As Warren Buffett turns 90, the story of one of America’s most influential and wealthy business leaders is a study in the logic and discipline of understanding future value.
Patience, caution, and consistency. In volatile times such as these, it may be difficult for executives to keep those attributes in mind when making decisions. But there are immense advantages to doing so. For proof, just look at the steady genius of now-nonagenarian Warren Buffett. The legendary investor and Berkshire Hathaway founder and CEO has earned millions of dollars for investors over several decades (exhibit). But very few of Buffett’s investment decisions have been reactionary; instead, his choices and communications have been—and remain—grounded in logic and value.
Buffett learned his craft from “the father of value investing,” Columbia University professor and British economist Benjamin Graham. Perhaps as a result, Buffett typically doesn’t invest in opportunities in which he can’t reasonably estimate future value—there are no social-media companies, for instance, or cryptocurrency ventures in his portfolio. Instead, he banks on businesses that have steady cash flows and will generate high returns and low risk. And he lets those businesses stick to their knitting. Ever since Buffett bought See’s Candy Shops in 1972, for instance, the company has generated an ROI of more than 160 percent per year —and not because of significant changes to operations, target customer base, or product mix. The company didn’t stop doing what it did well just so it could grow faster. Instead, it sends excess cash flows back to the parent company for reinvestment—which points to a lesson for many listed companies: it’s OK to grow in line with your product markets if you aren’t confident that you can redeploy the cash flows you’re generating any better than your investor can.
As Peter Kunhardt, director of the HBO documentary Becoming Warren Buffett, said in a 2017 interview, Buffett understands that “you don’t have to trade things all the time; you can sit on things, too. You don’t have to make many decisions in life to make a lot of money.” And Buffett’s theory (roughly paraphrased) that the quality of a company’s senior leadership can signal whether the business would be a good investment or not has been proved time and time again. “See how [managers] treat themselves versus how they treat the shareholders .…The poor managers also turn out to be the ones that really don’t think that much about the shareholders. The two often go hand in hand,” Buffett explains.
Every few years or so, critics will poke holes in Buffett’s approach to investing. It’s outdated, they say, not proactive enough in a world in which digital business and economic uncertainty reign. For instance, during the 2008 credit crisis, pundits suggested that his portfolio moves were mistimed, he held on to some assets for far too long, and he released others too early, not getting enough in return. And it’s true that Buffett has made some mistakes; his decision making is not infallible. His approach to technology investments works for him, but that doesn’t mean other investors shouldn’t seize opportunities to back digital tools, platforms, and start-ups—particularly now that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated global companies’ digital transformations.
Still, many of Buffett’s theories continue to win the day. A good number of the so-called inadvisable deals he pursued in the wake of the 2008 downturn ended paying off in the longer term. And press reports suggest that Berkshire Hathaway’s profits are rebounding in the midst of the current economic downturn prompted by the global pandemic.
At age 90, Buffett is still waging campaigns—for instance, speaking out against eliminating the estate tax and against the release of quarterly earnings guidance. Of the latter, he has said that it promotes an unhealthy focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term performance.
“Clear communication of a company’s strategic goals—along with metrics that can be evaluated over time—will always be critical to shareholders. But this information … should be provided on a timeline deemed appropriate for the needs of each specific company and its investors, whether annual or otherwise,” he and Jamie Dimon wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Yes, volatile times call for quick responses and fast action. But as Warren Buffett has shown, there are also significant advantages to keeping the long term in mind, as well. Specifically, there is value in consistency, caution, and patience and in simply trusting the math—in good times and bad.
Healthcare is Hard: A Podcast for Insiders; June 11, 2020
Over the course of nearly 20 years as Chief Research Officer at The Advisory Board Company, Chas Roades became a trusted advisor for CEOs, leadership teams and boards of directors at health systems across the country. When The Advisory Board was acquired by Optum in 2017, Chas left the company with Chief Medical Officer, Lisa Bielamowicz. Together they founded Gist Healthcare, where they play a similar role, but take an even deeper and more focused look at the issues health systems are facing.
