Business folks are rarely frugal, especially when they’re on their clients’ dime or using nameless stockholders’ funds.
I admire businesspeople and companies that are frugal to an extreme and are obsessed with reducing waste. Here are three prominent examples of leaders who’ve successfully inculcated frugality in their companies’ cultures.
Walmart founder Sam Walton was famously frugal and lived a humble life right up until his death. He drove a red 1985 Ford pickup and said, “What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?” On business trips, Walton required Walmart’s buyers to lodge two to a hotel room, eat in family diners, and even bring pens from the hotel rooms for use at “home office.” One of their travel goals was to limit expenses to less than 1% of their purchases. Walmart did not have a corporate jet until they had $40 billion in sales. Walton wrote in his biographical Made in America: My Story (1992; my summary,) “A lot of what goes on these days with high-flying companies and these overpaid CEO’s, who’re really just looting from the top and aren’t watching out for anybody but themselves, really upsets me. It’s one of the main things wrong with American business today.”
Amazon is obsessed with reducing waste. From the very beginning, founder Jeff Bezos built a company focused on providing value in terms of prices and customer service. A micromanager, Bezos audited all corporate expenses when the company was much smaller and reproved everything not warranted for delivering value to customers—no first-class travel for executives, no color printers, office desks made from wooden doors, etc.
Thriftiness is at the heart of the Brazilian private-equity group 3G’s operating model. 3G is notorious for pressing the zero-base budgeting method of cutting operating costs at companies it acquires. Julie MacIntosh’s Dethroning the King (2010) has an interesting story about 3G-run InBev CEO Carlos Brito‘s first visit to Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis headquarters after InBev purchased the American brewer in 2008:
To honor Brito’s visit and pay him the respect it felt he deserved as the soon-to-be new chief, Anheuser-Busch arranged for him to stay in a suite at the cushy Ritz-Carlton. The Ritz wasn’t Brito’s style, though, especially since he was just about to start indoctrinating Anheuser-Busch’s staffers to InBev’s frugal way of life. He had flown commercial into St. Louis from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
He had someone call back and say, “No, no no, I’ve already reserved a room at such and such a place—like the Holiday Inn,” said one InBev insider. “I think that’s when it probably, for the first time, hit home in St. Louis that things were going to be different.” Rather than hitching a town car or helicoptering in to Anheuser-Busch headquarters from his hotel on Tuesday morning, Brito accepted a ride from [Anheuser-Busch President] Dave Peacock.
While on the subject of leaders and indulgence, I’d like to mention private jets, those symbols of corporate indulgence. Corporate jets were famously ridiculed when the CEOs of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler flew them to Washington DC to seek government bailouts in 2008. General Electric’s former CEO Jeff Immelt’s was disparaged recently for flying around the world with a needless “backup jet” in case something happened to the corporate plane he was using. But a corporate jet isn’t an indulgence for a big company, it is a business necessity. Having used corporate jets during a previous job, I can swear that flying commercial is relatively counterproductive and costly. In the 1990s, Warren Buffett, the poster boy of thriftiness, reluctantly bought a private plane. He christened it “The Indefensible,” but within a few years, renamed it “The Indispensable.”