Tests of a Good Business

By Warren Buffett

A couple of fast tests about how good a business is. First question is “how long does the management have to think before they decide to raise prices?” You’re looking at marvelous business when you look in the mirror and say “mirror, mirror on the wall, how much should I charge for Coke this fall?” [And the mirror replies, “More.”] That’s a great business. When you say, like we used to in the textile business, when you get down on your knees, call in all the priests, rabbis, and everyone else, [and say] “just another half cent a yard.” Then you get up and they say “We won’t pay it.” It’s just night and day. I mean, if you walk into a drugstore, and you say “I’d like a Hershey bar” and the man says “I don’t have any Hershey bars, but I’ve got this unmarked chocolate bar, and it’s a nickel cheaper than a Hershey bar” you just go across the street and buy a Hershey bar. That is a good business.

The ability to raise prices – the ability to differentiate yourself in a real way, and a real way means you can charge a different price – that makes a great business.

I’ll try this on the students later: What’s the highest price of a daily newspaper in the United States? [Pause] [This is what he said to the students later: Most of you are familiar with it. The highest priced daily newspaper in the United States, with any circulation at all, is the Daily Racing Form. It sells about 150,000 copies a day, and it has for about 50 years, and it’s either $2.00 or $2.25 (they keep raising prices) and it’s essential. If you’re heading to the racetrack and you’ve got a choice between betting on your wife’s birthday, and Joe’s Little Green Sheet, and the Daily Racing Form, if you’re a serious racing handicapper, you want The Form. You can charge $2.00 for The Form, you can charge $1.50, you can charge $2.50 and people are going to buy it. It’s like selling needles to addicts, basically. It’s an essential business. It will be an essential business five or 10 years from now. You have to decide whether horse racing will be around five or 10 years from now, and you have to decide whether there’s any way people will get their information about past performances of different horses from different sources. But you’ve only got about two questions to answer, and if you answer them, you know the business will make a lot of money. The Form has huge profit margins, incidentally. Wider than any other newspaper. They charge what they want to basically. It’s an easy to understand business – so easy to understand.]

There are products like that, and there are products like sheet steel. And they’re night and day.

Agony vs. Ecstasy Businesses: Example 1

It does make a difference what kind of a business you get associated with. For that reason I’ve set forth in this little handout Company A and Company E. I’m not going to tell you for the moment what these companies are. I’m going to tell you one thing about the two companies. One of the companies, to the point of where this cuts off, lost its investors more money than virtually any business in the world. The other company made its owner more money than virtually any company in the world. So one of these two companies, Company A and Company E, has made one of its owners one of the five wealthiest people in the world, while the other company made its owners appreciably poorer, probably more so than any other company to that point in time.

Now I’ll tell you a little bit about these companies (we’re leading up to the question of whether the business makes a difference). Company A had thousands of MBAs working for it. Company E had none. I wanted to get your attention. Company A had all kinds of employee benefit programs, stock options, pensions, the works. Company E never had stock options. Company A had thousands of patents – they probably held more patents than just about any company in the United States. Company E never invented anything. Company A’s product improved dramatically in this period, Company E’s product just sat.

So far, based on what I’ve told you, does anybody have any idea of which company was the great success, and why?

If you get to buy one of these two companies, and this is all you know, and you get to ask me one question to decide on which one to buy. If you ask me the right question, you will probably make the right decision about the company’s stock, and one will make you enormously wealthy.

[Audience asks questions]

Both companies make products used every day. They started as necessities, highly useful, nothing esoteric about either one, although company A does have all these patents. There’s more technology involved in company A.

[How many companies compete with either one?]

Good question, very good question. In effect, neither company had any competition. And that might differentiate in some cases.

Well, I’ll tell you a little more about it. Company A is known as company A because it was in agony, and Company E, as Company E, because it was in ecstasy. Company A is American Telephone and Telegraph. I’ve omitted eight zeros on the left hand side, and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, at the end of 1979, was selling for $10 billion less than the shareholders had either put in or left in the business. In other words, if shareholder’s equity was “X” the market value was X minus $10 billion. So the money that shareholders had put in, or left in, the business had shrunk by $10 billion in terms of market value.

Company E, the excellent company, I left off only six zeros. And that happens to be a company called Thompson Newspapers. Thomson Newspapers, which most of you have probably never heard of, actually owns about 5% of the newspapers in the United States. But they’re all small ones. And, as I said, it has no MBAs, no stock options – still doesn’t – and it made its owner, Lord Thompson. He wasn’t Lord Thompson when he started – he started with 1,500 bucks in North Bay, Ontario buying a little radio station but, when he got to be one of the five richest men, he became Lord Thompson.

