Tag Archives: business

“A Tale Of Two Kart Tracks” (#business, #customerservice)

The following is a talk I gave to a retail sales team on the subject of customer service:

Today I want to share a “Tale of Two Kart Tracks” with you. The two kart tracks are “Simraceway” in Sonoma, CA at the Sonoma Raceway, and “CalSpeed Karting” in Fontana, CA, at the Fontana Auto Club Speedway. I visited Simraceway with some friends a couple weekends ago, and I visited CalSpeed last year with a group of employees across our organization.
First, let’s talk about what it was like to arrive at each facility. At Simraceway, we entered the main gate for the Sonoma Raceway and informed the gate attendant that we were here to do some gokarting. He looked at us with a puzzled expression and admitted he wasn’t sure if there was any karting going on. After going back and forth, he suggested that, if there was a place to do gokarting, it might be inside and up at the top of the hill inside the track, but he emphasized he really didn’t know what we’d find up there.
At the Fontana Speedway, the gate attendant knew exactly where the kart track was, offered us a map and explained where we were on the map and which way to go down the road to get to the kart track without getting lost.
Next, let’s talk about checking in and paying. At Simraceway, we pulled up and parked in a general parking lot and wandered around for a bit trying to figure out, due to poor signage, where we needed to go to get karting. An employee finally noticed us and asked if she could help and then pointed at a shed some ways off from where we were standing as the place to go to buy our race admission. She didn’t seem particularly busy, but she was apparently too busy to escort us. I had seen on the internet that the track was offering a buy 3, get two races free package. When I asked the employee about this, she informed me that she didn’t know about that deal because it “Wasn’t her department.” Please keep in mind that over the course of the day we saw THREE employees total at the track, so this didn’t appear to be a mega corporation. When we made it to the cashier’s booth, the employee on duty seemed frustrated to have to explain the pricing options to us. When we attempted to upsell ourselves on an icy cold beverage in the refrigerator, he seemed confused as to how to process the transaction. He didn’t seem very excited for us to be there doing business with him. Keep this young man in mind because I will say more about him in a bit.
At the Fontana Speedway, we arrived in a clearly demarked holding pen. Uniformed employees came out, greeted us and set our expectations about filling out required paperwork and waiting for the track marshals to be ready to get us for orientation. Everyone smiled and offered their help as we waited. There were about four or five employees just handling checkins for our large group.
When everything was ready and the attendees were assigned to heats w/ separate colored arm bands, we were invited in, one team at a time, to the training room to receive a welcome from the track marshals, who described the kind of karts we’d be driving, the organization of our practice, qualifying and racing sessions, safety standards of the track, flags and signalling on the track and a basic walkthrough of the best line to take on the track. Then, everyone suited up with jumpsuits, headsocks, helmets and neck braces which were in good condition and of a similar brand and style to avoid confusion.
Can you guess how this was handled at Simraceway? There was no orientation. There was no explanation of the karts, of signalling on the track nor of safety. We were shown to a small, dingy closet and left to figure out the equipment on our own. When my friend emerged with a helmet that was clearly too big for his head and shook his head back and forth to show how the helmet swiveled, the track attendant told him it “should be fine.” When I asked what the best line was on the track, the track attendant told me, “I don’t know, I am sure you’ll figure it out.”
We were led outside to our karts and the young man who first took our money. He looked sullen and pointed at the karts we should ride in which were lined up side by side in the pit. I noticed there were just enough karts for our group of 5– what if other customers arrive? I asked, looking at another set of 7 karts pulled off on the gravel. “You’ll probably be the only ones” we were told. We climbed into our karts (without any explanation of the safe way to do so, for kart and driver alike) and then, as we waited for our engines to get started, I chatted with the young man. Did he live around here? Does he like it out here? Etc. He complained, “I have to work 3 jobs right now, one of them is bartending in town. I am really tired.” I took mental note of that.
At CalSpeed, the attitude was fun, but serious. The track marshals demonstrated how to safely climb in and out of the karts. Where not to put hands and feet, at rest or in motion. What to do if they stalled out on the track. We had a group of about 45, and there were enough karts for everyone (3 heats of 15). The track marshals led the teams in the first couple laps out on the track in their own karts to demonstrate a good racing line and how to drive the track. Then we were “off to the races!”
At Simraceway, I asked if the track attendants could help us line up and do an organized start so we could race for position. Despite being their only customers, this seemed like an inconvenient request and after some badgering, the young man finally accepted that if we lined ourselves up as we came down the final straight away, he’d wave a flag to signal the race was on. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call organized, and it didn’t seem like he cared much if we had the experience we wanted. In our 5 races, he didn’t manage to start us the way I had asked even once– and in the first lap of the first race, two of our racers stalled out trying to line up for the final straightaway start.
