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Standard Oil was a monopoly in the early part of the twentieth century Currently, Microsoft seems to be a near-monopoly, although it is losing market share For a long time, all these companies rewarded their shareholders well until, ultimately and inevitably, competition set in Although large and powerful monopolies are not easy to nd, many well-run companies with enduring competitive advantages are excellent long-run investments if their stock prices are not excessive Among the stocks owned by Berkshire, such companies include American Express, Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Wells Fargo
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[W]e believe that [GEICO s] cost of new business, though de nitely rising, is well below that of the industry Of even greater importance, our operating costs for renewal business are the lowest among broad-based national auto insurers Both of these competitive advantages are sustainable Others may copy our model, but they will be unable to replicate our economies1
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nsurance is a highly competitive industry, but GEICO is far more pro table than its competitors Retailing is also considered highly competitive, but Wal-Mart is more pro table than others What characteristics are helpful for a company to remain a leader in an industry that may be classi ed as a commodity business or a highly competitive business Let s try to nd some answers by looking at GEICO, Wal-Mart, and other cutthroat commodity businesses
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Wal-Mart clearly dominates the discount retail industry It is so far ahead of its competition that it is dif cult to tell who is second Kmart and
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Sears together are under one corporate umbrella known as Sears Holdings, considered to be Wal-Mart s main competitor Wal-Mart s annual revenues are about $400 billion, whereas Sears Holdings annual revenues are about $50 billion, only one-eighth of Wal-Mart s But it was not always that way Both Kmart and Wal-Mart were major retailers until Wal-Mart pulled into the lead and eventually won the race Before Kmart and Wal-Mart became the industry leaders, other dominant retailers included JC Penney, Sears, and WT Grant You may not recall WT Grant, which went bankrupt in 1975 because it could not compete with Kmart effectively Then Kmart went bankrupt in 2002 because it could not compete effectively with Wal-Mart Clearly, other companies are now trying to take market share away from Wal-Mart While Sears Holdings is now considered to be Wal-Mart s main competitor, Target and Costco also compete with Wal-Mart effectively in clothing and wholesale markets, respectively And, internationally, Carrefour and Tesco do very well against Wal-Mart in some countries If you are watching Wal-Mart, you should also watch its competitors In many other industries, such as grain processing, gold coin minting, high-end retailing, long-distance telephone service, home-building materials, and cars and motorcycles, a few leaders emerge over time as businesses become commodity businesses Similar to Wal-Mart s success in retailing, the success of McDonald s in fast-food restaurants and GEICO s success in auto insurance have the same underlying reasons
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We sell for less and Satisfaction guaranteed are two of Wal-Mart s slogans that effectively capture two important principles: low cost and customer satisfaction To answer a question in Berkshire s annual shareholder meeting in April 2000, Buffett essentially echoed Wal-Mart s slogans He said that GEICO s sustainable advantages were low operating costs and high-quality service Like Wal-Mart s, the McDonald s operating model has been a case study in business schools for a long time So far, Burger King, Wendy s, and many others have been unable to replace McDonald s As long as you know that McDonald s sells for less
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and its customers are happy, you are likely to earn respectable, if not high, returns over an extended period by investing in McDonald s In November 2009, Berkshire announced the acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe for $34 billion The acquisition seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by the fact that railroads are a more cost-ef cient method of transporting goods than truckers2 A race for dominance can last a long time, and there is no unique path to success In the automobile sector, there were many manufacturers for decades before General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler became the Big Three But even in the 1920s and 1930s, it was probably not dif cult to discern which one was emerging as the leader: General Motors was becoming larger and larger by successfully combining Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, Cadillac, and other manufacturers In the 1980s, Wal-Mart s strategy was different Wal-Mart did not emphasize buying local retailers Instead, it built stores and drove the competition out of the market Lest we forget, outstanding managers are invariably the real jewelers behind developing these jewels Alfred P Sloan and Sam Walton were to General Motors and Wal-Mart, respectively, just as Warren Buffett is to Berkshire Hathaway GEICO, under the leadership of Tony Nicely, focuses on direct marketing to keep costs low Slowly and surely, it has increased its presence in the market by advertising and, if necessary, reducing insurance premiums Typically, as a commodity business adds to its market share, its per-capita cost to keep its sustainable advantage goes down Consider, for instance, advertising costs A full-page advertisement in the New York Times does not depend on the size of the insurance company So, the cost per customer is smaller for a larger company A 30-second TV spot on a Super Bowl Sunday will be cheaper for Wal-Mart for each dollar in sales than for Kmart In addition, given its smaller sales revenue, Kmart may not have as much of a budget for advertising as Wal-Mart Once a competitive advantage is established, it is dif cult to unseat the leader However, watch out for the potential of old dominant players to become dinosaurs The main reason Kmart failed was that it started expanding in unrelated businesses such as do-it-yourself stores (Builders Square) and drugstores (Payless Drug Stores) Technological changes also affect the competitive eld, especially when a dominant player takes its competitive advantage for granted A case in point is IBM, which was
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