Do you know how difficult it is to bag a wild turkey? It's so difficult that fewer than 30% of turkey hunters take one bird a year. If it weren't for the strong mating instincts of gobblers in the spring, almost nobody would tag one.
That's just astounding. I mean, these folks have camouflage, state-of-the-art calls, big ol' 12-gauge pump and semi-automatic shotguns with 21-inch barrels, and all manner of other accoutrements that allow most hunters to bag something over the course of the year, however many hours they have to sit in a blind with their guns on their shoulders.
Besides, turkeys are so darn big and pudgy.
Why turkeys survive
They do, however, have fantastic reflexes. They can fly 50 miles per hour -- in the middle of the woods, no less -- and can sprint up to 35 miles per hour. Their peripheral vision runs more than 270 degrees when their heads are still, but they're never still. That's what makes turkeys so hard to kill: They are always alert to danger. They are some of the most paranoid creatures on Earth.
I hear that the island of Mauritius is considering importing turkeys to play the ecological role of the dodo bird. The dodo was another big, pudgy bird, but it didn't make the evolutionary trip. It didn't become extinct just because it was flightless. That would have been fine. The dodo's problem was that it would walk right up to hungry Portuguese sailors and try to be friendly.
I guess that's what happens when your species grows up on a tropical island. There's little competition for the copious resources and no predators to speak of -- until the Portuguese arrive.
In business, the Portuguese always arrive eventually. You can't sit in a sweet spot with great growth rates and high margins for long before someone comes to take them away from you -- that is, if you don't give them away first.
Paranoia first, profits second
Rule Breaker investors look for the top companies in high-growth industries. We also make sure that those companies have a sustainable advantage, like strong brand loyalty, production capabilities, patents, and inept competitors. Those advantages can carry a company past the competition in its first leg of the race, but it won't make it to the finish line without one crucial component: strong management. Management has to stay hungry, or the hungry competition will displace it.
We've seen cases recently where companies that seem to have a tremendous advantage over their competitors have imploded because their management teams totally dropped the ball. One of them was the now-bankrupt Lernout & Hauspie, which I wrote about last November. Here was a company with an enormous voice database, contracts with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Ford (NYSE: F), and the leading transcription service, yet management still somehow managed to blow it.
Gap -- turkey turned dodo
Another example is Gap (NYSE: GPS). The Rule Maker Portfolio sold its stake in Gap, and I think it's instructive for Rule Breaker investors to consider the case study. Gap has all the brand recognition in the world -- what do you think of when someone says "khakis" (or even, heaven forbid, "Everybody in vests")? It built that name through highly successful marketing and drove it by showing up on every major street corner and mall in America.
Gap diversified into higher-end clothing retail through Banana Republic and into the value space through Old Navy. Old Navy demonstrated the brand-building and marketing power of Gap by reaching $1 billion in sales in less than four years of operation and breaking the $3.5 billion mark a couple years later in 1999. That takes great management. That was the competitive advantage that took Gap from Rule Breaker to Rule Maker.
Then, apparently, Gap decided that it didn't have to execute anymore. It didn't have to manage its inventory carefully. It didn't have to supply its stores in time for back-to-school shopping. It didn't even have to dress a bunch of teens in leather and khakis and have them dance on TV anymore. As a result, same-store sales have plummeted for 19 straight months. More than a dozen high-level managers have left or been fired.
Gap CEO Mickey Drexler used to be a turkey. Now he's becoming a dodo.
Andy Grove, chairman of Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), writes in Only the Paranoid Survive that he worries about everything -- screwing up products, producing them too early, underperforming factories, too many factories, good hiring practices, poor morale, competitors. You name it. Even more than those, Grove fears the strategic inflection points when fundamentals change, either because of new technologies, changing tastes, or some other disruption.
For investors, there is danger and opportunity in strategic inflection points. Our older companies have to beware of them, but our newer companies can exploit them. They are the points at which Rule Breakers are born. eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) sprang from a new technology -- the Internet -- that revolutionized how we buy and sell stuff. Traditional retailers questioned the need to get on the 'Net and completely lost their former advantage. When investors can spot that inflection and divergence, they can profit enormously.
Gap did more than miss an inflection, it created one. It forgot to worry about the basics of its business. Gap drove people to other stores by not stocking properly and creating silly designs, and it hasn't been able to recover the brand loyalty it used to enjoy. When investors see that, they start looking for the company that will jump into the breach. Gap can heal its self-inflicted wounds, but it had better start acting like a turkey again.
Brian Lund bags plenty of Wild Turkey at Thanksgiving time. Of the companies mentioned, he owns Intel and eBay. You can see all his holdings in his online profile. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.