Tuesday, July 5, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Berkshire Hathaway Defies Grading

Berkshire Hathaway, run by Warren Buffett and headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, oversees and manages businesses ranging from railroads (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) and ice cream (Dairy Queen) to paint (Benjamin Moore), underwear (Fruit of the Loom), and newspapers (Buffalo News). Over the past 40-odd years the company’s average annual growth has been 20 percent, making Buffett one of the most successful investors of all time and Berkshire Hathaway the eighth largest public company in the world (market value $187 billion). At over $110,000 per share of Class A stock, Berkshire Hathaway is the most expensive stock on the New York Stock Exchange. Its home page is here.

OVERALL GRADE: D (for “Defies Grading”)
Of the 19 "About Us" and corporate history evaluations we've written, Berkshire Hathaway has been by far the most difficult--and not because of the complexity of the site, which consists of a couple pages of blue text on a white ground. If it were any more low-tech, the page would be in DOS. There is no About Us page, and very little of the information we usually grade on: personality, products, accessibility. Someone seeking to check facts about Berkshire Hathaway would come up empty-handed.

On the other hand, we had to ask: What’s the point of spending time and money on an About Us page when your business is that successful and your founder is lauded as “The Oracle of Omaha”? Do you really need a corporate history page when bookshelves are groaning with volumes about Warren Buffett?

In the case of Berkshire Hathaway, we think it comes down to this: Even for a company as stupendously successful as Berkshire Hathaway, having a decent website (including an About Us page) is like putting on a clean shirt and tie to go to the office: you do it partly from self-respect, partly from attention to the current conventions. “Decent” in this case doesn’t mean all the latest bells and whistles. It means offering the right content in the right order. With that in mind, we offer these comments.

Accessibility: F (or A)
Berkshire Hathaway is famous for keeping minimal staff at its headquarters. Its stockholders trust Warren Buffett’s judgment and don’t expect to be consulted about Berkshire Hathaway’s investments. Not surprisingly, the company positively discourages contact: “If you have any comments about our WEB page [caps theirs] you can either write us at the address shown above or e-mail us at berkshire@berkshirehathaway.com. However, due to the limited number of personnel in our corporate office, we are unable to provide a direct response.”

By our usual standards, Berkshire Hathaway ought to get an “F” for making it difficult to contact them. By their own standards, they get an “A” for eliminating distractions and getting on with their work.

Personality: F
The website conveys none of the personality of Warren Buffett or the exemplary record of Berkshire Hathaway stock. We can understand the choice not to promote themselves. However, we are exasperated by the order of the material that is included.

The most prominent place on the home page (top of the left column) has a link to a Message from Warren E. Buffett, which turns out to be an exhortation to buy from GEICO Insurance and Borsheim’s, two companies that Berkshire Hathaway owns.

Why are the annual and interim reports in the left-hand column, the letters to stockholders on the right? Why is the one and only link to a time-sensitive issue (Sokol’s trading in Lubrizol shares) halfway down the right-hand column, tucked between Charlie Munger’s letters to shareholders and annual meeting information? A few horizontal lines would do wonders to clarify the organization of this page.

One good point: most links on the home page say “Updated June 24, 2011” (or whatever the actual date was). We wish more sites did this.

Products/Services: D
The home page includes a link to a page of companies Berkshire Hathaway owns. If it’s worth having this list on the site, then it’s worth including the company logos and a one-line description of the products and services they offer. It would be an effective way of promoting all these companies as well as GEICO and Borsheim’s.

A website, including an About Us page, is the public face of the 21st-century company. Even if the company is famous, the site should meet certain basic standards of good writing and presentation. There’s plain and then there’s too plain – and then there’s Berkshire Hathaway.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.