Book review: The Outsiders – Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success

Since my last post I’ve read The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success. This is a book that explores the strategy of eight unconventional CEOs that significantly outperformed their peers and the S&P500 over long stretches of time. The Outsiders provides eight case studies of CEOs that operated (or still operate) in very different markets, including cable TV, newspapers, cinema, pet food, and the defense industry.

As a group, these eight exceptional CEOs stand out because they all made very rational and independent decisions, without giving in to peer pressure. They didn’t spend a lot of time on investor relations, rarely went to conferences and stayed out of the public spotlight. They ran very decentralized operations with low HQ headcounts and generally focused more on capital allocation decisions rather than day-to-day operations.

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The book argues that capital allocation is one of the areas where most CEOs are not good at and that this is exacerbated by an urge to look at what peers are doing or what Wall Street is prescribing. Capital allocation includes making decisions about reinvesting earnings in the business, acquiring companies, selling or spinning off assets, doing share buybacks, and issuing dividends.  The Outsiders offers evidence that mastery of capital allocation is what resulted in the big outperformance of the “Outsider” CEOs.

Each of these eight CEOs excelled at this game and usually did things completely different than their peers. They focused on creating long-term per-share value and largely ignored short-term metrics like quarterly revenue and earnings.

A general theme throughout the book is that many of these Outsider CEOs did not go with the flow but waited until the right time to make large and daring acquisitions. They also performed very large share buybacks, but they were not continuously buying back shares like a lot of companies are doing these days. Instead,  the Outsider CEOs waited until valuations were attractive enough to buy back huge amounts of shares.

Additionally, the Outsider CEO does not believe that bigger is better and is not afraid to sell a large part of his business for the right price. The book describes how most of these eight CEOs paid little dividends and often made no large moves for long stretches of time. But when an opportunity finally presented itself, they weren’t afraid to pounce very fast and with high determination. The manner in which these CEOs did acquisitions was interesting to read. There are several examples in the book of how these exceptional CEOs made huge deals, sometimes in mere hours or days, and with minimal help.

The Outsiders is a very interesting book as it provides a unique look at how these eight CEOs delivered outstanding performance for their shareholders by very smart allocation of the company’s capital. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to any investor.

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