CEO Daily: Monday, August 3
FORTUNE Editor Alan Murray is taking some R&R for the next two weeks, and has shut off his morning alarm. In his absence, a number of his fellow editors (it takes a village) are filling in. This morning, Norman Pearlstine, the top editor of Time Inc., takes a turn.
In the nearly five decades I have been reading annual reports, I cannot recall a year when any company came close to matching Warren Buffett’s shareholder letters and reports on Berkshire Hathaway. His wisdom, his honesty and his wit have made his letters must reading. This year’s report – Buffett’s 50th – was one of his best – a celebration of his firm’s extraordinary growth coupled with his traditional investment tutorial.
After reading all 148 pages soon after the Berkshire Hathaway report appeared in February, I assumed again I would read nothing better. I was wrong. My favorite annual report was published four months later by WPP, the advertising and communications services group. It celebrates 30 years of Sir Martin Sorrell’s leadership. It may be the best annual report I have ever read.
While Buffett has only printed two photos in 50 years – in each of the past two years he has run one photo of himself with his Omaha staff — WPP’s 250 page report is beautifully designed, photographed and illustrated. The report comes with a humorous four-page cover wrap charting WPP’s history. Each section begins with the work of one of eleven African artists.
The report is a model of clarity. It begins with a “quick, pre-digested, highly-compressed” seven-page summary, followed by detailed chapters that discuss what WPP’s 121,000 employees do and how its 155 operating units interact with each other. The glossy presentation doesn’t shy from controversy. Mindful of complaints from many shareholders, twelve pages are devoted to executive compensation, including a full discussion of Sorrell’s very rich compensation package — $66 million in 2014, up 44% from the year earlier.
Sorrell urges shareholders to invest for the long term, as does Buffett, who tells investors they shouldn’t buy Berkshire Hathaway stock unless they plan to hold it at least five years. While Buffett focuses almost entirely on his company’s operations and results, Sorrell takes a broader macro view, seeing risk in Europe’s economic fragility, instability in the Middle East, emerging nations coping with falling prices for their commodities, the U.S deficit and debt. He also remains bullish on China and in the medium to long term on Russia.
While WPP shares haven’t matched Berkshire Hathaway’s long-term performance, Sorrell can be proud of what he has accomplished. Since taking control of Wire & Plastic Products plc in 1985, renaming it WPP Group, the holding company has grown to annual revenues of 11.528 billion pounds and operating profit of 1.507 billion pounds. Between 2001 and 2014, revenues and profits have nearly tripled and market cap grew to 20.5 billion pounds from 8.7 billion pounds.
Today’s news below.
• Greek shares tumble on reopen
The Athens stock exchange lost about 20% of its value by mid-morning on Monday, after it reopened for the first time in five weeks, with losses led by the financial sector. One trader predicted "the possibility of seeing even a single share rise in tomorrow's sessions is almost zero." The reopen comes after a long period of financial uncertainty in Greece, only spared by a last-minute deal for a third bailout program. CNBC
• HSBC retreats from Brazil
HSBC's ambitions to become "the world's local bank" appears to be over. The bank is selling its Brazilian subsidiary in a landmark move that leaves Citigroup and Spain's Santander as the only two foreign banks with a retail banking subsidiary in Brazil. The asset sale will strengthen HSBC's balance sheet at a time when the bank is dealing with heavier capital requirements. In response to those increased regulatory costs, HSBC has been trying to become simpler and could perhaps look to shed more assets. Fortune
• German automakers buy Nokia Here
Volkswagen's Audi unit, BMW and Daimler have agreed to spend $3 billion to buy Nokia Here, scooping up a high-definition digital mapping business to help solidify their future in the era of driverless and connected cars. The deal is in some ways a defensive move. When Nokia put Here up for sale earlier this year, there were some fears a tech company could buy it, monopolize the data, and cut the auto makers out of the race to provide new services for the connected car that are a driving trend in the auto industry. Financial Times
• No strike for now at Verizon
Verizon and the unions representing the company's wireline unit employees on the U.S. East Coast said work will go on and talks continue after their current contract expired. During the last round of contract negotiations in 2011, talks ended in a strike. The unions want extra benefits and job security provisions, while Verizon is looking to cut costs by requiring employees to pay for more of their healthcare costs. Reuters
Around the Water Cooler
• The reinvention of Square
With reports that Square has confidentially filed to make a public offering comes Monday morning quarterbacking to figure out just how well positioned the payment-processing company is to compete. Early hype beginning in 2009 was followed by disappointing setbacks like the closure of Wallet, Square's mobile wallet product for consumers, and the demise of a Starbucks partnership. But Fortune reports Square has refocused and according to one source, revenue is growing far faster than payments giant PayPal, which just went public. Fortune
• Why most Etsy sellers are women
Etsy has reported that 86% of their sellers are female, and as Fortune points out, that's a dramatic departure from overall trends that indicate only about a third of U.S. small businesses are women-owned. There are some unusual trends found within the world of Etsy's sellers. Roughly a quarter of those sellers had no paid employment before starting their business and less than 1% took out a loan to start. That second fact isn't surprising, considering women are less likely to tap outside financing. Fortune
• Companies sour on Delaware
There was a time when incorporating in Delaware was deemed a "no brainer." The state had established a business-friendly reputation, as firms there are shielded by tough antitakeover laws and special business courts there have backed new corporate defenses. The state is the legal home of 54% of public companies, but tensions are percolating over a recent bill that could encourage shareholder suits. Companies are now saying the state is less hospitable for business, and some are talking about leaving the state for friendly pastures. WSJ (subscription required)
5 things to watch for this week
Jobs, Donald Trump, and Disney's earnings. What you need to start your week, today's story can be found here.