Needless to say, our small party went off the track and into the dirt, weeds and brambles quite a bit over those 5 races. In each race we had at least one complete stall out where a driver’s kart died on the track and he had to pull off to the side and wait for someone to come out and jump it. On one occassion, that driver was me and my friends completed four or five laps before an attendant got to me, then another 3 while the attendant tried and failed to pull the jump cord (no offense to our female friends, but she just didn’t appear strong enough and somehow was surprised by this fact despite not being able to jump start anyone’s karts in the pits, either). I essentially sat on the outside of the track for half a race! When one of my friends complained about this happening to him and asked for a partial refund, the track attendant first argued and told him “Well, you only missed 5 minutes”… of a 12 minute race! And when he asked to speak to a manager, she got on her walkietalkie right in front of him and made it sound like he was asking for the world and the manager denied the request. Then, when he asked to see the manager in person, she got back on the walkie talkie and the manager could be heard saying, “Alright, just give him $10” It was ridiculous and arbitrary! During each of the 5 races, one driver had to rotate through the kart that we all agreed was slower by half than the other karts– despite my consistently turning over faster lap times in the first four races, I could not make this kart go any faster, which my friends gleefully told me was a sign of my hubris for thinking I could beat them in the “slow kart.”
How was this handled at CalSpeed? Needless to say, there were very few problems to address, because the staff was prepared and they had prepared us in return. Most problems that could’ve occurred, were avoided. And when someone’s kart did become inoperable occassionally, they were promptly moved off the track, returned to the pits and put in a new kart and sent back out into the melee. Simraceway couldn’t even do this because more than half of their karts were in disrepair!! Overall, CalSpeed was extremely accomodating of our needs and wants. We were their “only customers for the day” and they treated us like we were special and created structure and order to our race activities that really enhanced the fun. No one seemed surprised at anything.
The last thing I noticed was about how we left. I noticed a race podium near the cashier shack, but no one on duty ever offered to take our pictures there afterward to commemorate the days events at Simraceway. Instead, our final memory of the place is one of absurdity– after never receiving a safety briefing the entire time we were there, one of my friends was scolded in the pits about some hand movement he had made out on the track because, as the employee said, “Safety is our number one priority here and that just isn’t safe.” She said this as we were climbing out of our karts after the FINAL RACE OF THE DAY. Talk about bad timing!
At CalSpeed, the day was not complete before the top three finishers of each heat were stood up on the podium and cheered by the entire group. Pictures were taken and everyone chattered excitedly about all the fun they had and all the interesting things they learned about racing that day.
What lessons can be learned in comparing these two facilities?
First, let’s consider the value of preparedness. With appropriate levels of trained staff, a fleet of well-maintained karts and an organizational structure for the day, the CalSpeed group demonstrated that they were professionals who expected our business and were prepared to deliver us an excellent experience. At Simraceway, the poorly trained staff, with rundown and inoperable karts and no real racing structure or organization for their services (we were told at various points that our race sessions would be 10, 12 and 15 minutes long… they ended up being about 13 minutes) demonstrated that they were surprised to have customers and not really in a position to serve more than the 5 of us who happened to show up.
Second, let’s consider the value of consistency. From arrival and check in to departure, the smiles, attitudes and helpfulness of the CalSpeed group were consistent. It gave us the sense we working with one team, who loved their jobs and were dedicated to our enjoyment at their facility. It was, of course, just the opposite at Simraceway, where the gate attendant didn’t even know there was karting on site, the track attendants didn’t know their roles only what they weren’t responsible for (apparently, customer service…) and the fun and excitement of karting was always tempered by the disillusionment and cluelessness of the staff serving us.
Third, let’s talk about opportunity. If the people at CalSpeed are working other jobs, I didn’t hear about it. Their sole focus was on the job they had to do right then, in that moment, with us, their customers. They probably don’t have to work other jobs because CalSpeed is a successful operation that keeps them all busy. It is hard to feel sorry for the young man at Simraceway working three jobs to get by. He is standing on top of what Earl Nightengale would call a “Field of Diamonds”, he just doesn’t seem to recognize the opportunity.
In parting, I’d like to ask you to think about the following:
Of these two kart tracks, which do you think is more profitable?
Of these two kart tracks, which do you think has an easier time with marketing and generating new and referral business?
Of these two kart tracks, which do you think has higher customer satisfaction and loyalty?
Of these two kart tracks, which would you rather visit as a paying customer?
Of these two kart tracks, which would you rather work at as an employee?
Of these two kart tracks, which would you be most proud to own?
Final thought: both of these kart tracks are on the grounds of a larger race operation; both have access to the same go kart technology and safety systems; both of these kart tracks have the opportunity to charge the same amount to their customers; both of these kart tracks are in California and both of these kart tracks are selling the same service at the end of the day– the experience of racing with friends.
So what is it that makes these two kart tracks different?
In my mind, the “Tale of Two Kart Tracks” is really “The Tale of Two Attitudes Toward Customer Service.”

