Buffett’s Evolution: From Stock-Picking Disciple of Ben Graham to Business-Building Devotee of Tom Murphy

While everyone knows that Warren Buffett modeled himself after Ben Graham for the stock picking that made Buffett famous in the latter 20th century, virtually no one knows a more important point for the 21st century: he has modeled himself after Tom Murphy in assembling a mighty conglomerate.   Murphy, a legendary executive with great skills in the field of acquisitions that resulted in the Capital Cities communications empire, engineered the 1985 $3.5 billion takeover by Capital Cities of ABC before selling it all to to Disney a decade later for $19 billion.  You did not hear that explicitly at Saturday’s Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, but Warren mentioned it to me at brunch on Sunday and, when you think about it, it’s a point implicit deep in the meeting’s themes and many questions.

In fact, Berkshire mBBB COvereetings are wonderful for their predictability.   Few questions surprise informed participants and most seasoned observers can give the correct outlines of answers before hearing Buffett or vice chairman Charlie Munger speak. While exact issues vary year to year and the company and its leaders evolve, the core principles are few, simple, and unwavering.  The meetings reinforce the venerability and durability of Berkshire’s bedrock principles even as they drive important underlying shifts that accumulate over many years.  Three examples and their upshot illustrate, all of which I expand on in a new book due out later this year (pictured; pre-order here).

Permanence versus Size/Break Up. People since the 1980s have argued that as Berkshire grows, it gets more difficult to outperform. Buffett has always agreed that scale is an anchor. And it’s true that these critics have always been right that it gets harder but always wrong that it is impossible to outperform.   People for at least a decade have wondered whether it might be desirable to divide Berkshire’s 50+ direct subsidiaries into multiple corporations or spin-off some businesses.  The answer has always been and remains no.  Berkshire’s most fundamental principle is permanence, always has been, always will be. Divisions and divestitures are antithetical to that proposition.

Trust and Autonomy versus Internal Control. Every time there is a problem at a given subsidiary or with a given person—spotlighted at 2011’s meeting by subsidiary CEO David Sokol’s buying stock in Lubrizol before pitching it as an acquisition target—people want to know whether Berkshire gives its personnel too much autonomy. The answer is Berkshire is totally decentralized and always will be-another distinctive bedrock principle. The rationale has always been the same: yes, tight leashes and controls might help avoid this or that costly embarrassment but the gains from a trust-based culture of autonomy, while less visible, dwarf those costs.

Capital Allocation: Berkshire has always adopted the doubled-barreled approach to capital allocation, buying minority stakes in common stocks as well as entire subsidiaries (and subs of subs).  The significant change at Berkshire in the past two decades is moving from a mix of 80% stocks with 20% subsidiaries to the opposite, now 80% subsidiaries with 20% stocks.  That underscores the unnoticed change: in addition to Munger, Buffett’s most important model is not only Graham but Murphy, who built Capital Cities/ABC in the way that Buffett has consciously emulated in the recent building of Berkshire.

For me, this year’s meeting was a particularly joy because I’ve just completed the manuscript of my next book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values (Columbia University Press, available October 2014). It articulates and consolidates these themes through a close and delightful look at its fifty-plus subsidiaries, based in part on interviews and surveys of many subsidiary CEOs and other Berkshire insiders and shareholders.   The draft jacket copy follows.

Berkshire Hathaway, the $300 billion conglomerate that Warren Buffett built, is among the world’s largest and most famous corporations. Yet for all its power and celebrity, few people understand Berkshire and many assume that it cannot survive without Buffett. This book proves that assumption wrong.

In a comprehensive portrait of the distinct corporate culture that unites and sustains Berkshire’s fifty direct subsidiaries, Lawrence Cunningham unearths the traits that assure the conglomerate’s perpetual prosperity.  Riveting stories recount each subsidiary’s origins, triumphs and journey to Berkshire. A flowing narrative reveals the strategies managers use to generate economic value from intangible values, such as thrift, integrity, entrepreneurship, autonomy, and a sense of permanence.

Rich with lessons for those wishing to profit from the Berkshire model, this engaging book is a valuable read for entrepreneurs, business owners, managers and investors as well as an important resource for scholars of corporate stewardship.  A general audience will enjoy this account of how an iconoclastic businessman transformed a struggling shirt company into a corporate fortress destined to be his lasting legacy.

 

Lawrence A. Cunningham, editor and publisher since 1997 of The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, is the Henry St. George Tucker III Research Professor at George Washington University. Cunningham’s dozen books include The AIG Story and How to Think Like Benjamin Graham and Invest Like Warren Buffett. His extensive writings, on a wide range of business and legal topics, appear in leading university journals as well as periodicals such as The Baltimore Sun, Directors & Boards, The Financial Times, The New York Post, and The New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife and two daughters.

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