6 June 2019 – Once upon a time in an MBA school far, far away, I took a Marketing 101 class. The instructor, whose name I can no longer be sure of, had a number of sayings that proved insightful, bordering on the oracular. (That means they were generally really good advice.) One that he elevated to the level of a mantra was: “Stick to the knitting.”
Really successful companies of all sizes hew to this advice. There have been periods of history where fast-growing companies run by CEOs with spectacularly big egos have equally spectacularly honored this mantra in the breach. With more hubris than brains, they’ve managed to over-invest themselves out of business.
Today’s tech industry – especially the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) – is particularly prone to this mistake. Here I hope to concentrate on what the mantra means, and what goes wrong when you ignore it.
Okay, “stick to your knitting” is based on the obvious assumption that every company has some core expertise. Amazon, for example, has expertise in building and operating an online catalog store. Facebook has expertise in running an online forum. Netflix operates a bang-up streaming service. Ford builds trucks. Lockheed Martin makes state-of-the-art military airplanes.
General Electric, which has core expertise in manufacturing industrial equipment, got into real trouble when it got the bright idea of starting a finance company to extend loans to its customers for purchases of its equipment.
There is a business model, called the conglomerate that is based on explicitly ignoring the “knitting” mantra. It was especially popular in the 1960s. Corporate managers imagined that conglomerates could bring into play synergies that would make conglomerates more effective than single-business companies.
For a while there, this model seemed to be working. However, when business conditions began to change (specifically interest rates began to rise from an abnormally low level to more normal rates) their supposed advantages began melting like a birthday cake left outside in a rainstorm. These huge conglomerates began hemorrhaging money until vultures swooped in to pick them apart. Conglomerates are now a thing of the past.
There are companies, such as Berkshire Hathaway, whose core expertise is in evaluating and investing in other companies. Some of them are very successful, but that’s because they stick to their core expertise.
Berkshire Hathaway was originally a textile company that investor Warren Buffett took over when the textile industry was busy going overseas. As time went on, textiles became less important and, by 1985 this core part of the company was shut down. It had become a holding company for Buffett’s investments in other companies. It turns out that Buffett’s core competence is in handicapping companies for investment potential. That’s his knitting!
The difference between a holding company and a conglomerate is (and this is specifically my interpretation) a matter of integration. In a conglomerate, the different businesses are more-or-less integrated into the parent corporation. In a holding company, they are not.
Berkshire Hathaway is known for it’s insurance business, but if you want to buy, say, auto insurance from Berkshire Hathaway, you have to go to it’s Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO) subsidiary. GEICO is a separate company that happens to be wholly owned by Berkshire Hathaway. That is, it has its own corporate headquarters and all the staff, fixtures and other resources needed to operate as an independent insurance company. It just happens to be owned, lock, stock and intellectual property by another corporate entity: Berkshire Hathaway.
GEICO’s core expertise is insurance. Berkshire Hathaway’s core expertise is finding good companies to invest in. Some are partially owned (e.g., 5.4% of Apple) some are wholly owned (e.g., Acme Brick).
Despite Berkshire Hathaway’s holding positions in both Apple and Acme Brick, if you ask Warren Buffet if Berkshire Hathaway is a computer company or a brick company, he’d undoubtedly say “no.” Berkshire Hathaway is a diversified holding company.
It’s business is owning other businesses.
To paraphrase James Coburn’s line from Stanley Donen’s 1963 film Charade: “[Mrs. Buffett] didn’t raise no stupid children!”
Why Giant Corporations?
All this giant corporation stuff stems from a dynamic I also learned about in MBA school: a company grows or it dies. I ran across this dynamic during a financial modeling class where we used computers to predict results of corporate decisions in lifelike conditions. Basically, what happens is that unless the company strives to its utmost to maintain growth, it starts to shrink and then all is lost. Feedback effects take over and it withers and dies.
Observations since then have convinced me this is some kind of natural law. It shows up in all kinds of natural systems. I used to think I understood why, but I’m not so sure anymore. It may have something to do with chaos, and we live in a chaotic universe. I resolve to study this in more detail – later.
