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A simple introduction to the role of capital allocation in a firm's success
on February 17, 2013
Please note, I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher, Harvard Business Review Press, on a complimentary basis.
Capital allocation uber alles
"The Outsiders" rests on a premise, that the increase in a public company's per share value is the best metric for measuring the success of a given CEO, which lends itself to the book's major thesis: that superior capital allocation is what sets apart the best CEOs from the rest, and that most modern CEOs seem to be only partially aware, if at all, of its critical performance to their companies long-term business success.
Notice! This book is examining the efforts and measurements of CEOs of public companies, not all businesses (public and private), so as a result in comes up a bit short in the "universal application" department. Yes, capital allocation is still critical even in a private business, but you can not measure a private business's per share value (because there isn't a marketable security price to reference) and the CEO of a private company is missing one of the most powerful capital allocation tools available to public CEOs, the share buyback (because there is no free float for them to get their hands on at periodically irrational prices).
The CEO capital allocation toolkit
Thorndike describes five capital allocation choices CEOs have:
--invest in existing operations
--acquire other businesses
--pay down debt
Along with this, they have three means of generating capital:
--internal/operational cash flow
With this framework, Thorndike proceeds to review the business decisions of 8 different "outsider" CEOs, so labeled because they tended to use these tools in a contrary fashion to the mainstream wisdom of their time and to much improved effect as per comparison to their benchmarks. Some of the CEOs are well known and oft mentioned and studied (Warren Buffett, John Malone, Kay Graham, Tom Murphy) and a few are known to the value cognoscenti but may have managed to escape notice of the wider public, academic or otherwise (Henry Singleton, Bill Anders, Bill Stirlitz and Dick Smith).
The author tries to tie together the various common threads, such as how,
"All were first-time CEOs, most with very little prior management experience"
and many of which (such as Singleton, Buffett and Graham) were large or majority equity holders in their companies, making them part of the vaunted owner-operator club with its resulting beneficial incentives.
Thorndike also tries to use the hedgehog vs. fox metaphor, claiming,
"They had familiarity with other companies and industries and disciplines, and this ranginess translated into new perspectives, which in turn helped them to develop new approaches that eventually translated into exceptional results"
Interestingly, the share buyback stands out as a particularly effective capital allocation tool for all and the author claims that during the difficult inflationary conditions and market depression of the 1974-1982 period,
"every single one [emphasis in the original] was engaged in either a significant share repurchase program or a series of large acquisitions"
In broad strokes, Thorndike's efforts to paint these CEOs with a common brush works, but there are numerous times where his attempt to establish commonality in genius comes across as forced and unworkable. Often, one of these CEOs will operate in a way inconsistent with Thorndike's major thesis and yet he'll end up praising the CEO anyway. In poker, we'd call this the "won, didn't it?" fallacy-- judging a process by the specific, short-term result accomplished rather than examining the long-term result of multiple iterations of the process over time.
This is actually one of the things that rubbed me rather raw as I read the book. In every chapter, Thorndike manages to strike a rather breathless, hagiographic tone where these CEOs can do no wrong and everything they do is "great", "fantastic," etc. Unfortunately, this kind of hyperbolic language gets used over and over without any variety to the point it's quite noticeable how lacking in detail and critical analysis Thorndike's approach is at points.
Eventually, I reached a point where I almost wanted to set the book down, take a deep breath and say, "Okay... I get it, this guy is absolutely amazing... can we move on now?"
The editing seemed a bit sloppy, too. Thorndike is a graduate of Stanford and Harvard and runs his own financial advisory. He's obviously an accomplished, intellectual person. Yet his prose often reads like an immature blog post. It's too familiar and casual for the subject matter and the credentials of the author. I'm surprised they left those parts in during the editing process. I think it makes Thorndike's thesis harder to take seriously when, in all likelihood, it'd probably be quite convincing if you happened to chat with the author on an airplane.
From vice to virtue
Something I liked about "The Outsiders" was the fact that there were 8 profiles, rather than one. It was reinforcing to see that the same principles and attitudes toward business and management were carried out by many different individuals who didn't all know each other (though some did) and ALL had huge outperformance compared to their benchmark.
And I think for someone who is just jumping into the investing, management and agency problem literature, "The Outsiders" is a good place to start to get a broad outline of the major thesis which is that companies that are run by owner-operators, or by people who think like them, where the top management focuses on intelligently allocating capital to its highest use (which, oftentimes when the company's stock remains stubbornly low compared to its estimated intrinsic value, makes buybacks in the public market the most intelligent option versus low margin growth) consistently outperform their peers and their benchmarks on a financial basis.
I think if this was one of the first books I had read on this theme, I would've found it quite illuminating and exciting, a real eye-opener experience. As it were, I read this book after reading a long train of other, often times significantly more comprehensive and detailed literature, so my personal experience was rather flat-- I came away thinking I hadn't learned much.
More to the story
There's more to this story in two senses.
In the first sense, I actually highlighted many little comments or ideas throughout the book that are either helpful reminders or concepts I hadn't fully considered myself yet, pertaining to best operational and management practices for businesses and the people who invest in them. In other words, the book is a little deeper than I bothered to share here. As a collection of anecdotes and principles for mastering the concept of capital allocation, it's a good resource.
In the second sense, I think there's a lot more to the success of the businessmen and their companies profiled (along with many others) than just good capital allocation. The text alludes to this with quotes from various figures about how they operated their businesses and managed people aside from the specific challenges of capital allocation. But it never goes into it because that isn't in focus.
And as a business person myself, I know from my own reading, thinking and personal experience that capital allocation IS a critical factor in successfully managing and growing a business over the long-term -- after all, if you can't find good places to put your cash, you'll inevitably end up wasting a lot of it -- but you won't have capital to allocate if you aren't operating your business and managing your relationships with employees and customers well, in addition. The book just doesn't do much in the way of explaining how it was that Ralston Purina, or General Dynamics or Teledyne or what have you, had so much capital to allocate in the first place.