Investing lessons from Hamish Douglass

Glenn Freeman  |   12/10/2017 Text size  Decrease  Increase   |  
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Glenn Freeman: Hamish, one of the interesting points you made was about Warren Buffett's comments around Wrigley and how a company like that is somewhat impervious to digital disruption and you showed that that was actually quite wrong. What hope do individual investors have in picking companies in that context?

Hamish Douglass: Yeah. Well, I think some things that – there are changes going on and there are rapid changes going on in the world. And trying to predict the future long periods out in time is actually very difficult. And I think Wrigley would be a company that a lot of people would have thought – for many years it's been a company that's almost indestructible. Yet, the presentation I said is certainly in the last five years or so their sales have fallen by 15% or so. And that probably wasn't predictable 15 years ago. But if you actually thought maybe five years ago and you started to think about changes in forms of retailing, you could then start to think about changes. But you have to be thinking about this all the time and you have to be thinking what I describe as second order effects.

The example I gave leading to Wrigley was a change in self-service checkouts. A lot of people would see that checkout. What do you have to do is to try and see around the corner. And you know, our job – we are not trying to predict things around the corner in the next 15 years, but we do have to try and think if these technology changes or business model changes, what could happen to businesses in the next five to seven years. We are spending a lot of time thinking about it. I do think others and individuals could think about that. But you need to not just think about the past; you really have to think about the future and stop thinking about just the obvious things that could happen, but what are the second-order things that could happen here.

Freeman: Sure. When you are talking about digital disruption, you're saying how important it is for investors to be able to respond to some of the impact that these disruptors are having. How do they balance that with a need to maintain a long-term approach?

Douglass: Well, first of all, I think, long-term investing is still here to stay. We are long-term investors. And how we are thinking about this is we are splitting our world into two different components. We are thinking about where are the platforms that are obvious beneficiaries from this disruption. There could be platforms in the world like a Google or an Apple or a Facebook or an Alibaba in China or a Tencent in China; there could be an eBay or there could be an Amazon, or there could be a payments business like a Visa card or a MasterCard that are winning from these changes that are happening in refractory platform. So, we put businesses in that and our job is then to find the ones which we think are the lowest-risk and have the best valuations. And I guess, you need to understand value and you need to understand market shares and how that's occurring.

The other side of this is really thinking about businesses for the next sort of 5 to 10 years that are very unlikely to get disrupted by the current changes that are occurring. So, businesses we think about that are unlikely to be disrupted, they could be some infrastructure businesses, like a water utility. I don't think we're suddenly going to be upload it to computers and not need to drink water. Most of our bodies are water at the moment. So, I would say, sort of, biological needs. Another biological need which we invest in is things like quick service restaurants. We've recently bought into Starbucks. I don't think people are going to suddenly stop drinking coffee in the next 5 to 10 or even 20 years. We're not certainly going to be drinking virtual coffees.

So, we are looking around the corner for the next Wrigley and we think quite a lot of these consumer branded companies could potentially be the next Wrigley from what's going on in the advertising industries and the retailing industries could have second order effects. But there are other businesses out there that are probably very unlikely to be disrupted by some of these changes. So, I think if you start thinking about it, there are businesses that with the changes we can see today are unlikely to get disrupted in 5 to 10 years and then there are winners. And things where you really don't know if they are going to be disrupted, I would say probably stay away from them would be our judgement. So, if you think in that framework, I think you'll certainly start putting things into different boxes and thinking differently.

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