How 8 Profitable CEOs Allotted Capital to Construct Sturdy Companies


March 06, 2024

Consider CEOs who’ve made robust charges of return for buyers and constructed sturdy companies. What methods do you affiliate with their success?

Investor and writer William Thorndike studied eight CEOs who outperformed the market and their friends. The group included huge names, like Warren Buffet and Katharine Graham, but in addition different leaders who’re just about unknown at present. One instance is Henry Singleton, an MIT-educated electrical engineer who led Teledyne Applied sciences from 1960 to 1986.

Thorndike seen that these eight iconoclastic leaders all took the same method to capital allocation. They centered on investing their firms’ income to repurchase their very own inventory when costs had been optimum. However they typically averted very massive acquisitions, accruing debt, and paying dividends.

On this episode, you’ll learn the way efficient capital allocation methods, like those utilized by these leaders, can generate wealth for shareholders.

Thorndike is the writer of The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success.

Key episode subjects embody: technique, strategic planning, entrepreneurship, operations and provide chain administration, management, capital allocation, debt, dividends, inventory buybacks, acquisitions.

HBR On Technique curates the perfect case research and conversations with the world’s high enterprise and administration specialists, that can assist you unlock new methods of doing enterprise. New episodes each week.

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR On Technique, case research and conversations with the world’s high enterprise and administration specialists, hand-selected that can assist you unlock new methods of doing enterprise. Consider the CEOs who made the strongest charges of return for buyers and constructed essentially the most sturdy companies.  But additionally others who’re just about unknown, like Henry Singleton – {an electrical} engineer who ran Teledyne Applied sciences from 1960 to 1986. On this episode, you’ll learn the way efficient capital allocation methods can generate wealth for shareholders. You’ll additionally study why many of those CEOs are nonetheless unknown at present, regardless of their nice success. This episode initially aired on HBR IdeaCast in April 2014.  And only a be aware — we recorded this by telephone. Whereas the audio high quality just isn’t nice, the dialog is. I believe you’ll take pleasure in it. Right here it’s.

SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Sarah Inexperienced from Harvard Enterprise Assessment. I’m speaking with William Thorndike, the writer of the e book The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success. Will, thanks a lot for speaking with us at present.


SARAH GREEN: So it’s fascinating to me that the e book begins with a CEO you’ve really– most individuals– have in all probability by no means heard of. A man named Henry Singleton. Why did you begin with him, who’s he, and why is he so essential?

WILLIAM THORNDIKE: Yeah. Properly, Henry Singleton was the genesis for this complete venture. I work within the non-public fairness business, and each different yr we host a convention for our CEOs. About 10 years in the past, I raised my hand and stated I’d do one of many talks at that convention. I made a decision to give attention to Henry Singleton, who I’d heard slightly bit about. Henry Singleton had a really uncommon background for a CEO. He was a MIT skilled mathematician and engineer, he received a Ph.D. In electrical engineering from MIT. Whereas he was there he programed the primary laptop on the MIT campus, and he proceeded to have a really profitable profession in science. He developed an inertial steerage system for Litton Industries that’s nonetheless in use in business and army plane. He did a complete vary of issues. After which later in his profession– in his mid 40s– he grew to become the CEO of a ’60s period conglomerate referred to as Teledyne. He ran that enterprise for nearly 30 years– 28 years– and over the course of that time period, he generated extraordinary returns for his shareholders and considerably higher returns than the opposite conglomerates of that period. So my speak centered on attempting to know what the sources of that out efficiency had been. Henry Singleton created a template that it turned out the opposite CEOs within the e book adopted, particularly round a collection of actions he took within the space of capital allocation.

SARAH GREEN: So it’s fascinating as a result of once you’re speaking about iconoclastic CEOs, the concept of there being a template is slightly bit stunning. If you’re speaking about such unconventional folks, had been you stunned that there have been sure issues they’ve in frequent?

WILLIAM THORNDIKE: That was the best shock in doing the e book. Principally I did the e book one chapter a yr working with second yr college students on the Harvard Enterprise College, who helped me with the analysis and among the analytical work. My expectation because the venture went alongside after that first yr– after Henry Singleton– was that it’d over time be a bunch biography format. Just like Profiles in Braveness or a e book referred to as The American Political Custom. However after in regards to the fifth chapter– fifth CEO– it grew to become clear that there was a a lot stronger than anticipated sample throughout the group. Every of the CEOs needed to meet two checks. Every needed to have higher relative efficiency in comparison with the market– than Jack Welch had throughout his tenure– after which every needed to meaningfully outperform their peer group. And to be able to do this, by definition they wanted to do issues in a different way than their friends. But it surely turned out that the actions they took had been remarkably comparable throughout the group. In order that was essentially the most stunning discovering, was the power of that sample.

SARAH GREEN: So to again up only for a second, why index in opposition to Jack Welch?

WILLIAM THORNDIKE: Properly he I believe, is a de facto gold normal for CEO excellence. His returns are very, superb. He ran GE for 20 years, and over that time period generated a 20% compound return for GE shareholders. Which is fairly extraordinary. And he’s simply a particularly well-known, continually within the public eye determine. So I believe he’s a de facto gold normal for CEO excellence. In order that’s the rationale for together with him.

SARAH GREEN: OK. Now what had been a few of these actions that these totally different iconoclastic CEOs had in frequent?