Review – Father, Son & Co. (#family, #business, @IBM)

Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond (buy on Amazon.com)

by Thomas Watson, Jr., published 1990

A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. Find more reviews by visiting the Virtual Library.

The son of IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson Jr.’s “Father, Son & Co.” is many things: a collection of folksy business wisdom passed down by his father, memories and recollections of his participation as an airman in World War II and later a US diplomatic career in the USSR, a story about the challenges of growing a global business, lessons in leadership and team building, the pitfalls of transforming an business organization from small scale to large scale and, most importantly, a personal reflection on the value of family. It was most interesting and entertaining for me to read when it dealt with business and some of the personal issues of the author in trying to prove himself in the shadow of a legendary father; I found it less enjoyable and less authentic when the author dabbled in politics or retold sappy anecdotes about popular political figures of his era with whom he had had personal relationships.

The Business of IBM

The axis around which the story revolves is not Tom Watson, Jr., and it’s not Tom Watson, Sr. It’s the company which Senior grew and transformed into IBM, and which Junior effected the change over to actual computing technology in the 1960s, that the book is really about. But because Junior’s and Senior’s personalities, families, fortunes and lives were so wrapped up in the affairs of IBM, it becomes about all of those things in turn as well. That is somewhat surprising because the book is ostensibly a memoir by Junior, yet the gravity of IBM is hard to ignore in nearly every chapter of the book.

When Senior joined on with the company as general manager and, shortly thereafter, president, IBM (then Computing-Tabulating-Record Company) was an important concern but not necessarily a large one. Senior had a vision for it and something of an indomitable will, and he had experienced enough success and failure on his own in other ventures that he had an idea of what it would take to create the vision he had for the company. He built a large, organized and polished sales force, instilled high morale and unity of purpose by creating training programs, achievement awards, national sales team conventions and even company songs that everyone had to sing. He also, like many strong-willed founders, created something of a cult of personality around himself, putting his picture up at IBM offices and facilities, writing memos that were distributed widely to all staff and constantly visiting field offices and manufacturing facilities and “pressing the flesh” with company men and their wives and children, creating a kind of endearing aura of patriarchy.

In later years this intuitive, personality-driven approach was deemed problematic by Junior and other successor senior executives who believed that Senior had created a culture and cadre of Yes Men and hadn’t implemented enough standards and professional protocols that could create stability for growth. But for decades of the company’s history (essentially the first half, to date) this approach seemed to work, and fantastically so. Company publications like “Business Machines” and sales achievement distinctions like the “Hundred Percent Club” put the company’s focus on employee well-being and professionalism and incentivized outstanding achievement in the dawn of the era of lifetime commitment to big companies.

Something that shocked me as I read was how much of IBM’s growth could be attributed to solving statistical problems for the US and other national governments:

IBM more than doubled in size during the New Deal… Social Security… made Uncle Sam IBM’s biggest customer.

Wow! I suppose someone else could’ve come up with the technology as well, but it is kind of amazing to think that the evil New Deal and the disastrous Social Security pyramid scheme would have been too burdensome to administer without the existence of IBM tabulating machines which were a major time saver. It reminds me of Palantir Technologies, which helps the NSA, CIA and other foreign governments conduct surveillance work on target populations, another way to profit off of coercive interference in society’s affairs.

This trend didn’t stop with the New Deal but only started there. During WW2 the company converted many of their factories to help produce armaments (a fairly common industrial practice during the time, but still remarkable) and after the war one of the big incentives (and indeed, initial sources of research funding) for switching the company’s focus to electronic computing solutions were the ongoing “national defense” needs of the US military as the Cold War wore on.

Words of wisdom

I enjoyed the many old-timey nuggets of wisdom and rules about manners sprinkled throughout the book which were mostly remembrances of Junior of things Senior had said to him as he raised him or mentored him in the business. For example, Junior talks about the first time he road a cross-country train with his father on a business trip and the way his father taught him to clean up the wash basin in the bathroom of the railroad car to be considerate of others. “The person coming after you will judge you by how the place is left,” he tells him as he uses a towel to wipe down the basin before and after shaving in it. He talks about the importance of leaving the basin in a clean state so that the next person will have “the same chance you had”. There is a deep moral lesson here that goes well beyond the world of men shaving– this is a version of the Golden Rule, not just considering how upsetting it would be to have someone leave a place in a state of disarray for you, but then following that logic through to performing a service voluntarily for other people in trying to leave the world a little bit nicer than you found it.