But, anyway … .
Companies that embrace this mantra (You grow or you die.) grow until they reach some kind of external limit, then they stop growing and – in some fashion or other – die.
Sometimes (and paradigm examples abound) external limits don’t kick in before some company becomes very big, indeed. Standard Oil Company may be the poster child for this effect. Basically, the company grew to monopoly status and, in 1911 the U.S. Federal Government stepped in and, using the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, forced its breakup into 33 smaller oil companies, many of which still exist today as some of the world’s major oil companies (e.g., Mobil, Amoco, and Chevron). At the time of its breakup, Standard Oil had a market capitalization of just under $11B and was the third most valuable company in the U.S. Compare that to the U.S. GDP of roughly $34B at the time.
The problem with companies that big is that they generate tons of free cash. What to do with it?
There are three possibilities:
You can reinvest it in your company;
You can return it to your shareholders; or
You can give it away.
Reinvesting free cash in your company is usually the first choice. I say it is the first choice because it is used at the earliest period of the company’s history – the period when growth is necessarily the only goal.
If done properly reinvestment can make your company grow bigger faster. You can reinvest by out-marketing your competition (by, say, making better advertisements) and gobbling up market share. You can also reinvest to make your company’s operations more effective or efficient. To grow, you also need to invest in adding production facilities.
At a later stage, your company is already growing fast and you’ve got state-of-the-art facilities, and you dominate your market. It’s time to do what your investors gave you their money for in the first place: return profits to them in the form of dividends. I kinda like that. It’s what the game’s all about, anyway.
Finally, most leaders of large companies recognize that having a lot of free cash laying around is an opportunity to do some good without (obviously) expecting a payback. I qualify this with the word “obviously” because on some level altruism does provide a return in some form.
Generally, companies engage in altruism (currently more often called “philanthropy”) to enhance their perception by the public. That’s useful when lawsuits rear their ugly heads or somebody in the organization screws up badly enough to invite public censure. Companies can enhance their reputations by supporting industry activities that do not directly enhance their profits.
So-called “growth companies,” however, get stuck in that early growth phase, and never transition to paying dividends. In the early days of the personal-computer revolution, tech companies prided themselves on being “growth stocks.” That is, investors gained vast wealth on paper as the companies’ stock prices went up, but couldn’t realized those gains (capital gains) unless they sold the stock. Or, as my father once did, by using the stock for collateral to borrow money.
In the end, wise investors eventually want their money back in the form of cash from dividends. For example, in the early 2000s, Microsoft and other technology companies were forced by their shareholders to start paying dividends for the first time.
What can go wrong
So, after all’s said and done, why’s my marketing professor’s mantra wise corporate governance?
To make money, especially the scads of money that corporations need to become really successful, you’ve gotta do something right. In fact, you gotta do something better than the other guys. When you know how to do something better than the other guys, that’s called expertise!
Companies, like people, have limitations. To imagine you don’t have limitations is hubris. To put hubris in perspective, recall that the ancients famously made it Lucifer’s cardinal sin. In fact, it was his only sin!
Folks who tell you that you can do anything are flat out conning your socks off.
If you’re lucky you can do one thing better than others. If you’re really lucky, you can do a few things better than others. If you try to do stuff outside your expertise, however, you’re gonna fail. A person can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again – but don’t try to do the same thing again ‘cause you’ve already proved it’s outside your expertise. People can start over, but companies usually can’t.
One of my favorite sayings is:
Everything looks easy to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
The rank amateur at some activity typically doesn’t know the complexities and pitfalls that an expert in the field has learned about through training and experience. That’s what we know as expertise. When anyone – or any company – wanders outside their field of expertise, they quickly fall foul of those complexities and pitfalls.
I don’t know how many times I’ve overheard some jamoke at an art opening say, “Oh, I could do that!”
Yeah? Then do it!
The artist has actually done it.
The same goes for some computer engineer who imagines that knowing how to program computers makes him (or her) smart, and because (s)he is so smart, (s)he could run, say, a magazine publishing house. How hard can it be?
Mark Zuckerberg is in the process of finding out.