With It?, especially when He Says He Hates Him.

Or, something I was thinking about last week, What Makes Davey Crawl? “Davey” is a small business owner, responsible for a few dozen people, who has managed to slowly run into the ground over a period of decades what could be a valuable little enterprise. There are the Sammy’s out there, deterministically trying to skitter to the top without adding anything of value, and then there are the Davey’s just trying to hold on and desperately, desperately disinterested in doing any better.

Why? Why is Davey happy without his ambition (is he happy?) when Sammy is miserable (to himself and others) with his? Sammy wants to wrap his whole mouth around the hose so there isn’t any for anyone else, but Davey just doesn’t want to turn it on all the way when there could be plenty more.

The answer is probably similarly simple, stupid and hopeless to fix. We may just have to suffer these Sammys, these Daveys and these Als as best we can.

Review – The Art of Execution

The Art of Execution: How the world’s best investors get it wrong and still make millions

by Lee Freeman-Shor, published 2015

Note: I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for sharing my thoughts AFTER reading it.

Professor Failure

What can we learn from failure? Aside from the fact that there’s an entire industry of business literature fetishizing the idea that it has much to teach us (as a kind of doppelgänger to the decades of success literature that took a person or business’s success as given and tried to look backward for an unmistakeable pattern that could’ve predicted it) I’m personally skeptical of what failure might teach. Life is complex and there is often little to separate the failure and the success but timing and luck in certain endeavors.

So, I approached Freeman-Shors book with some trepidation as the subtitle of the book suggests this is a study of failure. Au contraire, what we have here is actually a psychological or behavioral study, somewhat in the vein of Benjamin “you are your own worst enemy in investing” Graham, which studies not failure per se, but rather how investors respond differently to failure and thereby either seal their fate or redeem themselves.

A Behavioral Typology

The book recounts the investment results of several different groups of portfolio managers who were categorized, ex post facto, into various groups based upon how they reacted to adverse market conditions for stocks they invested in. The Rabbits rode most of their failed investments down to near-zero before bailing out and taking the loss. The Assassins had a prescribed set of rules for terminating a losing position (either a % stop-loss, or a maximum time duration spent in the investment such as a year or a quarter). The Hunters kept powder dry and determined ahead of time to buy more shares on a pullback (ie, planned dollar-cost averaging).

While I am suspicious of backward-looking rule fitting, I do think the author’s logic makes sense. What it boils down to is having a plan ahead of time for how you’d react to failure. The Rabbits biggest mistake is they had none whatsoever, while the Assassins managed to protect themselves from total drawdowns but perhaps missed opportunities to profit on volatility rebounds. The author seems most impressed with the Hunters, who habitually started at a less than 100% commitment of funds to a planned position and then added to their investment at lower prices when the market gave them an opportunity to do so.

Freeman-Shor’s point is that when the price falls on your investment you need to decide that something material has changed in the story or facts and you sell, or else you need to be ready to buy more (because if it was a good buy at $10, it’s a great buy at $5, etc.) but you can not just hang tight. That isn’t an investment strategy. This is why I put this book in the Benjamin Graham fold, the message is all about being rational ahead of time about how you’d react to the volatility of the market which is for all intents and purposes a given of the investing landscape.

Learning From Success, Too

The author goes over a couple other behavioral typologies, Raiders and Connoisseurs. I won’t spoil the whole book, it suffices to say that this section is worth studying as well because it can be just as nerve-wracking to try to figure out whether to take some profit or let a winner ride when you have one. Freeman-Shor gives some more thoughts based on his empirical observations of other money managers who have worked for him on when it’s best to do one or the other.

More helpfully, he summarizes the book with a winner’s and loser’s checklist.

The Winner’s Checklist includes:

  1. Best ideas only
  2. Position size matters
  3. Be greedy when winning
  4. Materially adapt when losing
  5. Only invest in liquid stocks

The last bit is probably most vital for a fund manager with redeemable capital.

The Loser’s Checklist includes:

  1. Invest in lots of ideas
  2. Invest a small amount in each idea
  3. Take small profits
  4. Stay in an investment idea and refuse to adapt when wrong
  5. Do not consider liquidity

Free e-Book With Purchase!

It is hard for me to decide in my own mind if this book is a 3.5 or a 4 on a 5-point scale. I think of a 5 as a classic, to be read over and over again, gleaning something new each time. This would be a book like Security Analysis or The Intelligent Investor. A 4 is a good book with a lot of value and a high likelihood of being referenced in the future, but not something I expect to get a new appreciation for each and every time I read it. A 3 is a book that may have been enjoyable overall and provided some new ideas but was overall not as interesting or recommendable.