In another instance, Senior lectures Junior about the practical reasons for treating even the “lowly” members of society in a kindly and generous fashion:

There is a whole class of people in the world who are in a position to poor-mouth you unless you are sensitive to them. They are the headwaiters, Pullman car conductors, porters and chauffeurs. They see you in an intimate fashion and can really knock off your reputation.

Those who enjoy shows like Downton Abbey are familiar with the idea that the “servants” of the world end up having an interesting amount of power and leverage over those they serve because they are so familiar with them they know their weaknesses, secrets and bad habits. There is something noble and self-aware in Senior’s advice here– a cultivated awareness of the reality of power and influence, mixed with a genuine empathy for treating even the relatively less fortunate with respect and concern. It might be read as “These people could really knife you if you don’t pay attention” but I think it is also honestly read as “Don’t forget these are people, too, and they want and need kindness regardless of their station in life.”

Another endearing moment comes when Senior teaches Junior about how he manages his executives:

“Well, I haven’t shaken up So-and-so for a while. So I’ll get him in and ask some questions about his department and in the process part his hair a little. He’ll get a pat on the back if I find something good or a kick in the tail if I find something bad.”

The imagery of “parting someone’s hair” says a lot about the relative authority of the two people in this “process” and while kicking someone in the tail sounds like bullying, it was clear that Senior gave quite a few pats on the back, as well, and when he dished out the ass-kickings, they might have been deserved– these were grown men dealing with a multi-million dollar business, after all, and if they weren’t bringing their problems to Senior’s attention but rather waiting for him to discover them, shame on them.

In teaching Junior about how to be an executive, Senior advised “what a chief executive does outside his business is just as important as what he does at his desk”, which was another idea I found interesting. I’ve been skeptical in the past of chief executives who seem to spend more time glad-handing than running the business. But I’ve come to appreciate that a lot of running a business simply is taking care of relationships– with customers, employees, vendors and even members of the local community. IBM’s business was dependent upon political grace, so there is perhaps a more sinister side to this advice from the standpoint of simply being a businessman but it was an interesting idea to ponder, nonetheless, that the chief executive’s identity and role extend beyond his office hours.

Senior was clearly a hard-driver and a hard-charger himself. So I was interested to hear about his daily routine:

He had his day set up so that he got up at seven, played tennis from seven-thirty to eight-thirty to stay in shape, got to work on time, did his work, went home, read great books for an hour, had dinner, listened to classical music for a while, and went to bed.

Senior ended up dying of starvation; his stomach was so scarred from stress-induced ulcers that it essentially closed up and wouldn’t let enough food in, and he didn’t want to go under the knife and so chose a fairly painful death by starvation (more on health issues in a moment). But despite this, he lived to age 82! I think that’s still considered a long time to live and I am always curious what a person’s habits were when I hear of such longevity, so it was pleasing to see that he put emphasis on daily physical activity as well as daily relaxing, contemplative activity (reading and music listening). Interestingly, breakfast didn’t seem to play a large part in his routine although Junior recounts many times when he had lunch brought in despite it being ignored in this telling.

A few other choice ideas, on restraint:

What you haven’t said, you can say anytime.

And on the value of friendship:

Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.

The son also rises

So, Senior had a knack for keen insight, but what about Junior?

While Senior was the builder, Junior was the administrator and manager. He seemed to take what he learned from Senior and build on it, so many of his notions seemed like continuations of the thoughts of Senior. For example, consider Senior’s advice about how chief executives should behave as Junior extemporizes about the relationships of businessmen:

A good businessman needs a lot of friends. Cultivating them is a laborious process, and how well you succeed is a direct result of how much effort and thoughtfulness you bring to bear.

He isn’t talking about friends in the business. He’s talking about friends outside of the business, which to me sounds like an echo of the idea that the chief executive’s job extends well beyond life in the office.

Similarly, he recounts a tale about the importance of making good introductions,

I stuck out my hand and said to him, “I’m Tom Watson Jr.”

Offering one’s name with a hand shake ensures that the other person is not put in the uncomfortable spot of being expected to remember people he’s only met once before, which engenders a sense of gratitude and respect immediately. Consider that this was the practice of an individual leading one of the largest and most well-known companies in the world and he still made the effort to be forward about his identity like this.

