Every year I look forward to the annual Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report. Not just because I own some of the stock, but because of the much anticipated letter from Warren Buffett that provides incredible insight with a good sense of humor to boot.
For example, in this year's letter Buffett stated that the recent economic period was "devastating" and that "investors of all stripes were bloodied and confused, much as if they were small birds that had strayed into a badminton game."
Although Buffett is concerned that government spending will lead to an onslaught of inflation, he remains optimistic that America's best days lie ahead. In his report, he states that he and his partner, Charlie Munger, are focused on these goals:
Maintain the company's Gibraltar-like financial position, which features huge amounts of liquidity, modest near-term obligations, and dozens of sources of earnings in cash.
Widening the moats around operating business that give them durable competitive advantages.
Expanding and nurturing the cadre of outstanding operating managers who, over the years, have delivered exceptional results.
Does anything make more sense for your business or career than what you've just read? The answer should be "of course not." Which begs the question: Are these the goals of your business or career? Do you maintain liquidity both at home and in your business? Do employees understand the importance of maintaining retained earnings? Do you have dozens of sources of earnings in cash? What are you doing to acquire or develop new ones?
Have you identified the moat around your operating business that you're now attempting to widen? What do you do that's unique from your competition or others at the company? How do you intensify it? Do a better job of branding it?
Finally, do you have outstanding managers you are constantly nurturing so that they can continue to produce exceptional results? How are you nurturing them? What leadership training are they getting? How are their egos being stroked? If you're a manager, how are you nurturing yourself? Feeding your mind, body and soul?
Productivity and quality are key to Buffett. Two examples: GEICO is one of the most efficient operators in the insurance business. Five years ago the number of policies per employee was 299. In 2008 the number was 439, a huge increase in productivity, without a drop-off in service.
"Our two pipelines, Kern River and Northern Natural, were both acquired in 2002. A firm called Mastio regularly ranks pipelines for customer satisfaction. Among the 44 rated, Kern came in ninth when we purchased it and Natural ranked 39th. There was work to do . . . Mastio's 2009 report, Kern River ranked first and Northern Natural third. Charlie and I couldn't be more proud of this performance. It came about because hundreds of people at each operation committed themselves to a new culture and then delivered on their commitment (mine)."
So, how can you show that you've increased productivity per employee and the overall quality of your operations? What are your benchmarks and how well do your employees know them?
While remaining cautious, Buffett see this as an incredible time for opportunity. As he states, "When investing, pessimism is your friend; euphoria the enemy . . . Whether we're talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it's marked down."
The savvy employers I know get that this opportunity is the silver lining in a stressful time. They're doing everything possible to capture market share, as well as the best and brightest employees from the competition. When the economy eventually does turn around, they'll be in an incredible competitive position. You want to be a company like that — you don't want to compete against a company like that.
Finally, at the end of every annual report are the 15 owner-related business principles that Buffett believes will help shareholders understand his management approach. Reading these 15 principles offers a lesson in business management.
How would your company stack up to them?