The market worships large companies. Large companies are on the news, they're in the papers, everyone wants them on their resume. It doesn't matter how they got there, growth, mergers, fiat, as long as a company they are considered important. For the working public working for a brand name in the mail room is better than being a decision maker someplace no one has heard of. I have a neighbor who lamented to me that there are no more good jobs left in Pittsburgh. He then went on to rattle off a list of large companies that were located here in the 60s and 70s that have since left or been merged away. He made comments like "without these good jobs [the large companies] where will kids work these days?" Maybe kids, which to him is anyone in their 30s and younger, will work for some of the hundreds of tech startups here, or maybe a smaller local company that fills a niche, or maybe they'll be a lucky cube-jockey at a few of the large places we have left.
Investors usually regard management at smaller companies as dopey or out of touch. The theory is why would someone want to work at xzy tiny company when they could have a lavish office, nice perks and status at abc large company? There are a variety of reasons, but often people who work at small places want to have an impact on where they work, not become an office politician.
All large companies have a moat, a moat is a durable competitive advantage. One doesn't need to look hard to identify a large company's moat, it is always the same, it's their size. A large company can be successfully by simply being large. Most large companies are near monopolies, or duopolies or oligopolies for their market. Interested in cable internet for your home? There is always only one provider. What about trash collection? Same thing, a mandated provider. If you're lucky there are two options, usually equally bad. Our township mandates that we use Waste Management (WM), a company where if I were to call them unreliable would be a compliment. Trash pickup schedule? They don't need a schedule, they just expect citizens to leave their waste out for days and when they decide to pick it up they will. Somehow this company is a bastion of capitalism, the type of company that Barrons thinks every investor should own in their portfolio. My Waste Management experience isn't an isolated incident. I have many other experiences as both a client, and as an employee at large companies, too many to count, and most I'd never share online.
What investors don't seem to understand about large companies is what they think is happening on isn't really what's happening at the company. I've seen numerous write-ups that talk about capital allocation or earnings growth or innovation. The only people who care about capital allocation at a large company is the CFO who's massaging the earnings and the CEO who has to remember to mention the term on the quarterly conference calls to assuage investors. Do companies with excellent capital allocation have employees who pad their budgets or "have to spend $500k by the end of the month on *something*" so their budget isn't axed? I've sat in meetings where it has been said "we don't care about ROI" before money was spent on significant initiatives. Failed projects that cost $20m+ and are cancelled with an "oops, guess that was a mistake" are the norm without repercussions. Except to the shareholder capital that's destroyed in the process.
Success at a large organization is determined by political savvy not by the ability to get a job done. If someone is able to build a small empire of loyal troops and obtain high profile projects that person will move up rapidly. They'll move up even if the projects are an outright failure. Political savvy has nothing to do with how well a job is getting done. It's all about alliances and maneuvering and situation handling. Sometimes a threat needs to be neutralized, that threat might be fired, or more likely they'll be stuck on a team with some truly pathetic employees and forced out. Get in the right group and all goes well, the wrong one, and well.... you're bouncing to the competitor across town. I had an old boss who explained that success at a large company was measured by the ability to build a fiefdom. People who could build fiefdoms quickly and grow them moved up, while those who didn't have this ability were cursed to do the actual work while languishing at the bottom of the org chart.
Once one realizes that incentives and motivations at large companies are political much of what they do, or how customers experience the company begins to make sense. One company I knew of was focused on how many times new features were released to clients, not the usefulness of the actual features. More features more often equalled success with management being rewarded with bonuses. Whereas a single impactful feature that took months to implement would be considered a failure. I am also knew of a situation where management was incentivized based on their department's EBITDA. Hiring employees reduced department EBITDA, whereas hiring contractors even at double or triple the cost of employees didn't impact EBITDA because the contractors could be capitalized. I realize that this accounting treatment was dubious at best, but it's how it worked. What was the outcome? The company was very light on employees and very heavy on expensive contractors. Who bore the brunt of this? Shareholders who owned a company that lost money on a GAAP basis, but was wildly profitable if one only looked at Adjusted-EBITDA. This was a company that happily purchased shares at $40-50 a share, but during the crisis when shares traded below $10 decided that instead of repurchasing stock it was more prudent to obtain debt financing with coupons ranging between 15% and 20%. Low and behold, once the stock appreciated management decided to repurchase shares again.
I could go on and on, the stories are crazy. One place was having a bad quarter and told employees to disregard expenses that quarter and spend as much as they wanted. This was because once Wall St saw a loss they wouldn't care about the size of the loss. It was better to shove future expenses in the lost quarter to inflate future earnings. This was a very transparent communication to employees. These aren't one-off things either, but rather the pattern of business. This is just how large companies work.
