A collection of short runs

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A collection of short runs.

The only time I really think long-term is when it comes to investing. Having observed the success of many investment gurus who think in years, not months or weeks, I am a convert to the idea that good things take time and they shouldn't be fiddled with in the short term.

Warren Buffett talked about buying companies that could withstand the market being closed for 10 years.

But the recent failures of Pumpkin Patch and Wynyard remind me that even a good idea, like playing the long game, can be taken too far.

Both companies were clearly focused on long-term strategies but failed by not concentrating more on short-term issues like debt repayment and cash management.

I agree with a recent blog entry: "The key is recognising that the long run is just a collection of short runs and capturing long-term growth means managing the short run effectively enough to ensure you can stick around for a long time."

The blog went on to talk about the famous 'marshmallow study' where kids who had the willpower to forgo eating one marshmallow now, in order to get two marshmallows in 10 minutes time, went on to do better in life. The study suggested that those who look ahead make better decisions than those who focus on the short run.

But, says the blog, the most important part of the study is often overlooked. The kids who waited 10 minutes found something to do to distract them from the temptation — singing songs, playing with their shoes or doing jumping jacks.

The only way they made it to the long run (and for a child, 10 minutes is long-term) was by managing the short run effectively; diverting their attention from something almost too tempting to resist.

Perhaps if Pumpkin Patch had settled for bedding down its Australasian stores before expanding globally, the long term payoff would have been better.

Perhaps if Wynyard had managed its resources to match real revenue rather than 'maybe revenue', the company would have had a long-term future.

In his early days as CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates said: "I came up with an incredibly conservative approach that I wanted to have enough money in the bank to pay a year's worth of payroll even if we didn't get any payments coming in." Microsoft was able to develop its long-term plan not in spite of but because of its management of short-term finances.

That's not to say short-termism is the key to business success. It's all about balance.

I recall the years following the global financial crisis when nobody wanted to focus on the long-term and quick wins were the order of the day. Having watched global markets collapse in unison, investors weren't prepared to wait 10 minutes for an additional marshmallow.

An interesting study in balance came in Michael Hill's response to the post-GFC years which were tough for virtually every company but especially so in a jewellery business relying on discretionary consumer spending.

The company issued a challenge to shareholders saying that if they wanted to be "wimps" and focus on the short term, they should get out. But if they wanted to be in for the long term "and see a star that goes to the moon" they should hang in there.

The Michael Hill share price was 81 cents then. It has more than doubled since.

Take care of the short runs and the long run takes care of itself.


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