…The telephone company, with the patents, the MBAs, the stock options, and everything else, had one problem, and that problem is illustrated by those figures on that lower left hand column. And those figures show the plant investment in the telephone business. That’s $47 billion, starting off with, growing to $99 billion over an eight or nine year period. More and more and more money had to be tossed in, in order to make these increased earnings, going from $2.2 billion to $5.6 billion.

So, they got more money, but you can get more money from a savings account if you keep adding money to it every year. The progress in earnings that the telephone company made was only achievable because they kept on shoving more money into the savings account and the truth was, under the conditions of the ‘70s, they were not getting paid commensurate with the amount of money that they had to shove into the pot, whereas Lord Thompson, once he bought the paper in Council Bluffs, never put another dime in. They just mailed money every year. And as they got more money, he bought more newspapers. And, in fact, he said it was going to say on his tombstone that he bought newspapers in order to make more money in order to buy more newspapers [and so on].

The idea was that, essentially, he raised prices and raised earnings there every year without having to put more capital into the business.

One is a marvelous, absolutely sensational business, the other one is a terrible business. If you have a choice between going to work for a wonderful business that is not capital intensive, and one that is capital intensive, I suggest that you look at the one that is not capital intensive. I took 25 years to figure that out, incidentally.

Agony vs. Ecstasy Businesses: Example 2 (two Berkshire Hathaway companies)

On the next page, I’ve got a couple of other businesses here. Company E is the ecstasy on the left. You can see earnings went up nicely: they went from $4 million to $27 million. They only employed assets of $17 million, so that is really a wonderful business. On $17 million they earned $27 million, 150% on invested capital. That is a good business. The one on the right, Company A, the agony, had $11 or $12 million tied up, and some years made a few bucks, and in some years lost a few bucks.

Now, here again we might ask ourselves, “What differentiates these companies?” Does anybody have any idea why company E might have done so much better than Company A? Usually somebody says at this point “maybe company E was better managed than company A.” There’s only one problem with that conclusion and that is, Company E and Company A had the same manager – me!

The company E is our candy business, See’s Candies out in California. I don’t know how many of you come from the west, but it dominates the boxed chocolate business out there and the earnings went from $4 million to $27 million, and in the year that just ended they were about $38 million. In other words, they mail us all the money they make every year and they keep growing, and making more money, and everybody’s very happy.

Company A was our textile business. That’s a business that took me 22 years to figure out it wasn’t very good. Well, in the textile business, we made over half of the men’s suit linings in the United States. If you wore a men’s suit, chances were that it had a Hathaway lining. And we made them during World War II, when customers couldn’t get their linings from other people. Sears Roebuck voted us “Supplier of the Year.” They were wild about us. The thing was, they wouldn’t give us another half a cent a yard because nobody had ever gone into a men’s clothing store and asked for a pin striped suit with a Hathaway lining. You just don’t see that.

As a practical matter, if some guy’s going to offer them a lining for 79 cents, [it makes no difference] who’s going to take them fishing, and supplied them during World War II, and was personal friends with the Chairman of Sears. Because we charged 79½ cents a yard, it was “no dice.”

See’s Candies, on the other hand, made something that people had an emotional attraction to, and a physical attraction you might say. We’re almost to Valentine’s Day, so can you imagine going to your wife or sweetheart, handing her a box of candy and saying “Honey, I took the low bid.”

Essentially, every year for 19 years I’ve raised the price of candy on December 26. And 19 years goes by and everyone keeps buying candy. Every ten years I tried to raise the price of linings a fraction of a cent, and they’d throw the linings back at me. Our linings were just as good as our candies. It was much harder to run the linings factory than it was to run the candy company. The problem is, just because a business is lousy doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult.

In the end, I like to think anyway that if Alfred P. Sloan [the legendary CEO of General Motors during its heyday] came back and tried to run the lining business, it wouldn’t make as much money as a good business. The product was undifferentiated. The candy product is differentiated. (Garbled story of Hershey Bar and Coke versus unbranded but modestly cheaper products).

You really want something where, if they don’t have it in stock, you want to go across the street to get it. Nobody cares what kind of steel goes into a car. Have you ever gone into a car dealership to buy a Cadillac and said “I’d like a Cadillac with steel that came from the South Works of US Steel.” It just doesn’t work that way, so that when General Motors buys they call in all the steel companies and say “here’s the best price we’ve got so far, and you’ve got to decide if you want to beat their price, or have your plant sit idle.”

Source: Lectures by Warren Buffett to Notre Dame Faculty, MBA Students and Undergraduate Students,Spring, 1991