On Concentrated Positions

On Concentrated Positions

Photo Credit: John.U || Look at all those eggs in one basket! The owner *is* watching it carefully, right?

Jason Zweig recent wrote an article on owning stock in the company that you work for. Then today in his WSJ newsletter he asked the following question:

What’s the most concentrated investment position you’ve ever had? (In other words, what single investment made up the greatest proportion of your portfolio?) Did it work out well or poorly? What did you learn from it?

I have one article to answer both questions called Life with Wife. It’s a cute article which runs through two times in my life where I had an overly concentrated investment position. The first one was regarding The St. Paul (acquired by The Travelers), where I took my first big bonus, and put it all into shares of The St. Paul. I got derided for doing that by my colleagues in the investment department, but with a AA balance sheet, trading at 55% of tangible book value, and 8x forward earnings, I felt I had a reasonable provision against adverse deviation — a margin of safety. If you read the article, you will see that I almost doubled my money in six months, then sold. At the peak it was half of my net worth, and I had a mortgage then.

So should you invest in your own company? Well, are you working for Tesla or Enron? I am being facetious here, as the guys at Enron thought they were working for a cutting-edge company like Tesla. But any analyst worth his salt would have seen that free cash flow at Enron was deeply negative.

I have a neighbor who is a Tesla mechanic. As I was mowing my lawn one day, he waved me over. He wanted advice. He hinted to me how much his Tesla shares were worth. He had consulted an investment advisor who had told him to sell the wad, and the advisor would create a growth and income portfolio allowing him to retire (he is in his 60s). But he was conflicted, because Tesla was doing so well. He asked me what I would do if I was in his shoes. (Note: the TSLA shares were likely 95% of his net worth.)

I said, “Do half, or sell 10-20% per year over time, until you do sell half.” Doing that frees you from the binary decision that you might regret. After selling half, if the price goes up, you still have more capital gains. If the price goes down, you sold some at a good time. You can be happy with yourself no matter what. I have no idea what my neighbor did. Hopefully he sold some.

The second situation in Life with Wife regarded my only significant private equity position, Wright Manufacturing, which makes the best commercial lawn mowers in the world. At that point, my holdings were 15% of my net worth, with no mortgage. The founder was throwing everything into growth, and sacrificing safety. If he hadn’t been my friend, I probably would not have invested with him. As it was, when I sold half, I had recouped my investment. After the Life with Wife article, I bought out several of the founder’s relatives, ending up with 2.2% of the company. I’ve made 5x on my money here, with distributions, and using the very thin “market” for shares. One of the founder’s sons leads the company now, and he is a far better manager than his father. I like this company, and am more likely to buy more than to sell at this point.

But at this point, it is only 10% of my net worth. I may offer to buy more, but I am thinking about it. It trades at 6x earnings, with a stronger balance sheet than the founder worked with, and a stronger competitive position. The most recent price is still below where I sold it to the second largest shareholder. Price discovery is tough when there are only 20 shareholders, and new shareholders may only enter at the pleasure of the board of directors.


So, over my life, I have reduced the relative amount at risk on my biggest positions. Does that make sense? Of course — I have less time to make up for mistakes as I grow older. The only people who should be taking high risks when they are old are who are ultra-rich. If they fail, they will still have enough for a moderate existence.

Be careful with concentrated positions. You need certainty about safety most, earnings second, and growth third. Otherwise you are a gambler, and most gamblers lose.