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Last week's Berkshire Hathaway annual letter provides investors with better insights into what makes for a great investment than any business school could hope to teach. Whether you're just getting started buying stocks or are a market-hardened veteran, Berkshire's annual letter is mandatory reading material. For a rundown of Warren Buffett's most salient points, take a look at my colleague Morgan Housel's excellent article.
I have my own favorite piece of wisdom out of this year's letter: Buffett's description of how insurer GEICO has grown to be the third-largest auto insurer in the U.S., with a market share of 8.8%. The crucial nugget of information is where Buffett describes how GEICO pulled off this feat: "get the policyholder’s business by deserving his business." As it turns out, saving customers "15% or more on car insurance" has paid off big time.
Deserving a customer's business is a concept so simple it seems obvious, but the unfortunate reality is that many businesses have their priorities backward and focus more on how they can extract every dollar from their customers than how they can provide as much value as they can. The types of enduring franchise businesses that Buffett loves often buck that short-term mindset and deliver their customers great value, ensuring that shareholders will build tremendous wealth over multidecade periods of time.
Can I find the next great franchise business by thinking about which companies deserve my business? I think I can, and I started by asking myself "Who am I happy to pay money to for their products?" Interestingly, the list I came up with is full of companies with great brands that have customers like me making repeat purchases.
I have been a Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) subscriber since 2002. Looking at my near-decade-long account history, I have received more than 800 DVDs in the mail and watched another 180 movies and shows through the streaming service. You could say that I'm a bit of a movie junkie, and for what it's worth I think Black Swan was robbed at the Oscars. Netflix is so valuable to me that I couldn't think of not paying them my monthly fee. I've cut a lot of extraneous expenditures out of my budget over the past year, including cable, but Netflix falls into the untouchable category. I suspect many of Netflix's 20 million subscribers would agree. That, Fools, is the sign of a great business. Not surprisingly, Netflix's long-term shareholders have multiplied their investment in the company.
Beer drinkers across the country should send Boston Beer (NYSE: SAM ) co-founder Jim Koch a handwritten thank-you note for the role he has played over the past two decades in expanding the market for craft beer. Without passionate brewers like Koch, we'd be stuck drinking the flavorless, colored water the global brewing giants call "beer." Koch's recipe for success is pretty simple: make a product people like. That's worked out well for Boston Beer's long-term shareholders. This stock is almost a ten-bagger over the past decade, and with a market cap of just $1.2 billion this company has a lot of room to keep growing. As a Sam Adams fan I'm pleased to note that Boston Beer is now the largest American brewer.
Activision Blizzard (Nasdaq: ATVI ) has earned a reputation for only releasing the highest-quality games, particularly with its Blizzard division franchises Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft. As an avid gamer I'll admit that at times it can be frustrating to wait literally years for the newest game in the series to be released. What I do know is that my patience will be rewarded every time with a flawless gaming experience. In an industry notorious for rushing buggy and subpar games to market, Blizzard's meticulous attention to detail has earned my trust and I will buy every game they release. It's no surprise that Activision Blizzard is the only major video game company that is consistently profitable, and its finances are so rock-solid that it has even started paying a dividend. Game on!
The sales guy in my neighborhood running store told me that "cotton is rotten," and after trying out my first pair of real running socks I finally understood all the hype around Under Armour's (NYSE: UA ) products and was instantly hooked. Some products are so good that you can't ever imagine yourself going back to what you used before. Even though this industry is dominated by heavyweights like Adidas and Nike, CEO Kevin Plank is in the process of building one of the next truly great brands. With athletes like UFC welterweight champion George St. Pierre and three-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady on board with their endorsements, Under Armour is well on its way to greatness.
Every single one of these companies deserves my money. I am happy to pay them for the product or service they provide and expect to continue to do so for a very long time. I don't think it's a coincidence that each of these companies is led by a passionate CEO wholly committed to providing high-quality products to its customers. That leads to a virtuous cycle where the consumer keeps coming back for more and that's good for both the customer and shareholders.
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