As Chas explains, Gist Healthcare has members from Allentown, Pennsylvania to Beverly Hills, California and everywhere in between. Most of the organizations Gist works with are regional health systems in the $2 to $5 billion range, where Chas and his colleagues become adjunct members of the executive team and board. In this role, Chas is typically hopscotching the country for in-person meetings and strategy sessions, but Covid-19 has brought many changes.
“Almost overnight, Chas went from in-depth sessions about long-term five-year strategy, to discussions about how health systems will make it through the next six weeks and after that, adapt to the new normal. He spoke to Keith Figlioli about many of the issues impacting these discussions including:
- Corporate Governance. The decisions health systems will be forced to make over the next two to five years are staggeringly big, according to Chas. As a result, Gist is spending a lot of time thinking about governance right now and how to help health systems supercharge governance processes to lay a foundation for the making these difficult choices.
- Health Systems Acting Like Systems. As health systems struggle to maintain revenue and margins, they’ll be forced to streamline operations in a way that finally takes advantage of system value. As providers consolidated in recent years, they successfully met the goal of gaining size and negotiating leverage, but paid much less attention to the harder part – controlling cost and creating value. That’s about to change. It will be a lasting impact of Covid-19, and an opportunity for innovators.
- The Telehealth Land Grab. Providers have quickly ramped-up telehealth services as a necessity to survive during lockdowns. But as telehealth plays a larger role in the new standard of care, payers will not sit idly by and are preparing to double-down on their own virtual care capabilities. They’re looking to take over the virtual space and own the digital front door in an effort to gain coveted customer loyalty. Chas talks about how it would be foolish for providers to expect that payers will continue reimburse at high rates or at parity for physical visits.
- The Battleground Over Physicians. This is the other area to watch as payers and providers clash over the hearts and minds of consumers. The years-long trend of physician practices being acquired and rolled-up into larger organizations will significantly accelerate due to Covid-19. The financial pain the pandemic has caused will force some practices out of business and many others looking for an exit. And as health systems deal with their own financial hardships, payers with deep pockets are the more likely suitor.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted the telehealth industry forward by decades in a matter of months, according to Amwell’s Roy Schoenberg.
That not only benefits the Amwell’s business, but it’s a win for patients, said Schoenberg, who serves as the company’s president and co-CEO.
“We are going to see an enormous amount of change, nothing short of a revolution, going forward,” he told Fierce Healthcare.
Roy and his brother Ido Schoenberg have been telehealth advocates for more than a decade since launching Amwell, formerly American Well, in 2006. The Boston-based telehealth company works with more than 240 health systems comprised of 2,000 hospitals and 55 health plan partners with over 36,000 employers, reaching over 150 million lives.
Like other virtual care companies, Amwell has seen skyrocketing demand for its services during the COVID-19 pandemic as stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines prevented many patients from visiting doctors in person. Shares in public digital health companies like Teladoc and Livongo have grown by double digits during the health crisis.
The momentum around telehealth also has attracted investors. The company recently raised $194 million in a series C funding round.
Amwell also is gearing up to go public later this year, according to CNBC’s Christina Farr and Ari Levy. The company confidentially filed for an IPO earlier this week and has hired Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to lead the deal, Farr and Levy reported last week, citing people who asked not to be named because the plans have not been announced.
The company declined to comment on the CNBC report.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Amwell was providing an average of 5,000 telehealth visits a day. That has jumped to 45,000 to 50,000 virtual visits a day due to the coronavirus, said Ido Schoenberg, who serves as chairman and co-CEO.
“We saw 30 times, 40 times higher volumes and we have clients that had 2% to 3% of their patient volume online that now have 75% of visits online,” he said. “It’s truly incredible. The number of active providers on our platform grew seven times over in two months.”
As visits surged, technology companies struggled to keep up with demand, and patients reported long wait times for virtual visits on some platforms.
Roy Schoenberg acknowledged Amwell also faced challenges rapidly scaling its technology and services almost overnight as it was “thrown into the center stage of trying to save the world.”
The company leverages automation for processes such as onboarding physicians, credentialing, licensing, and working with health plans and that capability proved critical to scaling its services, the executives said.
