Buffett on Franchises

Warren Buffett talks a lot about competitive moats and franchises. However, I think he most succinctly describes his entire philosophy in this short passage:

An economic franchise arises from a product or service that: (1) is needed or desired; (2) is thought by its customers to have no close substitute and; (3) is not subject to price regulation. The existence of all three conditions will be demonstrated by a company’s ability to regularly price its product or service aggressively and thereby to earn high rates of return on capital. Moreover, franchises can tolerate mis-management. Inept managers may diminish a franchise’s profitability, but they cannot inflict mortal damage.

In contrast, “a business” earns exceptional profits only if it is the low-cost operator or if supply of its product or service is tight. Tightness in supply usually does not last long. With superior management, a company may maintain its status as a low-cost operator for a much longer time, but even then unceasingly faces the possibility of competitive attack. And a business, unlike a franchise, can be killed by poor management. [From the 1991 Berkshire annual report]

The first sentence basically lays out—in only a few words—the definition of a competitive advantage. So a company can be either a franchise or a business. But the separation between the two doesn’t have to be that clear cut.

Some franchises can be much more lucrative and powerful than others. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have moats, but Coke has the upper hand when it comes to customer mindshare. Because of this, Coke has always maintained higher worldwide and domestic market share than Pepsi.

Some companies can have both qualities: they are in extremely competitive industries (where lowest-cost wins), but also share some of the benefits of a franchise. The sit-down restaurant business is extremely difficult to operate in—but chains like In-N-Out and Steak ‘n Shake have created a brand that holds a special place in the minds of customers.

One more thing: I think when Buffett talks about mis-management, he really means short-term mis-management. A long period of poor management can have significant impact on any franchise—even one like Coca-Cola. And even with a strong economic franchise, every investment needs to be monitored just in case the moat starts to shrink (like newspapers over the last few decades).

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