It isn't to say that employees at large companies are nefarious or evil. There are plenty of great employees who do their best every day and take pride in their job. There are people deep in the bowels of some of these organizations pushing for change and trying to make things better. This is why sometimes our interactions with large companies can be great. Maybe as a customer we cross paths with a department led by a manager who's an agent for change, or someone not satisfied with the status quo.
The problem isn't the people, it's the scale and challenges due to size. At a tiny company waste is noticeable. On a larger scale a small amount of waste across an entire organization becomes a massive amount of waste.
The more one learns the worse it gets. It's almost as if some of these large companies are doing well in spite of themselves. How do they do it? It's all due to their size. Let's go back to the example of my township and Waste Management. Envision the township evaluating waste collection companies for a new contract that grants a monopoly. There is Waste Management, Allied Waste and then Joe's Trash Hauling. Joe's Trash Hauling is a small local company. They are responsive, care about their reputation and are efficient at their job. None of that matters. The township is going to worry about what happens if Joe gets cancer and can't run the company, or if Joe's company can handle the capacity or a million other flimsy reasons that prevent a small company from competing. Everyone has heard of the larger companies, and the larger companies are well equipped to put together a government service proposal. And so citizens are saddled with an inferior provider. This is true for anything at scale.
There is a second aspect that's under appreciated. Large companies love to do business with other large companies. There is repetitional risk for an employee if they decide to use a smaller service provider and then there's an issue. But if it's a large company there is no risk. Large companies presume they will receive premium levels of service from their large company suppliers because they're large. This is the opposite of what happens. I've seen terrible levels of service at large companies because the providing company is large itself and is inefficient (or doesn't care), or they realize that the client either has no alternative, or isn't willing to use a smaller company. The large company becomes a captive client to a monopoly provider. This is one of the reasons why large companies can earn above average rates of return, they have a captive client market and a dominant market position. They can charge above market rates and their clients have no choice but to use them. Zoom out a bit and there is an interconnected network of large companies all bilking each other for services and products. This is not dissimilar to how large companies all have under funded pensions invested in every other large company with an underfunded pension. The network of underfunded pensions all investing in other companies with the same underfunded status is a discussion for another day.
A significant advantage large companies have due to their size is easy access to financing and capital. This comes in handy when a small upstart company begins to threaten their market. The natural large company response is to acquire the threat. Investors often wonder why companies overpay for acquisitions. To anyone who's been in the guts of the machine there is no mystery. They aren't acquiring for technology, expertise or investment return, they're neutralizing a threat. The acquirer has determined that no matter the cost they will eliminate a potential threat. This might be a real or imagined threat, but in the company's mind it is a threat.
I don't want this post to come across with the idea that small companies are perfect, they aren't. But large company actions at a small company level are expressed quickly as poor financial results. Smaller companies don't have the scale to get away with some of the antics that are acceptable at scale. Waste and poor acquisitions impact the bottom line right away. In a large company there might be a rotting dead core that takes a decade to expose itself. The reason spin-offs usually work so well is because when the branch is cut from the trunk all of the waste endemic from being part of a large company is exposed and can be cleaned up quickly. For the management at a spin-off it's almost like shooting ducks in a barrel. Shrink expenses and watch profit grow then earn a giant bonus. It's not like cutting expenses is even hard for them. They just stop doing things like flying a team across the country for a day of useless meetings.
The point of this post isn't to say that large caps are "bad" and small caps are "good", but rather to point out that these are two different types of companies with very different business models and dynamics. Smaller companies are focused on products, growing and gaining marketshare. Large companies are focused on staying where they are and keeping their dominant position. Investors buying large caps should be aware that they're buying pseudo-monopoly players who will spend any and all shareholder money to retain or grow their position. When a company has a dominant market position they will extract as much money from clients as possible until a viable alternative comes along. A discussion about viable alternatives is better left for Clayton Christensen to explain in his excellent book The Innovators Dilemma.
This post might generate a lot of push back from large cap investors. But I'd offer you this. Most investors have never worked at a large cap, most of Wall Street or value investors, or mutual funds have never worked at any of these companies. Their exposure is annual reports and investor conferences. The perspective of Wall Street on large companies is like a person sitting in a timeshare sales meeting. Everything about the resort is great, the views are perfect, and the price is a bargain. Yet for those of us who have worked at the resort we know the true story, the salesmen aren't selling empty desert land, but it's pretty darn close. But the sales team can sell, and as long as they keep selling then all is well.
You might argue that maybe I'm cynical, or maybe I'm jaded, or maybe I'm just pessimistic. I'm not, I'm simply calling a spade a spade and pointing out that the Wizard of Oz is just a man behind a curtain. What I've found so amazing is that anyone who's worked at a large company will agree with me, yet the investor world in general is somehow ignorant to this notion. It's important to know what we're buying, and what motivates people at a company we've invested in. There are ways to make money on both large and small caps, but the dynamics of business due to size are very different. Don't confuse what motivates a small company with what motivates a large company.