Forest River Special Report

Special Report: Working for Berkshire Hathaway: “I don’t want to work for a big corporation!”

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

“I don’t want to work for a big corporation!” It’s popular sentiment among those with an entrepreneurial bent. What was surprising to me was those words were being spoken by one of the managers at Forest River Inc., a leading manufacturer of recreational vehicles, pontoon boats and buses that is owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

Corporate bureaucracy

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon strip, told USAToday, “Corporate bureaucracy ‘would be top on the list of sucking the life force out of [workers], making them feel helpless.”

Back to the manager I was speaking with. He had sold his company to Forest River a number of years back and at that time had several options. He could start another company, and face all the challenges of a new start-up; he could go to work for another corporation; or he could join Forest River as the manager of the division that had purchased his company. He chose the third option and became a general manager at Forest River, and by doing so he became one of the 335,245 employees of Berkshire Hathaway.

How big is a company that has 335,245 employees? By comparison, Exxon Mobil Corp. has only 75,000 employees.

About Forest River

Forest River itself is no small company. It has close to 6,000 employees that work at 71 manufacturing facilities. Its RV product lines include Forest River RV, Coachman RV, and Shasta RV; its boat division includes Berkshire Pontoons and Southbay Pontoons; and its bus division includes Glaval Bus, Elkhart Coach, and Starcraft Bus. In addition to RVs, boat and buses, the company also manufactures mobile offices, manufactured housing, park trailers and cargo trailers.

All combined, Forest River produced $3.3 billion in revenues in 2013, which was up 24% from 2012.

Back again to the manager who didn’t want to work for a big corporation. Over the time I have known him he has consistently described the operating climate at Forest River as anything but bureaucratic. It has more the entrepreneurial spirit of a smaller company. It’s a spirit that comes from the company head Peter Liegl.

Warren Buffett on Peter Liegl

Peter Liegl founded Forest River in 1996 and stayed on as its president when Berkshire Hathaway acquired it in 2005. In Berkshire’s 2005 Annual Report, Warren Buffett described Liegl.

“Pete is a remarkable entrepreneur. Some years back, he sold his business, then far smaller than today, to an LBO operator who promptly began telling him how to run the place. Before long, Pete left, and the business soon sunk into bankruptcy. Pete then repurchased it. You can be sure that I won’t be telling Pete how to manage his operation.”

Buffett has lived up to his word, keeping a hands-off approach to Forest River. At the 2014 annual meeting he noted that he had only called Liegl “three or four times over the past decade.”

Hands-Off Approach

Buffett’s hands-off approach is what has separated Berkshire Hathaway from the typical conglomerate’s top-down management structure. It is what has enabled Peter Leigel to grow Forest River through an entrepreneurial style that values and retains top managers.

And it is what has enabled one of Forest River’s managers to say proudly “I don’t want to work for a big corporation!”

© 2014 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results