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Category Archive: Book Review
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I just finished a very interesting book, called Hidden Champions of the Twenty-First Century, by Hermann Simon. This book is a fascinating look at some of the best and most successful unknown or “hidden” companies in the world. The author does a deep dive and tries to figure out what makes them so successful. I think this book is valuable to any investor, even though most of these companies are private.
This book asks a very, very important question: What makes a small or medium sized company a long term success?
Here are some interesting nuggets about Hidden Champions I took from the book:
1)Hidden Champions do not compete on price, but instead on quality and performance, and this is how they increase market share.
2)Hidden Champions spend double the R&D as a percentage of revenue compared to other companies.
3)These companies set really, ambitious growth targets. A favorite quote in the book: “Great successes always start with ambitious goals.”
4)Hidden Champions define their markets extremely narrowly and have market shares as high as 70% to 100%.
5)Two-thirds of hidden champions are located in rural areas. This creates mutual dependence on the company and employees.
6)Self-financing is and remains the most important source of financing.
7)There is a constant focus on reducing costs, no matter how well the company is doing.
8)Hidden Champions implement decentralized, customer focused corporate structure earl on.
9)When these companies diversify it is a soft-diversification, not into wildly disparate industries.
10)Combination of narrow market focus & superior performance is what insulates Hidden Champions from competition.
I recommend this book for any investor or person who wants to better understand companies and what makes them succeed.
“The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” written by T.J. Stiles is one of the finest biographies I have ever read. Not only is the Cornelius Vanderbilt’s life an amazing and exciting one to follow, but the level of research and the way that Mr. Stiles narrates the story, makes this clear why it won the National Book Award.
Born in 1794, Cornelius Vanderbilt was a part of not only a great nation forming, but saw the emergence of New York City as the financial capital of the U.S., the emergence of Steam ships, the war of 1812, railroads, how California and San Francisco came to be and the Civi War. He took advantage of the new entity of the corporation and actually built companies, instead of using them as tools for his own personal wealth (which they became anyway). He was a principled man and took revenge on those who tried to cross him. In fact, one of the big themes of the book is that Vanderbilt grew his wealth and empire precisely because so many people tried to cheat and screw him. His revenge against those people is the primary reason he became so rich. His wealth was so staggering, that at his death it is estimated that if he liquidated all of his stock holdings, he would own $1 out of $20 dollars in circulation. Compare that Bill Gates, the current richest man in the world, who would take only $1 out of every $138.
Here is what I specifically learned from the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt:
1)Whenever he found someone who was capable, who he could trust and was a hard worker, he remembered that person, so that when an opportunity came around he could place that person in charge of a company or investment. This method of attracting subordinates and delegating power and authority was critical to him.
2)He embraced technological change. Once steam ships came, he got out of sailing sail boats. Once railroads came he eventually disposed of steam ships.
3)He was principled and built companies in a time when many “robber barons” and other tycoons ransacked companies and used them to generate wealth for themselves at any means.
4)He avoided politics and rarely if ever took sides.
5)He made sure that any business he was in had a cost advantage and he relentlessly focused on lowering costs for every company he ran or took over.
I think there are many life, history and business lessons in this wonderful biography and I highly recommend it.
“Happiness does not lie outside us. It can only be found within – a most elusive realm which the modern world, with its overwhelming emphasis on sensory experience, has effectively hidden from our view.” – Eknath Easwaran
I have written before about dealing with stress (Stress Management Tips). Managing money is stressful. More important than just the stress is being able to leave work at the “office” and to allow yourself and your mind downtime. My job and the jobs that many others have consume you and can take over almost every waking second of your life, including your dreams (yes, I have had dreams about stocks).
That is one reason I started observing Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) two years. At sunset on Friday, I stop working, turn off my computer and do not do any work and try not to think or talk about work until Saturday night. This practice has literally been a godsend to me. I am refreshed every week and get to relax and calm my mind. Another benefit is reminding yourself that you are NOT your job.
For those reasons and more I have been interested for awhile in trying meditation. Someone bought me this book and told me it was great. That book is what I’m writing and recommending to you now, “Passage Meditation” by Eknath Easwaran (pronounced Ish wa ran).
Here is why I think the book is great. First, it is really simple and enjoyable to read. There is no dogma or religion that is spread in the book. In fact, it is agnostic. The practices and recommendations made in the book are explicitly recommended to be used with any faith or belief you have. There are easy steps and practical advice. And above all the book makes common sense.
