Generalists vs. Specialists (and the Specialist’s Dilemma)

In December of last year, I gave a presentation to a group of investors on the mental models of robustness and generalist/specialist species. Below are some of my findings, along with how these models can be applied to business and investing.

Animal species reside on a scale with “generalist” on one end and “specialist” on the other. Specialists can live only in a narrow range of conditions: diet, climate, camouflage, etc. Generalists are able to survive a wide variety of conditions and changes in the environment: food, climate, predators, etc.

Specialists thrive when conditions are just right. They fulfill a niche and are very effective at competing with other organisms. They have good mechanisms for coping with “known” risks. But when the specific conditions change, they are much more likely to go extinct. Generalists respond much better to changes/uncertainty. These species usually survive for very long periods because they deal with unanticipated risks better. They have very coarse behavior: eat any food available, survive in many climates, use a simple mechanism to defend a wide range of predators, etc. But unlike specialists they don’t maximize their current environment, because they don’t fill a niche where they could be more successful. It’s tough being a generalist—there’s more competition.

An environment with more competition breeds more specialists. Rainforests have huge diversity and competition, and therefore many specialist species.

Specialist examples: Orchid mantis (colorful mantis with appendages like leaves, thrives only on orchids and in tropics), sword-billed hummingbird (beak longer than body, co-evolved with flowers having very long corollas and difficult getting food elsewhere), koala (lives almost entirely on eucalyptus filling a niche that is toxic to most animals).

Generalist examples: Cockroach (survives in most climates, only needs water/moisture and a food source, only defense is responding to puffs of air), raccoon (wide diet, omnivore, lives in any area with trees, brush, or structures), rat (found everywhere in the world but the Artic, not picky eaters), horseshoe crab (wide diet on floor of sea bed, tolerates wide range of water temperature, can survive in low oxygen waters and out of water for extended periods; species over 360MYO).

Specialists & Generalists in Investing

This model can be applied to many different areas.

Investors themselves can be put on the specialist/generalist scale. The most specialized investors focus only on narrow segments of the market or certain types of securities. They can be very successful during certain time periods but in the long run are usually disrupted by a changing investment landscape or black-swan-like event. The most generalized investors use very coarse, unchanging rules and are truly “go anywhere”, willing to buy or sell any type of security around the world. They may underperform or lag behind their specialized brethren in the short term but will likely do well in the long run when averaged out over many different environments. Most investors (including Warren Buffett) lie somewhere in between these two extremes. Specialists include investors in certain industries like Sam Zell (real estate) and Ron Burkle (retail), or in certain situations like Jim Chanos (shorting) and David Tepper (distressed). True generalists are more rare, but include great investors like Ben Graham and Seth Klarman.

Specialists & Generalists in Business

A more interesting application is to the competitive business world. Like in the animal kingdom, generalists are rare and are usually much bigger than the specialists. They include big multinationals like Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Proctor & Gamble. Also included are conglomerates that may hold many diversified specialists like General Electric or Berkshire Hathaway. Specialists are businesses that focus on a local niche whether in geography or product space. Because many specialists can dominate their niche, they’re usually protected by moats and thus have high returns.

This is what I call the Specialist’s Dilemma. The stronger your competitive position in a market niche, the more vulnerable you are to eventually being disrupted by changes in the business environment.

Let me explain further. Out of the universe of companies that have strong competitive moats, many of them have advantages originating from the niches they occupy. (Which can lead to barriers like economies of scale, brand attachment driven by habit, and being ahead on the learning curve.) These advantages are durable only as long as the niche itself remains viable. In other words, the more specialized a company’s dominance is, the stronger its advantages are — but the higher the odds of the niche itself eventually disappearing. Not disappearing due to competitors within the industry, but due to the niche being completely destroyed and replaced by something else. The timing of when this happens partially depends on the “clockspeed” of innovation within the industry (more on that in my last post).

Just something to think about if you’re a long term investor or business manager.

The Progression of Innovation

It’s good for any investor or business person to know where their company fits when it comes to the progression of innovation. Even if a certain company or product isn’t new, at some point in time the business it’s in was. Throughout history, innovations (whether they be technological inventions or innovations in business model) came about that performed a certain “job” better than the status quo. Most of these innovations didn’t arrive spontaneously — they were built upon or evolved from their predecessors.

The following is a simplified chart/timeline of innovations in the computer industry:

Consumers purchase computer systems, with new innovations or shifts in one component (processors or operating systems) driving innovation in computer design and vice versa. Other components like storage and display also drove innovation but were less important in this context. Most of the above innovations are technical, with the exception of the commodity PC makers (Dell, Compaq, etc.) which were an innovation in business model.

After money was transferred from consumers to computer makers, it went primarily to chip makers and OS developers. Because suppliers like Intel and Microsoft had strong competitive advantages, they had strong bargaining power, and therefore received and kept most of the value.