I also made a note of Junior’s characterization of the political structure of business:

The government has checks and balances, but a business is a dictatorship, and that is what makes it really move.

I think there is consensus building in business, too. It’s hard to keep a team cohesive and productive over a long period of time if people don’t feel like they contribute ideas and that those ideas get seriously considered. But I do understand the idea that ultimately decisions have to be made by somebody, that is, one person, and a business with a strong will behind it can make those decisions more effectively because everyone may be listened to but they don’t necessarily all get a vote. In the business world, people tend to vote by exit which is rarely an option in the world of politics.

The wealth of health

As mentioned earlier, Senior ended up choosing death by starvation when his health maladies caught up with him, though he made it to age 82. I noticed that both Junior and his younger brother (who headed up IBM’s non-US business) suffered heart attacks in their middle-age, attributed to the high stress of their positions.

Junior describes a life of almost continual travel and social functions, not just for himself but for his father and his brother. It was clear reading the book that the Watson clan and IBM executive leadership in general were part of the “global elite”, they knew dignitaries and heads of state from around the planet and were deeply connected to American political figures as well, a confusing blending of public and private prerogatives and relationships. There were many chapters where Junior described so many different locales and travels simultaneously that is almost seemed as if he was everywhere at once– at the very least he would spend long stretches of time away from home engaged in high level networking. It was a fascinating glimpse into “how the other half lives.”

But it was also terrifying from a health point of view. It is just hard to imagine this high-paced lifestyle allowing one to live with optimal health and longevity. Along with suffering a heart attack, his brother seemed to be frail enough to die from a “fall” at age 55. Junior ended up quitting his official business responsibilities following his heart attack which he reflects on with positivity in the book, saying it was a relief to have an opportunity to look critically at his life and get out while he still could. It seems to say a lot about the lifestyle he was living that he could so clearly connect his longevity to his work and chose the former over the latter.

Working with family

At the beginning of the book, Junior says that if you have the chance to go into business with your father, know that it will be difficult, but do it. I was fascinated by this strong suggestion given that he spends much of the rest of the book relating all the violent disagreements he had with his father, their latent power struggles, the continual struggles with self-esteem and even depression that he experienced living and working under the shadow of his successful father and so on.

There were many touching moments in the book where the reader is afforded a look at the parenting practices of Senior, who was truly from a pre-modern era. But there were also many that shocked my sensibilities of the proper relationship between parent and child, such as when Junior recalled how Senior handled tax documentation of his personal trust:

Each year his accountant would come around and have me sign income tax forms that were blank. He’d make an excuse that he hadn’t had time yet to fill them out. This kept up not only through college but ten years beyond, until I was a grown man with children of my own.

How would hiding this information from a child do anything but stoke their curiosity, fear and self-criticism? Why did this practice continue on even when he was a man with his own family (at which point he had long been a part of the business in a senior role)?

While the book offered many such puzzles and glimpses into family life for the accomplished Watsons, I couldn’t help but wonder how people who had achieved such greatness in so many areas had completely neglected to resolve interpersonal emotional conflicts and instead struggled with this source of unhappiness for decades. What is family for?

 

For me, reading about the early struggles and the early attempts at growth are always the most interesting parts of a story like Thomas Watson, Jr.’s, and IBM’s in general. I found myself less interested in what it was like being Bobby Kennedy’s friend, or getting tapped for the ambassadorship in Moscow. You can look at the history of the company and of the family and think, “It could’ve been anyone else, it’s not clear what they did that was special or unique beyond being lucky” but you can’t say they didn’t work hard, or purposefully. There’s no simple recipes or formulas for success in this book when it comes to business, family or life, but there are a number of things to think about, struggles that turn out to be common to all of us, great or small in our vision or accomplishments. I think that is where the value in this book lay for me.

 

Review – Death By Meeting (@patricklencioni, #meetings, #business)

Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable About Solving The Most Painful Problem In Business (buy on Amazon.com)

by Patrick Lencioni, published 2004

A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer.

The Model

Meetings are boring because they lack drama. Leaders must look for legitimate reasons to provoke and uncover relevant, constructive ideological conflict.

Meetings are ineffective because they lack contextual structure. We need to have multiple types of meetings and clearly distinguish between the various purposes, formats and timing of those meetings.

Meetings should start with the injection of drama in the first ten minutes so participants appreciate what is at stake. For example, illustrate the dangers of making a bad decision, highlight a looming competitive threat or appeal to commitment to a higher mission or vision for the organization.

Then, the meeting leader should mine for conflict whenever disagreement is present. It is better to hash the issue out and let everyone say what is on their mind then to let resentment and personal politics build. And it will require “real-time permission” from the meeting leader to make it work. Conflict must be affirmed as normal and desirable to increase the likelihood it occurs.

