This article has been adapted from our sister site across the pond, Fool U.K.
Here are three large American corporations: General Electric
What's striking about all six companies is the attention that they've paid to developing a strong internal management culture: fostering talent, promoting from within, and pouring a huge amount of resources into management development and training.
GE, for example, which spends $1 billion a year on training and education programs, even has its own "university": Crotonville, established in 1956, and now known as the John F. Welch Leadership Development Center.
Microsoft, to pick another example, has a strict employee-assessment and ranking process -- initially modeled on GE's, but since tailored more closely to its own needs -- that promotes the more able, and encourages the less able to find billets elsewhere.
On several occasions, I've discussed the system with senior Microsoft executives, including Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and all pay tribute to it as a mechanism for driving innovation and growth.
Same goes for Andy Grove, former chairman and CEO at Intel (and the company's third employee), with whom I've also chatted on a number of occasions. He certainly had some distinctive views on corporate culture -- look no further than his book Only the Paranoid Survive -- but there is no denying that Intel has delivered handsomely over the years.
I've led with these American examples because they are well-known in their field. Over the years, magazines such as Fortune have spent enormous amounts of time analyzing and explaining how these corporations acquire and develop talent, and imbue that talent with their own distinctive corporate culture.
But there's another reason such companies stand out: Over the years, they've delivered a lot of value to shareholders. To be sure, all of those companies have experienced some turbulent times, particularly of late. But over the long haul, they've done the business.
And how! Over a 30-year period, for instance, a stake in ExxonMobil -- another management powerhouse -- would have grown 114 times, with dividends reinvested. Microsoft, admittedly, has now recently started paying a (somewhat miserly) dividend. But on the other hand, it has $23 billion in the bank. Procter & Gamble has been throwing off growing amounts of cash for years, despite less-than-stellar revenue growth.
Britain, too, has its share of businesses with a strong culture and a history of developing management talent. And in 20 years of researching and writing about businesses, I've been privileged to meet -- and talk to -- more than a few of their managers.
Here on the Fool, we rarely get into detailed discussions of a company's management, especially in terms of the management ethos as a whole, rather than on the decisions -- and mistakes -- of individual company leaders.
Looking at my own portfolio, I sometimes wonder whether that isn't a little short-sighted. While some of the shares that I might have bought into if buying largely on management caliber have been expensive -- think Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser, for instance -- they've arguably done rather better than picks such as BT and Lloyds Banking Group, which were chosen largely on financial grounds, as high-yield plays.
In a sense, of course, this isn't revolutionary. Warren Buffett has been buying managements for years -- apparently ignoring Peter Lynch's famous preference for buying "a business that any idiot can run -- because sooner or later, an idiot probably is going to run it."
And of course, Buffett's strategy makes excellent intuitive sense: One would expect superior managements to deliver long-term superior returns. Just as we buy businesses with strong global brands, or Buffett's wide and deep moats, buying businesses with superior managements seems eminently sensible.
Yet it's rarely seen a reason sufficient unto itself. Box-ticking after other criteria have been met, certainly. A warm comfort factor, to be sure. And so on.
In short, it's an omission that intrigues me. And it's certainly an omission that you don't see in other fields -- from fund management to football, for instance.
But what would such a portfolio look like? Which British companies would be in it? I can think of a handful of companies, but no more.
Nominations in the box below, please. And in a follow-up article I'll have a shot at constructing a "management excellence" portfolio.
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