Retail Industry

The progression of innovation doesn’t just apply to industries as technical and complex as computers. Below is another timeline (dates are approximate) of the progression of the retail industry: Continue reading “The Progression of Innovation”

Underestimating the Groupon Model

As widely reported, Groupon filed their first S-1 today in preparation for an IPO. They’re raising $750 million on top of the $160 million they have already raised from angel & venture capital investors so far. The likely valuation range will be $20-25 billion (or possibly more after what happened with the LinkedIn IPO).

The hefty valuation, along with the youth of the company (2.5 years) and the reported operating loss may lead observers and the media to cry “bubble.” While I think that $25 billion is a very rich valuation and wouldn’t pay that amount if it went public today, I think people in general underestimate the potential of Groupon’s business model. In other words, they were probably right to turn down Google’s offer of $6 billion (even if they don’t cash out during the offering).

Before going into Groupon’s business model and competitive advantages, here’s a quick run down of some of their customer statistics from the S-1:

In the above equation, those 5 metrics are multiplied to arrive at Groupon’s net revenue amount (the amount Groupon gets to keep after giving merchants their cut). So in the first quarter they made $270 million before expenses.

First the market, then the moat

Before Groupon and all the other deal sites began, local businesses had many lackluster options for advertising their product. They could send coupons in the mail; pay for ads in a local newspaper; pay for outdoor advertising; or pay for online advertising via Google, local news sites, etc. Most of these options (Google less so) are what Seth Godin calls interruption marketing. They are made to interrupt what you are normally trying to do. And because of that, people usually don’t like them, and they have a very low hit-rate in acquiring customers. Continue reading “Underestimating the Groupon Model”

On Buffett’s 2010 Letter to Shareholders

Warren BuffettHere is Warren Buffett’s 2010 Letter to Shareholders if you haven’t seen it already.

It was a very good letter overall, with Buffett providing his usual wisdom and wit. This year, he didn’t have to review the basics as he did in 2009 for the new Burlington Northern shareholders, so there was even more wisdom about Buffett’s methodologies and Berkshire’s businesses than usual.

He spends some time in the letter talking about Berkshire’s culture, which is an extremely important yet overlooked part of their past and future success. It is this culture that will allow Buffett to continue to “run” the company for many years after his death. That’s what Berkshire shareholders and the media should focus on instead of worrying so much about succession.

One thing is clear: Buffett may not run the companies that Berkshire owns, but he knows the numbers cold. Of course, that’s always been the case. For every kind of business, he knows the metrics that matter most and the determinants that drive success over time. Sometimes, he even knows it better than the managers themselves (and he’s a much better manager than he’d like to admit in his letters).

For investors, one of the most insightful parts of both Buffett’s letters and annual meetings is how he thinks about and evaluates businesses. In this letter, he didn’t disappoint by providing more insight on how he evaluates Berkshire’s holdings. GEICO was one specific example. The value of policyholders for many insurance companies is zero or even less than zero — these companies are worth tangible book value and no more. But GEICO, according to Buffett’s evaluation, has an extremely valuable base of policyholders: worth about $14 billion, or 97% of annual premium volume.

Number-wise, Buffett provided his estimate of the normalized earnings power of Berkshire’s operations — which at $17 billion, is higher than the reported amount in 2010. These earnings alone would give Berkshire a current pre-tax yield of over 8%, and that doesn’t include any new investments or future gains on their $158 billion in investments.

This valuation compares very favorably to many large-caps in the S&P 500. I think Berkshire is worth at least $100 per “B” share, if not more if Buffett can continue to deploy capital into good, growing businesses.

You can see the above comments in addition to commentary from other Berkshire shareholders in this WSJ blog post: “Here is What People Are Saying About Buffett’s Letter

Braewick Holdings LP owns shares in Berkshire Hathaway. We reserve the right to buy or sell them at any time.

On Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The following is a writeup I did for Wal-Mart on Sum Zero, included in its entirety below. Also at the end of the post are some charts that show how Wal-Mart has evolved over time. There is no doubt that Sam Walton and Wal-Mart are one of the, if not the greatest success story over the past 50 years. So it’s a great case study to take a look at. (I believe Warren Buffett once said that his greatest error of omission was not investing in Wal-Mart, a business he could understand very well, in its early days–which is clearly seen in the charts below.)


WalmartWal-Mart is often listed as a cheap large-cap, but is owned by surprisingly few value investors. One reason is that it’s big and well scrutinized and hence its price is more “efficient.”  This is partly true, and you won’t get stellar returns investing in Wal-Mart. But it is a cheap, well-managed company that returns cash to shareholders and should fare well under a number of different macro scenarios.

