Entrepreneurial Project Management

Guerrilla tips and tactics for getting things done

Understanding When Not to Invest

Posted by matteverard on June 28, 2006

A great speech by Warren Buffet’s right hand man, addressing the question “How does one pick stocks?” for USC’s Biz School. I got this from the often cantankarous, semi-aristocratic Nicholas Carr, the pundit who penned “Does IT Matter?” His book argued that IT was becoming a commotidy and that businesses would be wise to treat as such (and focus on cost reduction rather than innovation). It made CIOs drop a load in their collective shorts.

From Carr:
But my favorite moment comes when Munger explains why investing in great new technology often leads to economic pain, if not ruin:

The great lesson in microeconomics is to discriminate between when technology is going to help you and when it’s going to kill you. And most people do not get this straight in their heads. But a fellow like Buffett does.

For example, when we were in the textile business, which is a terrible commodity business, we were making low-end textiles – which are a real commodity product. And one day, the people came to Warren and said, “They’ve invented a new loom that we think will do twice as much work as our old ones.”

And Warren said, “Gee, I hope this doesn’t work because if it does, I’m going to close the mill.” And he meant it.

What was he thinking? He was thinking, “It’s a lousy business. We’re earning substandard returns and keeping it open just to be nice to the elderly workers. But we’re not going to put huge amounts of new capital into a lousy business.”

And he knew that the huge productivity increases that would come from a better machine introduced into the production of a commodity product would all go to the benefit of the buyers of the textiles. Nothing was going to stick to our ribs as owners.

That’s such an obvious concept – that there are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that’s still going to be lousy. The money still won’t come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.

Keep that in mind the next time your company’s considering a big investment in information technology. You know you’re going to pay the bill, but who’s going to end up reaping the rewards?

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