While I enjoyed this book and did gain some insight from it, and I think the editorial choices in the book were bold, it’s closer to a 3 in my mind than a 4 just in terms of the writing and the ideas. I’ve found a lot of the content in other venues and might’ve rated it higher on my epiphany scale if this was one of the first investment books I ever read. But something that really blew me away is that the publisher, Harriman House, seems to have figured out that people who buy paper books definitely appreciate having an e-Book copy for various reasons and decided to include a copy for free download (DRM-free!!) in the jacket of the book. This is huge. I read my copy on a recent cross-country flight and was really agonizing about which books from my reading stack wouldn’t make the trip for carry-on space reasons and then realized I could take this one with me on my iPad and preserve the space for something else. So in terms of value, this book is a 4.

 

This Just Blew My Mind: The Moneyball Secret & Warren Buffett

I read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball a few months ago after having seen the film. I would’ve preferred to do it in the other order (if I had ended up seeing the film at all) but I hadn’t gotten to the book yet on my reading list and an opportunity to see the movie presented itself that I decided not to turn down.

As I understood the story, the basic premise was the principles of Grahamite value investing in baseball– buy cheap things rather quality things and wait for reversion to the mean to kick in. These cheap things may not be worth much, but you can buy them at such a discount it doesn’t matter as they’d have to be truly worthless for you to have made a mistake in the aggregate.

Specifically, Billy Bean, the GM of the Oakland Athletics at the time, was recruiting players with no star power and no salary-negotiation power that could fill his roster with an above-average on base percentage. In contrast, all the big teams with the big budgets were buying the massive stars who were known for their RBIs and home run percentages. Billy Bean’s motto was “don’t make mistakes”, like a value investor who looks for a margin of safety. The other big teams with their massive budgets were operating with the motto “Aim for the stands, hit it out of the park”, like the huge mutual funds with their marketing machines and their reliance on investor expectations to add super fuel to the market.

That’s the story I thought I read, anyway, and it made a lot of sense. Inspiring stuff for a little value investor guy like me.

Today, I sat in a marketing presentation from a vendor who used Moneyball as a metaphor and he threw an image up on the projector during his slide show of the Oakland A’s stadium. It is a shared stadium meaning it is not dedicated to the A’s but also serves as the Oakland Raiders football team home field. As a result, the baseball diamond has a lot of extra foul zone on the first and home base lines, which you might be able to see if you get real close to your monitor and squint.

 

I had never seen the A’s stadium before. I had no idea it had extra large foul zones. I didn’t realize that in a 160-odd game series the As would play around half, or nearly 80 games, at a stadium that had extra large foul zones.

I had no idea that a lot of players who had high on-base percentages got there because they hit balls that would normally end up in the stands at most other stadiums, but at the A’s home field it’d end up in the extra large foul zone. I had no idea that this meant those kinds of players would be extra valuable only on the Oakland A’s baseball team. I didn’t realize, as the demonstrator told us, Billy Bean was building a “pitching team”, not just a cheap on-base team (whatever that means).

This blew my mind. Maybe I just missed this in the book, and the movie. I am not a sports fan so maybe Lewis mentioned it and it wasn’t a detail that stuck out to me (which is actually another important lesson from all of this, but I digress…). Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe Lewis, the consummate story-teller, focused on the point he wanted to make from the story even though the reality, while related, was really determined by something else– the extra large foul zone at the Oakland A’s home stadium.

It reminded me of one of those situations with Warren Buffett. The first time you read Buffett’s biography and learn about his investments, you get the hokey “Just buy good businesses at fair prices!” schtick and you think, “Hey, that sounds simple, makes sense, that’s all there is to it!” Then you learn a few years later that what he was ACTUALLY doing was gaming the tax system, or creating synthetic leverage for himself, or whatever. You find the REAL angle, and it’s a bit more sophisticated and a bit harder for the average Joe to replicate by following the “invert, always invert” mantra of Charlie Munger.

What I took away from this is that people tell the stories they want to tell and you should never, ever take something at face value that involves a story of a person becoming wildly successful, wealthy, etc., just by figuring out some seemingly obvious, simple trick like buying cheap baseball stats.

There’s always an angle, like, he was buying cheap baseball stats that worked especially well in his home stadium.

That’s still genius, no doubt, but there’s less there that anyone operating outside that specific context can learn from it.

 

Review – How To Get Rich

How To Get Rich: The Distilled Wisdom of One of Britain’s Wealthiest Self-Made Entrepreneurs

by Felix Dennis, published 2009

This will likely be one of the shortest reviews on record here. One reason is because I don’t want to spoil too much of this book for anyone else who might be interested in it; I do think it has to be fully read by oneself for it’s message to be understood.

Another reason is that I am not rich myself, so I don’t know how valuable my critical impressions of Dennis’s logic and experience will be and I don’t have any real opportunity to run a controlled experiment and find out. I’m going to take his thesis into mind and live my life as I see fit and maybe I’ll end up rich, or at least quite wealthy.

When Dennis says “rich” he means “filthy” rich. As in, it’d take several generations of slouches to piss through it all. This is the kind of rich he’s talking about. He’s not talking about retiring with a pension. And this book is psychological in that Dennis spends a lot of time detailing the mindset and motivations of people who are rich, not just particular strategies or actions to achieve this level of wealth (though he discusses that, too).