Basically, the book explains the benefits of meditation and why you do it and then recommends two main practices. One is to memorize a mantram to repeat at various moments in your day to calm yourself. It can be anything that is short from “Barcuch Atah Adonai” (Blessed is you oh God) for Jews to “Hail Mary” for Catholics to “Rama Rama” for Hindus. Here i what Eknath says about a mantram:
“A mantram is a powerful spiritual formula which, when repeated silently in the mind, has the capacity to transform consciousness. There is nothing magical about this. It is simply a matter of practice. The mantram is a short, powerful spiritual formula for the highest power we can conceive of – whether we call it God, or the ultimate reality, or the Self within. Whatever name we use, with the mantram we are calling up what is best and deepest in ourselves. The mantram has appeared in every major spiritual tradition, West and East, because it fills a deep, universal need in the human heart.”
The other practice is the meditation on a passage. You basically take a spiritual passage that speaks to you and you memorize it. Then you take a half hour each day, preferably in the morning, and meditate on that passage with your eyes closed. Eknath explains:
“So what is meditation? It is the regular, systematic training of attention to turn inward and dwell continuously on a single focus within consciousness, until, after many years of daily practice, we become so absorbed in the object of our contemplation that while we are meditating, we forget ourselves completely. In that moment, when we are empty of ourselves, we are utterly full of what we are dwelling on. This is the central principle of meditation: we become what we meditate on.” This last sentence that really speaks to me.
And so I highly recommend this book and will be integrating meditation slowly but surely into my daily life. I truly appreciate the first quote that leads off this blog post. Happiness must come from within, it cannot come from a stock quote, a magazine article or even another person.
Finally, this quote makes a lot of sense: “If this body is like the body of a car, the mind is the engine – the most important part of vehicle.” Well, its about time I spend time cleaning and resting my mind and making sure I take care of it and that I focus on what is important in life and what I want my life to be about.
(Here is a link to Eknath Easwaran’s non profit organization: Blue Mountain Center of Meditation)
“Everyone should know Wilberforce,” Abraham Lincoln once said.
Wilberforce who? William Wilberforce.
I just put down an excellent biography by William Hague called William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner.
First off, I had no idea who William Wilberforce was before I read this book, nor did I realize how great a man he was or how big of a figure he was in British politics from 1780 to 1830 (a time of great turmoil not only in the world but especially in Britain). I read a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times (I forget which) and for some reason I was moved to buy the book.
One of the reasons I bought the book is that I was curious after reading a little bit about William Wilberforce, how a person goes up against powerful interests for a moral cause and in the end, converts almost everyone to his side.
This book and William Wilberforce’s life resonate with me deeply. One reason is that he went through a religious awakening in his late 20s like me. His awakening was evangelical Chrisitianity, mine was Judaism. His conversion compelled him to not waste any of his time and to try as much as possible to better the world. He was the standard bearer and unshakable advocate for abolition of the slave trade and also of prison reform and of education for children. He was constantly trying to help others and busy educating himself about the world. He stayed in Parliament despite many offers to be bought out and be made a Lord and be set for life. He fought the good fight and stayed independent his entire life and was widely admired for doing so.
A cheerful man, who loved to sing, who never gave up despite hopeless odds, with strong faith in God and the good of men, William Wilberforce is a “powerful beacon of light,” Mr. Hague tells us especially in our times, and I agree.
What I also love about William Wilberforce is that today, religion is put down and blamed for so many problems such as wars. Some of the blame is justified, some is not. But rarely do secularists or atheists mention the positive results from religion. And there is no greater example than that of abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself. Without William Wilberforce’s unflappable faith in God and the faith of others like him, and his accountability to making the world a better place and of his own actions, slavery and the slave trade may still be going on to this day.
Besides the topic, the author has to be commended, because this book could easily be boring and yet it is stirring, powerful and an extremely engaging read. I highly recommend this book and think Mr. Wilberforce’s name and example should be taught to everyone.
I finished a book called, “The World to Come,” by Dara Horn about two weeks ago and the book still resonates deeply with me. It starts out when a young, antisocial, Jewish man goes into a Jewish museum and sees a Marc Chagall painting he is convinced hung in his parents’ house. He decides to steal it when no one is looking.
The book is so rich in its characters, so rich in meaning and in depth, I cannot do it justice. But suffice it to say it goes back into the painting’s history including visits to Russia and even visits to Vietnam. It discusses life and love, the creative process and what connects us.
The power of the book lies its constant thematic reminders of bridges, paintings, life and death, creativity and how we live with the unnoticed help from family members who came before us.
I cannot recommend this book enough. The book is worth reading for the last chapter alone, which is simply astounding in its creativity and beauty.
I plan to read this book again.