Core Competence

By Keith J. Cunningham

        

It is so easy to make money when times are good, the wind is at your back and the tide is rising. In fact, for most people, the more they make the smarter they seem to become, venturing into all kinds of investments and side businesses which have nothing to do with what made them successful in the first place. As one of my teachers told me years ago, “Success breeds complacency” and never has this degree of complacency been more evident than the perfect storm we are witnessing in our credit markets today.

I was reading about Citigroup’s recent meltdown. Now here is a HUGE financial institution (the largest in the United States) who somehow took all their expertise and financial acumen and turned it into a mind numbing loss of $18.1 Billion of write-downs for the 4th quarter 2007 and an additional $15.2 Billion of write downs in the first quarter of 2008. The real damage was to the shareholders, who have lost a total of $530 Billion in shareholder value in less than a year! I don’t care who you are, that is serious money!

Citi has the good fortune to be able to raise money when things don’t turn out as expected, so they have tapped a couple of Saudi princes and the Singapore government for $30 billion or so. Forty thousand people are expected to lose their jobs before this carnage is finished, including the former CEO who got them into this mess by not paying attention to the risks they were taking. Apparently, the thinking was that if it made money today, who cares about the risks or what could go wrong… let the good times roll, baby! And roll they did, until they stopped.

In a recent interview, the new CEO of Citi, Vikram Pandit made a startling announcement. He said Citi would divest themselves of businesses that did not fit with the rest of the group. “We’re getting out of all our hobbies and focusing on our core competence.”

This is without a doubt one of the smartest things I’ve heard a Fortune 500 executive say in 25 years! The reality is sticking your nose or your pocketbook into things you know very little about is a prescription for disaster.

As Warren Buffett has said:

“The greatest personal fortunes in this country weren’t built on a portfolio of 50 companies. That’s the Noah’s Ark way of investing. They were built on one wonderful business. Almost without exception, when they strayed from that wonderful business that made them rich, they ended up losing money.”


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