Warren Buffett’s 2010 Letter to Shareholders

Warren Buffett has published his always excellent annual shareholder letter. His letters, provide excellent investing insight and good management ideas.

Yearly figures, it should be noted, are neither to be ignored nor viewed as all-important. The pace of the earth’s movement around the sun is not synchronized with the time required for either investment ideas or operating decisions to bear fruit. At GEICO, for example, we enthusiastically spent $900 million last year on advertising to obtain policyholders who deliver us no immediate profits. If we could spend twice that amount productively, we would happily do so though short-term results would be further penalized. Many large investments at our railroad and utility operations are also made with an eye to payoffs well down the road.

At Berkshire, managers can focus on running their businesses: They are not subjected to meetings at headquarters nor financing worries nor Wall Street harassment. They simply get a letter from me every two years and call me when they wish. And their wishes do differ: There are managers to whom I have not talked in the last year, while there is one with whom I talk almost daily. Our trust is in people rather than process. A “hire well, manage little” code suits both them and me.

Cultures self-propagate. Winston Churchill once said, “You shape your houses and then they shape you.” That wisdom applies to businesses as well. Bureaucratic procedures beget more bureaucracy, and imperial corporate palaces induce imperious behavior. (As one wag put it, “You know you’re no longer CEO when you get in the back seat of your car and it doesn’t move.”) At Berkshire’s “World Headquarters” our annual rent is $270,212. Moreover, the home-office investment in furniture, art, Coke dispenser, lunch room, high-tech equipment – you name it – totals $301,363. As long as Charlie and I treat your money as if it were our own, Berkshire’s managers are likely to be careful with it as well.

At bottom, a sound insurance operation requires four disciplines… (4) The willingness to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained. Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. The urgings of Wall Street, pressures from the agency force and brokers, or simply a refusal by a testosterone-driven CEO to accept shrinking volumes has led too many insurers to write business at inadequate prices. “The other guy is doing it so we must as well” spells trouble in any business, but none more so than insurance.

I don’t agree with everything he says. And what works at one company, obviously won’t work everywhere. Copying doesn’t work. Learning from others and understanding what makes it work and then determining how to incorporate some of the ideas into your organization can be valuable. I don’t believe in “Our trust is in people rather than process.” I do believe in “hire well, manage little.” Exactly what those phrases mean is not necessarily straight forward. I believe you need to focus on creating a Deming based management system and that will require educating and coaching managers about how to manage such a system. But that the management decisions about day to day operations should be left to those who are working on the processes in question (which will often be workers, that are not managers, sometimes will be supervisors and managers and sometimes will be senior executives).

Related: Too often, executive compensation in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance.Management Advice from Warren BuffetGreat Advice from Warren Buffett to University of Texas – Austin business school students2004 Warren Buffet Report

Far too often senior executives treat corporate treasuries as their noble right instead of behaving honorably. I would say over 90% of senior executives at S&P 500 companies are ludicrously over”paid.” Their arguments for that not being the case amount to the same arguments made by those that caused the credit crisis – everyone else is behaving in this unethical and unsustainable way you can’t expect me to behave less badly than them.

a few [investments] have very poor returns, a result of some serious mistakes I have made in my job of capital allocation. These errors came about because I misjudged either the competitive strength of the business I was purchasing or the future economics of the industry in which it operated. I try to look out ten or twenty years when making an acquisition, but sometimes my eyesight has been poor.

Warren Buffett understands the proper focus is long term success, not quarterly, or monthly, reports.

but [GEICO’s] core goal – saving Americans substantial money on their purchase of auto insurance – remains unchanged. In other words, get the policyholder’s business by deserving his business. Focusing on this objective, the company has grown to be America’s third-largest auto insurer, with a market share of 8.8%. When Tony Nicely, GEICO’s CEO, took over in 1993, that share was 2.0%, a level at which it had been stuck for more than a decade.

All of this [how important railroads are to our country’s future. Rail moves 42% of

America’s inter-city freight, measured by ton-miles] adds up to a huge responsibility. We are a major and essential part of the American economy’s circulatory system, obliged to constantly maintain and improve our 23,000 miles of track along with its ancillary bridges, tunnels, engines and cars. In carrying out this job, we must anticipate society’s needs, not merely react to them. Fulfilling our societal obligation, we will regularly spend far more than our depreciation, with this excess amounting to $2 billion in 2011. I’m confident we will earn appropriate returns on our huge incremental investments. Wise regulation and wise investment are two sides of the same coin.

At MidAmerican, we participate in a similar “social compact.” We are expected to put up ever increasing sums to satisfy the future needs of our customers. If we meanwhile operate reliably and efficiently, we know that we will obtain a fair return on these investments.

This echoes Dr. Deming’s understanding of the purpose, and obligations, of companies.

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  1. Pingback: Management Improvement Carnival #125 » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog

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