The Four Meeting Types

There are four different meeting types to be used based on content:

  1. The Daily Check-In, aka the “huddle”, a standing meeting no more than 5 mins in length; each participant reports on what they’re working on or need help with that day
  2. The Weekly Tactical, weekly/bi-weekly, 45-90 mins in length; Lightning Round, go around the table and report on 2-3 priorities for the week in 60 secs or less per person; move to Progress Review, including a report of KPIs, 4-6 per person, 5 mins total; Real-Time Agenda, this grows out of the Lighting Round and Progress Review portions, an agenda for discussion should focus on critical issues raised in these first 15 minutes; the overall goal is to resolve issues and reinforce clarity
  3. The Monthly Strategic, every 2-4 weeks, minimum of 2 hours per topic; discuss a few critical issues that affect the business fundamentally; need to occur regularly to serve as a timely “parking lot” for critical issues raised in the Weekly Tactical
  4. The Quarterly Off-Site Review, meets quarterly and offsite to focus on big picture strategic issues; 1-2 days; includes time for a team assessment; personnel review, identifying stars and poor performers; competitive and industry review to spot trends; most important objective is to build team unity

Sneaker Time

“Sneaker Time” is what is created by a lack of effective meetings and structure. Anything that can not be communicated (or is not communicated) in a group meeting means walking around the office for one-on-one visits. Given there are multiple people on the average team, this time burden involved in communicating can quickly zap teams of their vitality and effectiveness. A great organization can not afford sneaker time and therefore it can not afford to not make its meetings great.

Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part V, Chap. 43-52

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder (buy on Amazon.com). This post covers Part V: The King of Wall Street, Chap. 43-52

[These notes were never published on time. They may be incomplete as posted now.]

The modern Buffett

In Part V of the Snowball, we see Buffett’s transformation from the early, cigar butt-picking, Grahamian value-minded Buffett, through the filter of his Fisherite partner, Charlie Munger, into the mega cap conglomerator and franchise-buyer Buffett who is popularly known to investors and the public the world round.

It is in this part that we also see Buffett make one of his biggest missteps, a stumble which almost turns into a fall and which either way appears to shock and humble the maturing Buffett. It is in this era of his investing life that we see Buffett make some of his biggest rationalizations, become entangled in numerous scandals he never would’ve tolerated in his past and dive ever deeper into the world of “elephant bumping” and gross philanthropy, partly under the tutelage of his new best friend and Microsoft-founder, Bill Gates.

The lesson

Buffett made a series of poor investments but ultimately survived them all because of MoS. There will be challenges, struggles, and stress. But after the storm, comes the calm.

The keys to the fortress

From the late seventies until the late nineties, despite numerous economic and financial cycles Buffett’s fortune grew relentlessly under a seemingly unstoppable torrent of new capital:

Much of the money used for Buffett’s late seventies spending spree came from a bonanza of float from insurance and trading stamps

This “float” (negative working capital which was paid to Buffett’s companies in advance of services rendered, which he was able to invest at a profit in the meantime) was market agnostic, meaning that its volume was not much affected by the financial market booming or crashing. For example, if you owe premiums on your homeowner’s insurance, you don’t get to suspend payment on your coverage just because the Dow Jones has sold off or the economy is officially in a recession.

The growth in Buffett’s fortune, the wilting of his family

Between 1978 and the end of 1983, the Buffetts’ net worth had increased by a stunning amount, from $89 million to $680 million

Meanwhile Buffett proves he’s ever the worthless parent:

he handed the kids their Berkshire stock without stressing how important it might be to them someday, explaining compounding, or mentioning that they could borrow against the stock without selling it

Buffett had once written to a friend when his children were toddlers that he wanted to see “what the tree has produced” before deciding what to do about giving them money

(he didn’t actively parent though)

Buffett’s private equity shop

Another tool in Buffett’s investment arsenal was to purchase small private companies with dominant franchises and little need for capital reinvestment whose excess earnings could be siphoned off and used to make other investments in the public financial markets.

Continuing on with his success in acquiring the See’s Candy company, Buffett’s next private equity-style buyout involved the Nebraska Furniture Mart, run by a devoted Russian immigrant named Rose Blumkin and her family. And, much like the department store chain he once bought for a song from an emotionally-motivated seller, Buffett beat out a German group offering Rose Blumkin over $90M for her company, instead settling with Buffett on $55M for 90% of the company, quite a discount for a “fair valuation” of practically an entire business in the private market, especially considering the competing bid.