WILLIAM THORNDIKE: Principally capital allocation. The framework I believe that’s most helpful to consider that, is that CEOs have to do two issues properly to achieve success in the long run. They should optimize the income of the enterprise that they’re working. They should run the operation sufficiently, that’s clearly essential. However secondly and equally essential, they should deploy or make investments these income over time. And that second exercise is known as capital allocation. Over lengthy durations of time, it has an infinite affect on shareholder returns. So if two firms have similar working outcomes however totally different approaches to capital allocation, over lengthy durations of time– so the common tenure the CEOs on this e book was north of 20 years– they’ll drive very, very totally different returns for shareholders. And so the framework there, is there’s three fundamental methods an organization can elevate capital. They’ll faucet their current profitability– their current income– they will elevate fairness, or they will promote debt. And there are solely 5 issues they will do with it. They’ll spend money on their current operations, they will make acquisitions, they will pay a dividend, they will pay down debt, they usually can repurchase inventory. That’s it, these are all the alternatives. And over lengthy durations of time, these selections have a big affect for shareholders. OK, so getting again to your query. What this group did, is that they had been very substantial re-purchasers of their very own inventory, very opportunistically. All of them purchased in– with one exception– purchased in at the very least 30% of their shares excellent. They made occasional very massive acquisitions, they had been a selective customers of debt, they usually typically averted dividends.

SARAH GREEN: And why do you suppose that that sample was so efficient?

WILLIAM THORNDIKE: Properly it interprets into– I suppose I’d describe it as a affected person and opportunistic method to investing the agency’s income. And so over lengthy durations of time, doing these issues I simply described and successfully shopping for issues when they’re low– so repurchasing your inventory when it’s a number of is cheap or buying different firms at engaging costs– and equally being able to promote when costs are increased. So to both promote inventory or to promote companies. Over lengthy durations of time, that has a really, very vital affect on shareholder returns. There are some fascinating examples within the e book of CEOs who did that very properly– the outsider CEOs– after which friends who did much less properly.

SARAH GREEN: Properly I suppose I’m involved in maybe understanding why– for a few of our listeners who could not have an investing background– why would one thing like shopping for again your individual inventory be finally helpful for a corporation?

WILLIAM THORNDIKE: That’s a superb query. I’d say should you take a look at the final sample inventory repurchases at present, that sample I believe is unlikely to provide compelling long run returns. So within the typical case at present, an organization that’s pursuing repurchases will get an authorization from its board for a certain quantity of capital that it might probably then use to repurchase inventory. It can then proceed to buy inventory in even quantities over a quarterly time period, or possibly a semiannual time period. Over some form of an everyday schedule. And that sample could be very totally different than the sample the outsiders utilized in repurchasing inventory. Their sample was to attend very lengthy durations of time with no repurchase exercise, after which when the inventory was priced at a really low P/E a number of– at a sexy worth– they might purchase in vital quantities of inventory. So it was very totally different. And the rationale that’s good for shareholders– the remaining shareholders– is you’re mainly retiring shares of the corporate at costs beneath what it might be price in a management sale. So for the remaining shareholders, you find yourself proudly owning extra of that current enterprise– and its future profitability– then you definately would in any other case.

SARAH GREEN: So it’s a mannequin that’s actually very centered on the corporate as a automobile to create wealth for shareholders is that appropriate?

WILLIAM THORNDIKE: Sure, that’s appropriate.

SARAH GREEN: Will, one of many issues I seen within the e book is that you simply actually name on a various array of various type of outsider CEOs, as you name them. All the way in which from somebody like Warren Buffett– very well-known– somebody like Katharine Graham of the Washington Submit, who has usually been ignored. They usually come from an infinite range of backgrounds and in an infinite range of industries. So if somebody out there may be hoping to observe the mannequin that you simply talk about within the e book, how probably is it that that individual will really have the ability to apply the mannequin that you simply lay out right here?

WILLIAM THORNDIKE: That’s a superb query. I believe the mannequin could be very sturdy. When you take a look at the industries represented within the e book, the businesses that these CEOs ran competed in industries starting from insurance coverage, to manufacturing, to media, to protection, and shopper merchandise. So a really vast sorts of industries, and a wide range of phases of improvement. A few of them had been CEOs who had been concerned from the very early phases in constructing firms, others got here in later into very mature companies and had been stewards. And it’s fascinating you– as you talked about Buffett is with out query the perfect recognized CEO within the e book. And his file speaks for itself. However the number of backgrounds I believe could be very fascinating. So there have been some commonalities throughout the group when it comes to background. All of them had been first time CEOs, half of them underneath 40 after they took the CEO seat, solely two of them had MBAs. One was an astronaut in his life earlier than getting into enterprise. Katharine Graham was a widow. Warren Buffett was an expert investor who’d by no means run an organization earlier than. They usually shared an fascinating set of non-public traits along with among the particular enterprise actions they took. So that they had been, as a bunch, humble and frugal by nature. And form of affected person and pragmatic, when it comes to their mindset. They weren’t overly charismatic, they usually weren’t energetic seekers of the limelight. They didn’t communicate at Davos. So Buffett is much and away the perfect recognized. Lots of the different CEOs are just about unknown at present. Singleton can be an instance of that. He’s simply not well-known, besides amongst a handful of refined buyers who had been concerned in investing on the time he was working Teledyne.

SARAH GREEN: Properly Will, thanks for taking a while at present to shed some mild on a few of these actually fascinating CEO careers with us at present.

WILLIAM THORNDIKE: Thanks very a lot Sarah.

HANNAH BATES: That was investor and writer William Thorndike in dialog with Sarah Inexperienced on the HBR IdeaCast. Thorndike’s e book is The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success. We’ll be again subsequent Wednesday with one other hand-picked dialog about enterprise technique from the Harvard Enterprise Assessment. When you discovered this episode useful, share it with your mates and colleagues, and observe our present on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Whilst you’re there, make sure to go away us a evaluation. We’re a manufacturing of the Harvard Enterprise Assessment. In order for you extra podcasts, articles, case research, books, and movies like this, discover all of it at This episode was produced by Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Particular due to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Participant, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and also you – our listener. See you subsequent week.


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