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Collection: Warren Buffett - #68 | Intellectual Capital



First, I’d like to thank you both for being so generous with your time and with your ideas for us today. (Applause) WARREN BUFFETT

Thank you. We get paid by the hour, so — (Laughs) AUDIENCE MEMBER

Well, I’ll try and talk quickly then. WARREN BUFFETT


My name is Bob Costa (PH) from Evansville, Indiana. I’ve been a shareholder for four years. This is my first visit to Omaha. And I went to the mega mart. And I actually bought something there. And I tried to pay for it with American Express card. WARREN BUFFETT


And they told me, just like the ad, you can’t use it here. I hope you’d both comment on that or at least one of you. But my real question is that I just stumbled across the idea of intellectual capital and how that might be useful in valuing a business. And I was hoping that one or both of you could clarify that for me and whether that’s useful to us as investors or just another academic theory that we’d be better off ignoring. WARREN BUFFETT

Yeah. Harvey Golub, who runs American Express and has done a terrific job of running it, has written me about the Furniture Mart as well as about See’s. And we, basically, let our managers run their own businesses. So, the people at each entity — Borsheim’s takes American Express. Others of our businesses do, too. We let every manager make his decisions. As soon as I start telling the managers that they ought to, say, take American Express or not take Visa or whatever it may be, you know, at that point, they’ve lost some of the responsibility for their operations and, perhaps, to an extent even, you know, some of the pride that comes from running them. Most of our managers do not need to work for a living. They run their businesses for the same reason Charlie and I run Berkshire. They love doing it. They jump out of bed in the morning because it’s exciting to do. And the one thing that would keep the two of us, or drive the two of us away from Berkshire, is if we were getting second-guessed all the time or somebody else was telling us when to swing or not to swing. We would have no interest in running it. We’d go run — we’d do something else then. And maybe our other managers aren’t as extreme as we are in that respect. But we feel they’ve built successful businesses. They know how to do it. We do allocate the excess capital they generate. But aside from that, we really let them make their own decisions. So we have no companywide policy on virtually anything that I can think of, except send money to Omaha. (Laughter) But — and, you know, we’re delighted to have American Express give the Furniture Mart the reasons why the Furniture Mart will be better off using American Express. And my guess is they have some very good reasons. But they’re going to have to sell them on that, and just like any vendor of anything has to sell each operation. We wouldn’t tell the people at See’s who to buy the nuts from, or who to buy the container from, or anything of the sort, how to design the stores, or whatever it may be. And that’s just the Berkshire philosophy on that. Charlie, you want to comment?


Yeah. Let me shift to intellectual capital. Berkshire has a lot of intellectual capital in these very able executives in the various businesses. And we hope we’ve got some intellectual capital in the few hundred square feet at headquarters. (Laughter) But we are not in the business of designing oil refineries with armies of engineers, or developing software with armies doing complicated accounting work all over the world. We just haven’t drifted into that kind of a business. And intellectual capital has gotten to be a new buzzword, because we’ve now developed huge businesses, like Microsoft, which really didn’t exist on that scale not so very long ago. And so people have suddenly realized, my God, there’s really a lot of money in the aggregation effects and momentum effects when you get a bunch of really bright people working in the same direction. And that’s what’s made the concept so fashionable. By and large, we’ve avoided the field. Again, it’s hard for us to understand. WARREN BUFFETT

Yeah. We look for brains and energy and integrity in people that we work with. And if you get that combination and you’re in a decent business, you know, you can own the world. And, you know, whether you call it intellectual capital or anything — you know, you can stick the names on it. And that’s who we try to associate with. I mean, it’s a lot easier than doing it yourself. And when we get, in our own businesses — you saw that group there at the end of the movie — I mean, that’s a huge asset to Berkshire. They talk about getting into accounting for it. That’s nonsense in my view. I mean, you don’t need to do that. But you should pay for it. And you should pay for it as shareholders. You should pay for it as managers. When we get people, you know, whether it’s Tom Murphy, or Al Zeien at Gillette, or Roberto Goizueta, or Michael Eisner, I mean, those people have added billions of dollars of value. And, it’s just — you know, that’s who we want to be associated with. And we don’t want to be associated with the mediocre managers because the difference is just — is huge. But we don’t go through an elaborate exercise. We just recognize the people that have got those — we think we — we try to recognize the people who have got those qualities. And, then, we — and then if they’re in a good business and they’ve got those qualities, we want to take a big bite. CHARLIE MUNGER

But take intellectual capital. People think patents. They think copyrights. Patents and copyrights have gotten to be way more valuable, as a percentage of the investment assets of the world. And so people are very much more interested in intellectual capital. Think of the great drug companies and how small they were 20 years ago and how everything they have is, basically, intellectual capital. It’s the few products that have — that really work that have the patents. But by and large, we’re not in drug companies. WARREN BUFFETT

No. But that’s — there are different forms — as Charlie said, there’s businesses you sort of think of that way as their whole being being intellectual capital. But I would argue that when Roberto Goizueta, 15 years ago, saw how to make the future of Coke — same product — dramatic — and basically the same system, although it required some changes — but saw how to make that dramatically more valuable by doing a lot of little things over a long period of time and doing them consistently and not getting his eye off the ball. Michael Eisner did the same thing. Disney hadn’t gone anyplace, you know, in the 15 years or so after Walt died. Now, you know, we all knew who Mickey Mouse was and everything. But Michael really saw what the future should be. And he still does, you know. And you say it’s easy when it’s all over. But how many people were doing something about it at the time? The place was languishing, basically, 15 years ago. They had the assets. And, to me, that’s — you know, it’s different than what Bill Gates does or Andy Grove does. But it’s our form of intellectual capital. And it’s what we can understand better.

Zone, what do we have? Three.

~ Please visit the site above for full video of Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting.


[YAPSS Takeaway]

Berkshire Philosophy: Management: Let the outstanding managers do their jobs and not second-guessed their actions all the time.

Intellectual Capital: Management ability in managing the business is also an intellectual capital.

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