Usually you can place a pretty safe bet that the biggest business and finance news in March will be the Budget. Not this year, however: BMW’s headline-grabbing disposal of Rover took the honours, while the fleeting ups and drastic downs of lastminute.com are a sign that the market’s mood is turning against the hype of the dot.com economy. (In any case, Gordon Brown avoided doing anything overly newsworthy this time around.)
Rover reminds us that the UK isn’t always adept at coping with modern problems in the supposedly well-understood “old economy”. (The Germans might be feeling a tad bruised by the experience, too.) The lessons of both old and new companies’ fortunes, however, are clear: things change so rapidly that even those at the cutting edge of business can get caught out.
Level-headed FDs recognise that the problems faced by these two businesses are ones that companies have been dealing with since time immemorial. Just because a business is the major provider of employment in a region, or it’s a dot.com, doesn’t mean it can ignore the principles of good management, sound financing, effective marketing or convincing investor relations.
One other event caught our attention in March: the publication of the Berkshire Hathaway annual report. Always a good read (you can browse an archive of the reports at www.berkshirehathaway.com), this year’s letter from chairman Warren Buffett is noteworthy in that it starts out with an apology for the firm’s performance this year, its worst ever against the S&P 500. “Even Inspector Clouseau could find last year’s guilty party: your Chairman,” Buffett writes.
But the Buffett wisdom still shines through, and whether you’re an upstart dot.com or a metal-bashing powerhouse, the advice is sound. “We ask our managers to run their businesses as if they are the sole asset of their families and will remain so for the next century… Meanwhile, if anyone starts explaining to you what is going on in the truly-manic proportions of this ‘enchanted’ market, you might remember the line, ‘Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.'”
In an era of change, it’s comforting to remember that some truths remain the same.
Richard Young, acting editor
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