Should Everyone Try to Be Like Billionaire Warren Buffett?

Should you start a business like Warren Buffett's?

Aug 17, 2014 at 7:27AM

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has grown into a massive conglomerate with operations spanning from railroads to energy. However, one of the biggest questions about the company now is, "Would shareholders be better off with Buffett broke up the company into small parts?" 

To find some answers, Motley Fool analyst David Hanson recently sat down with Larry Cunningham, the author of The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America Warren Buffett himself said of the book, "Larry Cunningham has done a great job at collating our philosophy." Cunningham also has a new book coming out this fall, titled Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values The book explores Berkshire's ability to live on after Buffett. In the following video, Cunningham explains why Berkshire is structured the way it is and whether or not other companies should try and replicate this structure. Cunningham also points out that Markel is an example of a company trying to do just that.

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A full transcript follows.

Hanson: You hear the arguments that "Berkshire could be worth more if we split it apart; it's hard to value in its current form." On the structure of Berkshire and how Buffett built that partnership, there was a question at the annual meeting this year that said, "Why has no one else done this?"

Do you think other companies should try to structure themselves like Berkshire, or is it so unique with someone like Buffett and Munger at the top that it almost shouldn't be replicated because most people wouldn't have the discipline and the values to run it in a good way?

Cunningham: That's a great question. I would have two observations on that.

One is, it's true. The first sentence of the book is, "Berkshire Hathaway is an accident." No one planned it out. Warren didn't plan it this way, Charlie didn't plan it this way. There was never any planning. So, for a person who sat down today and said, "Let me start a company. Let me follow this approach," I'm not sure that that will work because, right away, you're not following that approach, because you're planning it that way. This was not planned. This just happened.

What was true, though, is that they had a set of values and a set of principles and a cultural appetite that resulted in a collection of companies of the sort that we see. To that extent, emulating the values, embracing the principles, seeing how they can work, could be quite useful.

In fact, in the last chapter of the book, I draw out some of the business lessons, management lessons, investment lessons, entrepreneurial lessons from the 50 subsidiaries, and show how these values are enormously appealing and profitable. So you don't need to say, "I'd like to build a Berkshire" to learn and gain from the message, from the content.

The second observation I would make is that it's not entirely true that there isn't anything else like this. There are actually quite a few people who have sat down and consciously decided, "I'm going to follow this."

My favorite example I mentioned in the book is the Markel Corporation, out of Richmond, Virginia nearby The Motley Fool, where Tom Gayner, the President and Chief Investment Officer, bought for that company Berkshire stock in 1995 and has increased the position significantly.

That company -- it's a third-generation insurance company primarily -- but since about that time it has also acquired about a dozen, maybe a little more, operating companies in a variety of industries; manufacturing, business services, and other things. It's got a lot of similarities to the Berkshire approach, including the most important, which is a sense of permanence. They have made a commitment to their subsidiaries that they're never going to sell them, either. I applaud Tom and Markel.

I, myself, I don't think I would do that, necessarily -- sit down and say, "I'm going to build something just like that" -- because I do think the personality matters, and your own stamp is going to go on your business, and so on. But a lot of the values and a lot of the attributes associated with these businesses are appealing, intrinsically, to me, and I think to many people.

The book also showed that they're also profitable. That's the sense of the subtitle, The Value of Values. So, I wouldn't say anybody should say, "I want to build the next Berkshire," but to get -- from these operating companies especially, some of the sense of entrepreneurship, loyalty, integrity, vision, and so on -- could be enormously valuable for people, I think.

David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Markel. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway and Markel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Markel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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