Besides the survey of rich life and rich world views, the book provides numerous general lessons on business, business management and entrepreneurial practices which are all valuable in their own right even if one doesn’t want to be rich, but doesn’t feel like being poor, either.

This book’s strongest point is honesty. And now, Felix Dennis’s “Eight Secrets to Getting Rich”:

  1. Analyze your need. Desire is insufficient. Compulsion is mandatory.
  2. Cut loose from negative influences. Never give in. Stay the course.
  3. Ignore ‘great ideas’. Concentrate on great execution.
  4. Focus. Keep your eye on the ball marked ‘The Money Is Here’/
  5. Hire talent smarter than you. Delegate. Share the annual pie.
  6. Ownership is the real ‘secret’. Hold on to every percentage point you can.
  7. Sell before you need to, or when bored. Empty your mind when negotiating.
  8. Fear nothing and no one. Get rich. Remember to give it all away.

How Businesses Grow: The Five Guys Story

What does America’s fastest growing restaurant chain look like on the inside and how was the growth accomplished? For the answers to those questions and many others I read a recent Forbes article entitled “Five Guys Burgers: America’s Fastest Growing Restaurant Chain“.

First, “Five Guys” growth in numbers:

  • Doubled number of stores since 2009
  • Started in 1986; since then, has grown to 1,039 stores in the US and Canada with commitments to open another 1,500
  • Grew 792% since 2006, nearest competitor Jimmy John’s grew 241% over the same period and now has 1,329 stores
  • Company-owned franchises 200; franchised 839
  • Projected sales of $1B+ in 2012; corp revenues of $275M with cash flow of $50M
  • Current value of the company estimated at $500M, $375M of which belongs to the founders, on an initial investment of $70,000

Founder Jerry Murrell and his sons came up with the idea in 1986 when Murrell offered his older sons nearing high school graduation a deal– they could go to college, or they could use their tuition money to start a restaurant.

Like many rapid growth successes stories, early growth was slow and hard to come by. Persevering through employee theft, customer service shortcomings and inter-family squabbles behind the scenes, the group opened their second store in 1989 after being turned down for business loans by numerous local banks. Instead, they raised money $10,000 to $30,000 at a time from 100 friends and acquaintances and committed to always paying on time.

Even early on Murrell received suggestions that he stray from the company’s “core competency” of high quality burgers and fries– coffee, chicken sandwiches, milkshakes and more were all brought up and some even tried but every time Murrell found it to be a disaster. Eventually, Murrell and company gave up, and his disciplined reasoning is instructive in demonstrating his understanding of his own brand:

My fear was that we’d add something new and not be good at it, then some reviewer would write about how bad our coffee was and not how good our burgers and fries are… [The demise of other restaurant chains involves one constant.] They all started to offer too many items and got away from their core.

By 2002, they had 5 stores in Northern Virginia and began thinking about franchising. Murrell received a copy of Franchising For Dummies from his son which he read and that, combined with a fortuitous meeting with former Washington Redskins-kicker and burger joint owner Mark Mosley and consultation with Fransmart the Five Guys team moved ahead, selling out all franchise rights to Virginia within three weeks.

The standard franchisee must have a minimum net worth of $1.5M and liquidity of $500,000. He pays an upfront fee of $75,000 per store, the average store costing $350,000-$500,000 to open and generates an average of $1.2M in revenues each year. Five Guys corporate charges 6% of gross revenues and another 1.5% which is collected for “audits” which are used to pay $1,000 weekly bonuses to stores that score will after being visited by independent examiners. According to Five Guys largest franchisee, stores break even within two and a half years and have operating margins in the mid-teens.

There are other entrants in the “better burger” category such as Smash Burger and Shake Shack (note: I’ve had both and I don’t think they offer much competition) and because of the rapid franchising, Five Guys has occasionally run into the problem of overlapping markets where franchise owners cannibalize one another’s sales. Murrell occasionally buys back franchises when he can and the company is currently working on an overseas expansion which will begin in the UK. There’s talk of expanding to the Middle East and private equity and investment bankers have been on the company’s case for years.

Who knows what lies ahead but so far, through all the ups and downs, the company has remained a thoroughly family affair.

How Businesses Grow: “The LEGO Story”

I found this video on the Laissez-Faire Books blog after Jeff Tucker posted it recently.

It’s an entertaining and educational video that provides anecdotes about how and why small businesses grow. In the case of LEGO, because they had to– the owner-operator of the company had no golden parachute to fall back on if he failed. This kept him thinking creatively about how to solve the many challenges he and his business faced. It was “find a way” or else he and his children would starve.

It’s a story of entrepreneurialism, the essence of which is experimentation, vision and constant change.

As you watch the video, it’s hard to imagine a story like this being told about anything other than an initially small, local, privately-owned business. It perfectly captures the idea of the “benevolent dictatorship” style of business and capital management. We also get a look at the innovative process that leads to the creation of a whole new industry (or sub-industry, much like the iPhone was an emergent sub-industry within the industry of smartphones).