Competitive Advantages

The U.S. stores division of Wal-Mart (about 3/4 of pre-tax profit) has significant competitive advantages. To consumers, Wal-Mart’s brand represents one thing: low prices. Customers in the vicinity of a Wal-Mart remain loyal because they can be certain that they will have the lowest prices. And as long as Wal-Mart doesn’t slack off in the service and facility departments, there will be no good reason for customers to switch.

Wal-Mart can have the lowest prices because of their (1) efficient operations and (2) economies of scale. Operationally, expenses are lower because of their non-unionized workforce and other shrewd cost management (shrinkage, inbound logistics, etc.). This penny-pinching mentality has been ingrained in the company since it was founded by Sam Walton. The biggest cost advantages are from Wal-Mart’s economies of scale. The most obvious consequence is purchasing power—Wal-Mart can buy products at lower prices because they can purchase in such enormous quantities. But the biggest and most un-replicable scale advantage is geographic concentration. Wal-Mart has a “hub and spoke” system of a distribution centers with 100-150 stores around them, all within about a day’s drive. Because of this concentration, costs can be distributed over a larger base of potential customers: distribution, advertising, regional management, etc. Wal-Mart also has some of the most technologically advanced merchandise and logistics systems in the world. This is something that smaller or more spread-out retailers can’t match. Continue reading “On Wal-Mart Stores Inc.”

BreitBurn Energy Partners

I’ve owned BreitBurn Energy Partners (BBEP) both personally and through Braewick Holdings LP for the past year and a half. The following is a clip from my letter to partners explaining our investment in the company:


BreitBurn is an oil and gas production company structured as an MLP (see my July 2009 letter for a similar discussion of Linn Energy, another MLP). BreitBurn’s business model is fairly simple: their only job is to extract and sell oil and gas from wells they own throughout the U.S. These are wells they have acquired—they don’t take the risk of exploring or drilling for new wells. Basically, BreitBurn is like a portfolio of interest-only bonds—assets (petroleum in the ground) that pay interest (production revenue minus extraction and administration costs) until the bond is paid off (reserves are depleted). Here’s a quick summary of BreitBurn’s goal from their 10-K:

Our objective is to manage our oil and gas producing properties for the purpose of generating cash flow and making distributions to our unitholders.

Because BreitBurn wants fairly steady cash flow to fund their distributions, much of their oil and gas production is hedged. That level of hedged production is immune from fluctuations in energy prices. By the summer of 2008 when prices were high, they had managed to hedge about 70-80% of production for three years out. So when energy prices (and the stock market) subsequently collapsed that fall, BreitBurn’s cash flow remained mostly unharmed. However, as with many of the MLPs, Lehman Brothers was both counterparty to their hedges and a large owner of the stock. The “perfect storm” of falling energy prices, a crashing stock market, and Lehman’s liquidation caused BreitBurn’s unit price to fall from over $20 in the summer to under $6 in December.

Continue reading “BreitBurn Energy Partners”

On Biglari Holdings and Type X Behavior

In November of last year, I wrote “The Restaurant Investor” about Steak n Shake, Sardar Biglari, and what it takes for a restaurant to succeed. In the article, I mentioned that Steak n Shake (now Biglari Holdings) was on solid financial footing and that Biglari would likely start pursuing a holding-company strategy by investing excess cash flow into better opportunities. While this did happen, a few other “revelations” came up over the past six months that changed my view on the company. Anyone who follows BH already knows what I’m talking about, but below I’ve included my thoughts on the situation from my most recent letter to investors:

* * *

Most everyone has heard of the “Type A” and “Type B” personality classifications. In Dan Pink’s book Drive, he adapts MIT management professor Douglas McGregor’s ideas to put forth two more classifications: Type X and Type I. Type X behavior is fueled by extrinsic motivation—external rewards like money and recognition. Type I behavior is fueled by intrinsic motivation—the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself. “I don’t mean to say that Type X people always neglect the inherent enjoyment of what they do, or that Type I people resist any outside goodies of any kind,” Pink says. “But for Type X’s, the main motivator is external rewards. Any deeper satisfaction is welcome, but secondary. For Type I’s, the main motivator is the freedom, challenge, and purpose of the undertaking itself. Any other gains are welcome, but mainly as a bonus.”

Pink lists some well-known examples of both types: Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, and Bruce Springsteen are Type I’s. Donald Trump, Jack Welch, and Simon Cowell are Type X’s. So it’s clear that both personalities can be successful. People can also change over time. But Type I’s almost always outperform in the long run. They’re also the people you want working for you.

