Insurance companies offer standardized policies which can be copied by anyone. Their only products are promises. It is not difficult to be licensed, and rates are an open book. There are no important advantages from trademarks, patents, location, corporate longevity, raw material sources, etc., and very little consumer differentiation to produce insulation from competition. It is commonplace, in corporate annual reports, to stress the difference that people make. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. But there is no question that the nature of the insurance business magnifies the effect which individual managers have on company performance. We are very fortunate to have the group of managers that are associated with us.
A little digression illustrating this point may be interesting. Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates and Hathaway Manufacturing were merged in 1955 to form Berkshire Hathaway Inc. In 1948, on a pro forma combined basis, they had earnings after tax of almost $ 18 million and employed 10,000 people at a dozen large mills throughout New England. In the business world of that period they were an economic powerhouse. For example, in that same year earnings of IBM were $ 28 million (now $ 2.7 billion), Safeway Stores, $ 10 million, Minnesota Mining, $ 13 million, and Time, Inc., $ 9 million. But, in the decade following the 1955 merger aggregate sales of $ 595 million produced an aggregate loss for Berkshire Hathaway of $ 10 million. By 1964 the operation had been reduced to two mills and net worth had shrunk to $ 22 million, from $ 53 million at the time of the merger. So much for single year snapshots as adequate portrayals of a business.
Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, 1977