With the stock touching levels last seen 20 years ago, this isn’t the transition GE shareholders were hoping for. But it is also a warning of what could be in store for another iconic conglomerate when its long serving CEO steps down.
After an investor presentation failed to stem the drop in GE shares, it is obvious new chief executive John Flannery has a lot of work to do to restore investor confidence. Clear messages, transparency and relentless communication will be the order of the day.
But there’s another lesson here, and that has to do with another company like GE with a penchant for big acquisitions, an opaque balance sheet and a charismatic, long tenured CEO.
That company is Berkshire Hathaway.
Warren Buffett is without question a legendary investor, and he has built Berkshire Hathaway into a sprawling and hugely successful giant that operates everything from candy and furniture stores to gas pipelines and auto insurance.
But there will come a day when Warren Buffett will no longer lead Berkshire Hathaway. And when a new CEO settles into the office in Omaha, the following months could look a lot like John Flannery’s at GE.
Flannery has had to cope with weak revenue, underperforming acquisitions and startling revelations about wasteful spending by his predecessor. GE’s complex financial reporting hasn’t made his task any easier.
Berkshire Hathaway has mostly avoided such problems. Buffett proudly acknowledges the conglomerate label but believes if the “form is used judiciously, it is an ideal structure for maximizing long-term capital growth.” Berkshire’s version, he says, “is perfectly positioned to allocate capital rationally and at minimal cost.”
The market certainly believes him. Berkshire Hathaway shares trade at a premium to book value, when most conglomerates trade at a discount because of investors’ skepticism about the structure. And with good reason: Busted conglomerates litter the financial history books like old Carmelo Anthony jerseys at Madison Square Garden. Litton Industries, ITT, Gulf + Western. All once famous but now gone.
To be sure, Berkshire Hathaway has taken a very different approach to its growth compared to GE, and that could make life easier for Buffett’s successor. It has kept its acquired businesses separate and largely intact, retaining their management teams, brands and operating facilities. GE by contrast has integrated its purchases, enfolding everything under the GE mantle.
That means in principle the Berkshire empire could be restructured or sold more easily than GE’s. And when things go wrong at Berkshire it should be easier to spot the rot and cut it out like a cankerous tumor. (The tax consequences for investors are likely to be messy either way, however.)
But investors might not show as much patience for some Berkshire Hathaway practices once Buffett exits the stage in Omaha. Will demands for a dividend grow louder? Will concerns about risk in its insurance operations force more disclosure about its reserves? And will controversies at Berkshire companies, like the job slashing at Kraft-Heinz and alleged predatory lending by Clayton Homes, be harder to tolerate without the Buffett halo?
In the end, the new CEO might conclude that it will be too tough to match Berkshire’s past performance. Buffett himself acknowledged as much, saying in 2015 that the company’s future long-term gains “won’t come close” to those achieved in the previous fifty years.
If the new CEO decides, like John Flannery at GE, to restructure the company, sell off units and change the way its financial information is presented, the road could be a little bumpy. And if so, no amount of Cherry Coke and Sees Candies will sweeten that sour fact for shareholders.