(The following is an excerpt from Chapter 8, Autonomy, from Lawrence Cunningham’s upcoming book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values; the full text of the chapter, which considers the case for Berkshire’s distinctive trust-based model of corporate governance, can be downloaded free here]
. . . Berkshire corporate policy strikes a balance between autonomy and authority. Buffett issues written instructions every two years that reflect the balance. The missive states the mandates Berkshire places on subsidiary CEOs: (1) guard Berkshire’s reputation; (2) report bad news early; (3) confer about post-retirement benefit changes and large capital expenditures (including acquisitions, which are encouraged); (4) adopt a fifty-year time horizon; (5) refer any opportunities for a Berkshire acquisition to Omaha; and (6) submit written successor recommendations. Otherwise, Berkshire stresses that managers were chosen because of their excellence and are urged to act on that excellence.
Berkshire defers as much as possible to subsidiary chief executives on operational matters with scarcely any central supervision. All quotidian decisions would qualify: GEICO’s advertising budget and underwriting standards; loan terms at Clayton Homes and environmental quality of Benjamin Moore paints; the product mix and pricing at Johns Manville, the furniture stores and jewelry shops. The same applies to decisions about hiring, merchandising, inventory, and receivables management, whether Acme Brick, Garan, or The Pampered Chef. Berkshire’s deference extends to subsidiary decisions on succession to senior positions, including chief executive officer, as seen in such cases as Dairy Queen and Justin Brands.
Munger has said Berkshire’s oversight is just short of abdication. In a wild example, Lou Vincenti, the chief executive at Berkshire’s Wesco Financial subsidiary since its acquisition in 1973, ran the company for several years while suffering from Alzheimer’s disease—without Buffett or Munger aware of the condition. “We loved him so much,” Munger said, “that even after we found out, we kept him in his job until the week that he went off to the Alzheimer’s home. He liked coming in, and he wasn’t doing us any harm.” The two lightened a grim situation, quipping that they wished to have more subsidiaries so earnest and reputable that they could be managed by people with such debilitating medical conditions.
There are obvious exceptions to Berkshire’s tenet of autonomy. Large capital expenditures—or the chance of that—lead reinsurance executives to run outsize policies and risks by headquarters. Berkshire intervenes in extraordinary circumstances, for example, the costly deterioration in underwriting standards at Gen Re and threatened repudiation of a Berkshire commitment to distributors at Benjamin Moore. Mandatory or not, Berkshire was involved in R. C. Willey’s expansion outside of Utah and rightly asserts itself in costly capital allocation decisions like those concerning purchasing aviation simulators at FlightSafety or increasing the size of the core fleet at NetJets.
Ironically, gains from Berkshire’s hands-off management are highlighted by an occasion when Buffett made an exception. Buffett persuaded GEICO managers to launch a credit card business for its policyholders. Buffett hatched the idea after puzzling for years to imagine an additional product to offer its millions of loyal car insurance customers. GEICO’s management warned Buffett against the move, expressing concern that the likely result would be to get a high volume of business from its least creditworthy customers and little from its most reliable ones. By 2009, GEICO had lost more than $6 million in the credit card business and took another $44 million hit when it sold the portfolio of receivables at a discount to face value. The costly venture would not have been pursued had Berkshire stuck to its autonomy principle.
The more important—and more difficult—question is the price of autonomy. Buffett has explained Berkshire’s preference for autonomy and assessment of the related costs:
We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree. That means we are sometimes late in spotting management problems and that [disagreeable] operating and capital decisions are occasionally made. . . . Most of our managers, however, use the independence we grant them magnificently, rewarding our confidence by maintaining an owner-oriented attitude that is invaluable and too seldom found in huge organizations. We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly—or not at all—because of a stifling bureaucracy.
Berkshire’s approach is so unusual that the occasional crises that result provoke public debate about which is better in corporate culture: Berkshire’s model of autonomy-and-trust or the more common approach of command-and-control. Few episodes have been more wrenching and instructive for Berkshire culture than when David L. Sokol, an esteemed senior executive with his hand in many Berkshire subsidiaries, was suspected of insider trading in an acquisition candidate’s stock. . . .[To read the full chapter, which can be downloaded for free, click here and hit download]