Monday, July 21, 2014

Q & A With Larry Cunningham (Guesting With BLPB This Week)

As I promised on Friday, I am posting a question and answer segment with Larry Cunningham, author of the forthcoming book: Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values.  Larry will be guest blogging with us this week to talk more about the interesting findings he shares in the book and their implications for business and the research, teaching, and practice of business law.

Q:  Why did you write this book and what did you find?

A:  Widespread praise for Warren Buffett has become paradoxical: Buffett set out to build a permanent institution at Berkshire Hathaway and yet even great admirers, such as Steven Davidoff, doubt that the company can survive without him. I found that viewpoint intriguing since companies who are identified with iconic founders often have trouble after a succession, as Tom Lin has written.  I wanted to investigate how the situation will look for Berkshire after Buffett leaves the scene, collapse and breakup or prosperity coupled with continued expansion? What I found was a culture so distinctive and strong, that the company’s future is bright well beyond Buffett.

Q:  How did you reach that conclusion?  What was your research method?

A:  I focused on Berkshire’s fifty operating subsidiaries, which define the company today, representing 80 percent of its value. Incidentally, that is a flip from decades passed, when 80 percent of Berkshire’s value resided in minority stock investments. I began with Buffett’s historical statements about those subsidiaries and Berkshire’s corporate culture, research that in some ways dates to the 1997 Cardozo Law Review symposium I hosted on Buffett’s shareholder letters, which developed into my book, The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. Still, for this project, focusing on the subsidiaries, I gathered and studied specific information about each—biographies, autobiographies, research reports, encyclopedic entries, press releases, public filings.  Then, with Buffett’s permission, I surveyed all current Berkshire subsidiary chief executives and interviewed many, along with former managers and large shareholders of subsidiaries. In addition, I surveyed a large number of Berkshire shareholders to gain additional insight and to make sure I was asking the right questions.

Q:  What culture did you find, what common traits do the subsidiaries share?

A:   That’s the striking discovery. As I profiled each subsidiary, a pattern emerged in which the same traits began to appear repeatedly, nine altogether, including budget-consciousness, earnestness, kinship, entrepreneurship, autonomy, and a sense of permanence. Not every subsidiary had all nine, but many did, and the vast majority manifested at least five or six of the nine.  A portrait of Berkshire culture crystalized, one that is distinctive and durable.  And that culture, I argue in the book, will allow the company to thrive even after Buffett’s departure.

The discovery is suggested by the book’s subtitle: The Enduring Value of Values. “Value of values” refers to how the traits that bind Berkshire’s subsidiaries all share a common feature: all are intangible virtues that managers transform into economic gain. The most general manifestation of the “value of values” occurs in business acquisitions when the exchange of economic values measured using traditional standards leaves a wide gap—a price higher or lower than economic value.

A salient example from Berkshire’s history concerns Bill Child, patriarch of his family home furnishings company, RC Willey. He sold the company to Berkshire for $175 million, declining rival offers as high as $200 million. Why? Because his family valued the managerial autonomy and sense of permanence that define Berkshire culture. 

The book contains more than one hundred examples of myriad ways that Berkshire subsidiaries translate intangible qualities into economic value, whether in research & development, customer service, employee compensation and benefits, corporate finance, or internal policies and practices.  

Q:  What makes the value of values enduring?  

A:  By reaping returns on capital from intangible virtues, Berkshire practices a philosophy of capitalism that does well by doing good, is sensitive but unsentimental, lofty yet pragmatic, and public-spirited but profitable.  This attitude is neither altruistic nor moralistic, but practical, economic, and long-term. It’s a way of doing business that matches today’s zeitgeist, with its sense of stewardship and fair play, and also has a timeless horizon, as business leaders from Robert Mondavi to John Mackey of Whole Foods champion variations on these themes.

Q:  What is the audience for the book?

A:  Everyone involved in shaping American business: managers, entrepreneurs, owners, shareholders, directors, policymakers, scholars of corporate stewardship—and business lawyers and business law professors, of course. It’s a broad audience because Berkshire’s approach is distinctive but not inimitable and valuable yet underappreciated.

Q:  What surprises did you find?

A:  Many, mostly concerning the various subsidiaries, but several rising to the level of Buffett and Berkshire. As a recent headline in USA Today put it, “New Book Rewrites Buffett Legacy in Three Ways.”  The book explains why Buffett’s place in American history is even more significant than currently assumed. Besides being a “legendary investor,” as he is often identified by journalists, Buffett has built a formidable corporation, demonstrated unsung managerial prowess, and chartered a course for American capitalism that widens the meaning of “value investing.”

While everyone knows that Buffett owes a lot to Ben Graham, his investments teacher at Columbia Business School, this book also makes clear his debt on the management side to Tom Murphy, the legendary corporate icon and head of ABC who is now a Berkshire director.  When I asked Buffett who should write the foreword to this book, he instantly suggested Tom, and I’m grateful that Tom accepted the invitation—his foreword alone is worth the price of the book!

Q:  Care to give us a thumbnail sketch of the book’s outline?

A:  Sure. The opening chapters cover Berkshire’s origins and foundations, with surprises even for those most familiar with this terrain, including rich connections between Berkshire’s early acquisitions and the conglomerate today. While Berkshire appears vast, diverse, and sprawling, this synthesis of corporate culture shows instead a close-knit organization linked by discrete values. 

The middle chapters, the heart of the book, take a series of deep dives into fifty Berkshire subsidiaries to illuminate each of the traits and how they give Berkshire its identity and destiny. I was delighted that, when circulating the manuscript for comment among Berkshire devotees, even the most avid readers found new facts, fresh insights, and a whole new way of thinking not only about Berkshire but about Buffett. 

The closing chapters reflect on what Berkshire’s corporate culture means for Buffett’s legacy. They explore the elaborate succession plan at Berkshire, which most people misunderstand, and identify challenges Berkshire will face. I also draw specific lessons for investors, managers, and entrepreneurs who can benefit from Berkshire’s distinctive approach—lessons that business lawyers and policymakers will want to learn as well.

Q:  Can Berkshire Beyond Buffett be assigned for any university classes?

A:  Yes, and I think it will be a good companion to The Essays of Warren Buffett, which has been adopted at many law and business schools for courses on corporate governance, investments (portfolio management), and mergers & acquisitions. This book would suit those courses as well as courses in business ethics and corporate social responsibility. I am planning a seminar next spring in which these two books will be on the reading list, along with other contemporary books offering fresh examinations of venerable themes, such as Eric Orts’ Business Persons;  Lynn Stout’s Shareholder Value Myth; or Curtis Milhaupt & Katharine Pistor’s Law & Capitalism.

Q:  Berkshire Beyond Buffett appears to be full of lessons and important principles.  Which do you propose to explore for us during the coming week?

A:  I’m looking forward to sharing insights on topics such as corporate governance, corporate purpose, and succession planning.  Among the book’s many lessons, these will likely be of greatest interest to readers of the Business Law Prof Blog, and I thank you for the opportunity to introduce the book and these themes here this week.

Q:  Thanks so much, Larry.  Those certainly are all topics that interest me (and infuse my ongoing scholarship and teaching).  I look forward to your posts this week.

A:  You're welcome.  I am grateful for the opportunity to share what I have learned.

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