The best place to find new work is on your desk, not out glad-handing somebody on the golf course. Do what you are doing, do it well and over time that will produce the next good piece of work.
There’s no question whatsoever that we could not have done what we did back then if I hadn’t had my airplanes. I bought that first plane for business, to travel between the stores and keep in touch with what was going on. But once we started really rolling out the stores, the airplane turned into a great tool for scouting real estate. We were probably ten years ahead of most other retailers in scouting locations from the air, and we got a lot of great ones that way. From up in the air we could check out traffic flows, see which way cities and towns were growing, and evaluate the location of the competition—if there was any. Then we would develop our real estate strategy for that market.
I loved doing it myself. I’d get down low, turn my plane up on its side, and fly right over a town. Once we had a spot picked out, we’d land, go find out who owned the property, and try to negotiate the deal right then. That’s another good reason I don’t like jets. You can’t get down low enough to really tell what’s going on, the way I could in my little planes. Bud and I picked almost all our sites that way until we grew to about 120 or 130 stores. I was always proud of our technique and the results we got. I guarantee you not many principals of retailing companies were flying around sideways studying development patterns, but it worked really well for us. Until we had 500 stores, or at least 400 or so, I kept up with every real estate deal we made and got to view most locations before we signed any kind of commitment. A good location, and what we have to pay for it, is so important to the success of a store. And it’s one area of the company in which we’ve always had family involvement.
The great lesson in microeconomics is to discriminate between when technology is going to help you and when it’s going to kill you. And most people do not get this straight in their heads. …There are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that’s still going to be lousy. The money still won’t come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.
Certain common threads run through the best investments I’ve witnessed. They’re usually contrarian, challenging and uncomfortable—although the experienced contrarian takes comfort from his or her position outside the herd. Whenever the debt market collapses, for example, most people say, “We’re not going to try to catch a falling knife; it’s too dangerous.”
They usually add, “We’re going to wait until the dust settles and the uncertainty is resolved.” What they mean, of course, is that they’re frightened and unsure of what to do.
The one thing I’m sure of is that by the time the knife has stopped falling, the dust has settled and the uncertainty has been resolved, there’ll be no great bargains left . When buying something has become comfortable again, its price will no longer be so low that it’s a great bargain. Thus, a hugely profitable investment that doesn’t begin with discomfort is usually an oxymoron.
It’s our job as contrarians to catch falling knives, hopefully with care and skill. That’s why the concept of intrinsic value is so important. If we hold a view of value that enables us to buy when everyone else is selling—and if our view turns out to be right—that’s the route to the greatest rewards earned with the least risk.