An audit of the company after purchase showed that the store was worth $85M. According to Rose Blumkin, the store earned $15M a year, meaning Buffett got it for 4x earnings. But Rose had buyers remorse and she eventually opened up a competing shop across the street from the one she had sold, waging war on the NFM until Buffett offered to buy her out for $5M, including the use of her name and her lease.

One secret to Buffett’s success in the private equity field? Personality:

“She really liked and trusted me. She would make up her mind about people and that was that.”

Buffett’s special priveleges

On hiding Rose Blumkin’s financial privacy: Buffet had no worries about getting a waiver from the SEC

Buffett got special dispensation from the SEC to not disclose his trades until the end of the year “to avoid moving markets”

The gorilla escapes its cage

Another theme of Buffett’s investing in the late 1980s and 1990s was his continual role as a “gorilla” investor who could protect potential LBO-targets from hostile takeover bids. The first of these was his $517M investment for 15% of Tom Murphy-controlled Cap Cities/ABC, a media conglomerate. Buffett left the board of the Washington Post to join the board of his latest investment.

Another white knight scenario involved Buffett’s investment in Ohio conglomerate Scott Fetzer, which Berkshire purchased for $410M.

Then Buffett got into Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street arbitrage shop that was being hunted by private equity boss Ron Perelman. Buffett bought $700M of preferred stock w/ a 9% coupon that was convertible into common stock at $38/share, for a total return potential of about 15%. It even came with a put option to return it to Salomon and get his money back.

But Buffett had stepped outside of his circle of competence:

He seemed to understand little of the details of how the business was run, and adjusting to a business that wasn’t literally made of bricks-and-mortar or run like an assembly line was not easy for him… he had made the investment in Salomon purely because of Gutfreund

Buffett’s disgusting ignorance and hypocrisy

Buffett:

I would force you to give back a huge chunk to society, so that hospitals get built and kids get educated too

Buffett decides to sell the assets of Berkshire’s textile mills– on the books for $50M, he gets $163,122 at the auction. He refused to face his workers and then had the gall to say

“The market isn’t perfect. You can’t rely on the market to give every single person a decent living.”

Buffett on John Gutfreund:

an outstanding, honorable man of integrity

Assorted quotes

Peter Kiewit, a wealthy businessman from Omaha, on reputation:

A reputation is like fine china: expensive to acquire, and easily broken… If you’re not sure if something is right or wrong, consider whether you’d want it reported in the morning paper

Buffett on Wall St:

Wall Street is the only place people ride to in a Rolls-Royce to get advice from people who take the subway

Notes – Stanford Graduate School of Business Search Fund Primer (#searchfund, #business, #investing)

Notes on “A Primer On Search Funds” produced by the Stanford Graduate School of Business

“The Search Fund”

  • Greater than 20% of search funds have not acquired a company
  • Stages of the Search Fund model:
  • Raise initial capital (2-6mos)
  • Search for acquisition (1-30mos)
  • Raise acquisition capital and close transaction (6mos)
  • Operation and value creation (4-7+ years)
  • Exit (6mos)
  • SFs target industries not subject to rapid tech change, easy to understand, fragmented geographic or product markets, growing
  • Highest quality deals are found outside broker network/open market due to lack of auction dynamics
  • Research shows that partnerships are more likely to complete an acquisition and have a successful outcome than solo searchers (71% yielded positive return, 15 of top 20 performing funds were partnerships)
  • Principals budget a salary of $80,000-120,000 per year w/ median amount raised per principal $300,000~
  • Majority of the economic benefit of SF comes through principal’s earned equity; entrepreneur/partners receive 15-30% equity stake in acquired company in three tranches
  • Investors typically receive preference over the SFer, ensuring investment is repaid, with return attached, before SFer receives equity value
  • Individual IRR from 2003-2011 median was not meaningful, heavily skewed toward 75th percentile where median was 26% in 2011; 57% of individual IRRs were not meaningful in 2011; the median fund destroyed capital in 2009 (0.5x) and 2011 (0.8x); 58% in 2011 broke even or lost money
  • Half of the funds that represent a total or partial loss were funds that did not acquire a company; biggest risk is in not acquiring a company at all
  • Median acquisition multiples: 1.1x revenues; 5.1x EBITDA
  • Median deal size, $8.5M

“Raising a Fund”

  • Search fund capital should come from investors with the ability and willingness to participate in the acquisition round of capital raising

“Search Fund Economics”

  • Search fund investors often participate at a stepped up rate of 150% of original investment in acquired company securities

“Setting Criteria and Evaluating Industries”

