Ahead of my time :)

My business school professor: What is the number one goal of a firm?

I raise my hand.

My business school professor: Seth?

Me: To please the customer.

My business school professor: Wrong! To maximize shareholder value. You could please customers by giving your product away for free, but that wouldn’t please your shareholders.

Me: With all due respect, it wouldn’t please your customers for very long if you go out of business by giving away your product for free — especially if they value your product, now would it? 

My business school professor: [This-discussion-is-over glare] [Proceed to explain why maximizing shareholder value is the key goal of a firm].

I never bought the ‘maximize shareholder value’ credo, or at least the moronic behavior it led to. I do believe it is the manager’s job to maximize shareholder value, but I never believed that was the goal. Rather, it is a result of pleasing customers.

I’ve seen too many short-sighted decisions come from the ‘maximize shareholder value’ mantra because the customer was left out of the equation.

 

I was pleased to see this article from Steve Denning on Forbes.com, The Dumbest Idea in the World: Maximizing Shareholder Value. Here’s a key snippet from the article:

Although Jack Welch was seen during his tenure as CEO of GE as the heroic exemplar of maximizing shareholder value, he came to be one of its strongest critics. On March 12, 2009, he gave an interview with Francesco Guerrera of the Financial Times and said, “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products. Managers and investors should not set share price increases as their overarching goal. … Short-term profits should be allied with an increase in the long-term value of a company.”

I remember one example of this short-sighted focus on shareholder value when I as an engineer for a utility company.  One of our big industrial customers — infected by the shareholder value mantra — approached us seeking to buy the electrical facilities at their plant. We delivered power to them at the low voltage they needed to run their equipment. We also had special switchgear at their site — that we owned — to provide the volume and reliability they needed. We charged them extra for this enhanced service.

They computed the simple math of the cash outlay to buy the equipment from us, the fees that would save them and the cost they thought it would take to maintain the equipment. I saw their analysis. On paper it looked like a good investment, one that would add to their shareholder value by reducing costs and increasing profits.

But, their experience was different. They quickly learned that the higher fees they use to pay us included something they didn’t have — expertise and opportunity cost. They realized that trying to figure out how to maintain electrical switchgear took time away producing the products they made for their customers.

They first hired us back to maintain the equipment and then eventually sold the equipment back to us and ‘got out of the business of maintaining electrical switchgear’ so they could again focus on delivering value for their customers.

In their initial analysis, they forgot to include their customers.

 

What I learned in business school

Bryan Caplan asks a great question, What Did You Learn in Business School? He goes on his post to clarify that he’s looking for things that you learned that you actually use in your career. I believe he is doing research for a book. I can’t wait to read it.

We live with the mostly unchallenged general belief that all school is good and the more school the better. I think that belief is something that more of us should challenge.

To answer Bryan’s question about what I learned that I use in my career, very little. Much of what I do I learned on-the-job or by researching topics on my initiative.

I’ve been thinking about this question myself a lot lately. I’ve been working on a blog post with the same theme.

One of the first things I credited b-school with was teaching me how to read financial statements. But, then I remember that I took an accounting class one summer while I was attending engineering school. I was interested in finance and thought that would be a good way to dip my toe into it.

I took a community education course, taught by the finance manager of an auto dealership. It cost $40. We met twice a week in the classroom of a junior high school. I remember one classmate of mine was a floral designer at grocery store who was considering a career change.

Later, when I took the accounting course offered in my university MBA program, which was taught by a PhD who advised state treasurers, I remember being underwhelmed with how remarkably similar it was the $40 community education course that I took.

Next, I thought that maybe b-school taught me how to value business and business cases, something I do a fair amount of now. I think it laid some groundwork, but after b-school I read Robert Hagstrom’s book on Warren Buffett’s investment decisions, The Buffet Way, and was impressed with the simplicity and elegance of the valuation approach Hagstrom described. I thought it was better than what I learned in b-school, so I adopted it and have done better in that regard than many of my b-school peers who have not read the book and struggle to even express in words what exactly a stock price is.

What about economics? I think a broad base in the economic way of thinking is a good tool to have a business analyst or manager. I loved micro and came as close as I could to not passing macro in my MBA program. But, neither did much for me. By the way, that was the second time I had taken both. The first time was as an undergrad. Economics was an area of emphasis (whatever that means) I remember being impressed with the “multiplier” in macro as an undergrad and I scored better there.

But none of the economics courses did much for me. It wasn’t until I read Thomas Sowell’s book, Basic Economics, later that I gained a better understanding of the economic way of thinking. Since then I’ve become quite the pop economist, thanks to reading many more pop econ books, a few heavier econ books and years and years of economics blogs, along with learning exchanges in the comments sections of those blogs (sounds a lot like an online course).

As I posted here, I think it would be good if b-school were to transition into more of an applied experience. Go do something. Start a business. Do a project for a business. Buy a business, try to grow it and sell it. You’ll learn a lot more valuable stuff and you will probably end up adding more value to the economy than hanging the standard sheepskin on your wall.

Good education

I think we need more of these types of education programs.  In this business program, students start a real business.

I think this sort of thing fits perfectly with entrepreneurship.

I also think an experienced-based program could be good for learning about more established businesses.   I once had an idea for a business education program where the business school might hold senior debt and/or own pieces of a group of small businesses and maintain boards responsible for each business.

Incoming students would either buy a portion of those businesses or be hired by the boards to manage one of the businesses for a year or two, while taking complementary classes.  It would be sort of a clinical to give the students experience in valuing businesses, working with boards, setting up plans and dealing with the overall responsibilities of running a business.

I’m sure that would be much messier than I can imagine, but I find it interesting to think about.