It’s a weird hobby, I admit. But I’ve been going back and reading Warren Buffett’s old Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters.
They’re posted on the Berkshire Hathaway website (well, most of them). Combined, they run more than half a million words.
I’ve found some shortcuts, of course. I ran the full text of Buffett’s most recent letter through a word cloud generator. (The single word that appears most often was surprising.)
There’s another story worth sharing, however. It’s about the simple difference Buffett found between the most successful business leaders, and other entrepreneurs who always seem to come up short.
‘A monumentally stupid decision’
Buffett says he realized this all after making a “monumentally stupid decision” one that has to do with Berkshire itself.
The company traces its roots to two 19th century New England textile mills that later merged. Buffett would up buying part of it because of what he calls his old “discarded cigar butt” theory of investing.
In short, he’d buy old, decaying companies where hoped to get a return just before the whole thing died out.
He meant to sell Berkshire. But then, he had a dispute with the company’s chairman, and Buffett wound up buying the entire company–just so he could fire the chairman.
As a result, Buffett said, he suddenly had 25 percent of his investment tied up “in a terrible business about which I knew very little,” as Buffett wrote in one of his shareholder letters. “I became the dog who caught the car.”
Buffett tried to make it work for two decades. He put a long-time Berkshire Hathaway employee named Ken Chace in place as company president.
And while Chace and his successor, Garry Morrison, were “excellent managers, every bit the equal of managers at our more profitable businesses,” as Buffett wrote in his 1986 shareholder letter, it didn’t matter.
It was like having the world’s best pilots on a plane with no wings.
By the end of 1985 again after 20 long years! Buffett shut down the whole thing down. Berkshire Hathaway became the 100 percent holding company (with a heavy emphasis on insurance) that it is today.
‘You don’t get any extra points’
Years later, Buffett was still talking about what a great leader Chace had been.
“A wonderful guy,” he said in a 2010 interview. “[T]errific. Honest and able, hardworking. And he couldn’t make it go,”
But, if you want to be successful, he also insisted and this is the key it makes a lot more sense to be in an industry where the external forces (the market, the trends, the economy) are like the wind at your back, not a gale force in your face.
It’s such a common problem. So many hard-working business owners and entrepreneurs face it.
They dream of success but they choose the wrong industry: something where all the market forces are working against them.
“The interesting thing about business, it’s not like the Olympics,” Buffett said that same 2010 interview. “You don’t get any extra points for the fact that something’s very hard to do. So you might as well just step over one-foot bars, instead of trying to jump over seven-foot bars.”