On April 30, Biglari Holdings announced that its new compensation agreement with CEO Sardar Biglari would provide him with 25% of the gain in Book Value over an annual hurdle rate of 5%. So if the Book Value of the company went up 13%, Biglari would receive 2% of the company’s equity. At its current size, that amounts to around $7 million, including his regular salary. Continue reading “On Biglari Holdings and Type X Behavior”

Claude Bébéar, the Risk Avoider

Claude Bébéar is the founder and former CEO of the insurance company AXA. I believe the AXA group is currently the third largest insurance company in the world (just behind Allianz and Generali Group). Bébéar built AXA through mergers and acquisitions, most notably the Drouot Group and the American insurer Equitable. More can be found about AXA at Wikipedia.

The following are some excerpts from a great interview of Bébéar done by Michael Villette (mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Sure Thing”). In the interview, Villette’s goal was to test the common belief that Bébéar took more risks than others (both in business and insurance), was a business innovator, and took advantage of others using insider “industry” information.

MV: Explain to me how starting in 1981 you managed to carry out an uninterrupted sequence of acquisitions in France and then in other countries. I would like an explanation with no magic, with facts and figures.

CB: There’s no magic in any of it, nothing extraordinary. The first coup was Drouot, which we bought at a bargain price, because of the panic after the left won the elections.

On the Drouot acquisition:

… the result: we acquired for 250 million francs a company that was valued at 5 billion francs four years later. . . .

MV: Why was Drouot worth so little to start with and so much later?

CB: It’s just like Equitable. People study the issues very poorly. They look at things superficially. Drouot was a company with a very good business that had done some stupid things in real estate. It was taken over hastily by Bouygues. Bouygues knew nothing about the profession of insurance, so he stuck with thinking like a financial analyst, that is, in the short term. He said to himself: “Oh, there’s a hole in this business, it’s terrible!” He didn’t see the value of the underlying business. We bought at a very low price because it seemed to be a company practically on the skids, but since we were insurance professionals, we restored the business immediately, we increased premiums, and so on, and the business took off very quickly. When we bought it, it was losing 200 million. The following year, the budget was balanced, and the third year it earned 200 million.

On the Equitable acquisition: Continue reading “Claude Bébéar, the Risk Avoider”

The Innovations of Apple: Part II

Steve Jobs iPhone
Instead of further examining where Apple’s current (and future) products fit in on the “innovation scale,” in Part II I want to talk about Apple as an investment, and where its products fit in in terms of investment value.

Apple has been a fantastic investment over the past decade. In fact, since April 2003 when they launched the iTunes store (and iPod sales took off), a dollar invested in Apple would be worth over $40 today – an annualized return of almost 70%. That’s a return that would make most venture capitalists blush. Not bad for a company founded 27 years prior.

One more statistic: even if Apple stock had gone nowhere from its IPO in 1980 up to 2003, its annual return over the three decades since going public would be 13%, which still beats the S&P 500 by over 3%. In other words, almost all of Apple’s current value (~$230 billion) was created over the last seven years.

Where did that value come from? For the seven years ending 2009, sales grew from $5.7bb to $42.9bb. Over 70% of that growth came from new products: the iPod, the iPhone, media sales, and other related peripherals. On a net profit basis, even more than 70% of Apple’s growth came from new products (segment margins aren’t disclosed, but overall margins have hugely increased and most of that likely came from new products). Aside from the storied brand name, Apple is basically a startup that was funded with the cash and income from their struggling Macintosh business.

Apple and the Red Queen Run the Hedonic Treadmill

…it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” – The Red Queen, Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”

So, clearly, the law of large numbers comes into effect when looking at Apple’s future growth prospects. To double revenues, Apple would have to sell an extra $43 billion a year in products – that’s over 68 million iPhones or 32 million Macs every year. Continue reading “The Innovations of Apple: Part II”

Pyramids vs. Skyscrapers

Insight: When looking at a company, what type of building is it?

Large companies (with competitive advantages) can be pyramids or skyscrapers. Both are large and have commanding presences. Both have high returns.

Pyramids are strong — you can’t knock them over. Skyscrapers are tall and strong, but they can be knocked over much easier. For a pyramid to be destroyed, it must start at the top, and slowly erode over time. After a while, only the foundation will be left. With a skyscraper, the foundation can be destroyed first, and the rest of the company will go with it.

Wal-Mart is a pyramid. Google is a skyscraper (for now — it seems that Larry & Sergey are in the process of building the foundation up). Berkshire Hathaway is a pyramid. Newspapers were pyramids — however, over the last two decades, they have been slowly chipped away starting from the top. Now, the foundation is about all that’s left.

Skyscrapers can be turned into pyramids over time.  But that requires great management and somewhat favorable circumstances. The time it took to build a company doesn’t necessarily tell you what type of building it is.

You can combine this analogy with Buffett’s moat analogy. Moats are barriers to entry — the wider the moat, the harder it is for competitors and disruptive technology to affect the company. But if the moat can be crossed, you’d much rather have a pyramid than a skyscraper.