  • Desirable characteristics for a target industry: fragmented, growing, sizable in terms of revenues and number of companies, straightforward operations, early in industry lifecycle, high number of companies in target size range
  • Desirable characteristics for a target company: healthy and sustainable profit margins (>15% EBIT), competitive advantage, recurring revenue model, history of cash flow generation, motivated seller for non-business reasons, fits financial criteria ($10-30M in revs, >$1.5M EBITDA), multiple avenues for growth, solid middle management, available financing, reasonable valuation, realistic liquidity options in 3-6 years
  • Key challenge is “know when to take the train” lest a SF never leaves the station waiting for the perfect opportunity
  • Ideally, seller is ready to transition out of the business for retirement or personal circumstances or has something else they’d like to do professionally
  • Experience shows it is better to pay full price for a good company than a “bargain” for a bad one
  • Idea generation: SIC and NAICS codes, Yahoo! Finance, Thomson Financial industry listings, Inc. 5000 companies, public stock OTC and NASDAQ lists and even the Yellow Pages; generate a list of 75 potential industries to start
  • Target industries buoyed by a mega-trend
  • Can also target an industry in which the SFer has worked and possesses an established knowledge base and network
  • Some focus on 2-3 “super priority” industry criteria (eg, recurring revenues, ability to scale, min # of potential targets, etc.)
  • Objective is to pare down the industry target list to 5-10 most promising
  • Basic industry analysis (Porter’s five forces, etc.) is then used to narrow from 10 to 3; SFers use public equity research and annual reports for market size, growth, margin benchmarks; also Capital IQ, Hoover’s, Dun & Bradstreet and One Source
  • Industry insiders (business owners, trade association members, sales or business development professionals) and industry trade associations or affiliated ibanks and advisory firms are primary methods of research and often have general industry research or white papers available
  • Next step is to create a thesis to codify accumulated knowledge and compare opportunities across common metric set in order to make go/no-go decision
  • In order to become an industry insider, SFers typically attend tradeshows, meet with business owners, interview customers and suppliers and develop “River Guides”

“The Search”

  • Median # of months spent searching, 19
  • 54% spend less than 20 months searching, 25% spend 21-30 months, 21% spend 30+ months
  • Track acquisition targets with CRM software such as Salesforce, Zoho, Sugar CRM
  • Bring up financial criteria and valuation ranges as early as possible when speaking to potential acquisition targets to save everyone time
  • A company that is too large or too small as an acquisition target may still be worth talking to for information
  • You must immediately sound useful, credible or relevant to the owner; deep industry analysis should already have been performed at this stage
  • Tradeshows can be a critical source of dealflow
  • If a particular owner is not willing to sell, ask if he knows others who are
  • “River Guides” are typically compensated with a deal success fee, usually .5-1% of total deal size
  • Boutique investment banks, accounting firms and legal practices specializing in the industry in question are also a good source of deals
  • The business broker community itself is extremely large and fragmented; could be a good rollup target?
  • Often, brokered deals are only shown if a private equity investor with committed capital has already passed on the deal, presenting an adverse selection problem
  • Involve your financing sources (such as lenders and investors) early in the deal process to ensure their commitment and familiarity

“Evaluating Target Businesses”

  • Principles of time management: clarify goals of each stage of evaluation and structure work to meet those goals; recognize that perfect information is an unrealistic goal; keep a list of prioritized items impacting the go/no-go decision
  • Stages: first pass, valuation/LOI, comprehensive due diligence
  • It is in the best interest of the SFer to tackle core business issues personally during due diligence as it is the best way to learn the details of the business being taken over
  • Adding back the expenses of a failed product launch rewards the seller for a bad business decision; adding back growth expenses gives the seller the double benefit of capturing the growth without reflecting its true cost
  • Due diligence may also uncover deductions to EBITDA or unrealized expenses that reduce the “normalized” level of earnings (undermarket rents, inadequate insurance coverage, costs to upgrade existing systems, etc.)

“Transitioning Ownership and Management”

  • Create a detailed “Transition Services Agreement” with the seller, a legal contract where specific roles, responsibilities, defined time commitments and compensation are agreed prior to the transaction close
  • The first 100 days should be dedicated to learning the business
  • Businesses consist of people, and people need communication; great leaders are always great communicators
  • “Don’t listen to complaints about your predecessor, this can lead to a swamp and you don’t want to be mired there.”
  • The goal is to learn, not to make immediate changes
  • Outwork everyone; be the first person in and the last to leave
  • Many SFers insert themselves into the cash management process during the transition period by reviewing daily sales, invoices and receipts and signing every check/payment made by the company
  • The company’s board should be a mix of deep operational experience, specific industry or business model experience and financial expertise
  • The seeds of destruction for new senior leaders are often sown in the first 100 days