“We needed to allow 40,000 to 50,000 physicians to come on to our system and begin to use it. If this was a manual process, it would have been broken,” Roy Schoenberg said.
Regulatory barriers to telehealth also quickly fell away, at least temporarily. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and commercial health plans have expanded access to telehealth by offering payment parity for many telehealth services for the first time.
While questions remain about what regulatory flexibilities will remain in place to support the ongoing demand for telehealth, Amwell executives believe virtual care has proven its value to providers, payers and patients.
CMS will likely tighten up some of the relaxed requirements around telehealth which is a “fiscally responsible approach,” Roy Schoenberg said.
“At the end of the day, even though the government tends to be a little bit slow, it gravitates to where the value is. How long will it take for the payment structure to retract and then expand, that’s anyone’s guess. We have an election year coming in. Who knows what that is going to do? There may be some changes, but I think overall, the genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste is out of the tube, or whatever phrase you want to use,” he said.
The executives never doubted that telehealth would, at some point, reach the mainstream. Now that it’s happened, health systems and patients have become advocates for the technology and that will also put pressure on CMS and commercial payers to continue to support it, they said.
The executives now see an opportunity for Amwell to use its platform to expand the reach of healthcare to more patients. There is a growing industry of telehealth providers, device makers, and technology-enabled disease management companies that will enable digital home healthcare services, they said.
“What we built is something way bigger than a video conference between doctor and patient, which you can easily do using Zoom or FaceTime,” Ido Schoenberg said.
Digital connectivity will enable providers to gather health data on patients from wearables and devices to better understand gaps in care, get an overall picture of patients’ health and then provide more effective interventions, all without patients leaving their living rooms. The combination of telehealth and remote devices will enable elderly, frail patients to receive care at home, where they want to be, rather than being moved to a skilled nursing facility, they said.
“It’s about the ability to democratize healthcare and make great care available to many more people that today don’t always have access to it,” Ido Schoenberg said.
Roy Schoenberg added, “These are the opportunities opening fast and furious in front of us and the promise is to make healthcare less painful as an individual experience. That’s the value proposition.”
The pandemic has shown that it is not existential dangers, but rather everyday economic activities, that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life. Just as a spider’s web crumples when a few strands are broken, so the coronavirus has highlighted the risks arising from our economic interdependence.
CAMBRIDGE – Aristotle was right. Humans have never been atomized individuals, but rather social beings whose every decision affects other people. And now the COVID-19 pandemic is driving home this fundamental point: each of us is morally responsible for the infection risks we pose to others through our own behavior.
In fact, this pandemic is just one of many collective-action problems facing humankind, including climate change, catastrophic biodiversity loss, antimicrobial resistance, nuclear tensions fueled by escalating geopolitical uncertainty, and even potential threats such as a collision with an asteroid.
As the pandemic has demonstrated, however, it is not these existential dangers, but rather everyday economic activities, that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life beneath the individualist façade of rights and contracts.
Those of us in white-collar jobs who are able to work from home and swap sourdough tips are more dependent than we perhaps realized on previously invisible essential workers, such as hospital cleaners and medics, supermarket staff, parcel couriers, and telecoms technicians who maintain our connectivity.
Similarly, manufacturers of new essentials such as face masks and chemical reagents depend on imports from the other side of the world. And many people who are ill, self-isolating, or suddenly unemployed depend on the kindness of neighbors, friends, and strangers to get by.
The sudden stop to economic activity underscores a truth about the modern, interconnected economy: what affects some parts substantially affects the whole. This web of linkages is therefore a vulnerability when disrupted. But it is also a strength, because it shows once again how the division of labor makes everyone better off, exactly as Adam Smith pointed out over two centuries ago.
Today’s transformative digital technologies are dramatically increasing such social spillovers, and not only because they underpin sophisticated logistics networks and just-in-time supply chains. The very nature of the digital economy means that each of our individual choices will affect many other people.
Consider the question of data, which has become even more salient today because of the policy debate about whether digital contact-tracing apps can help the economy to emerge from lockdown faster.
This approach will be effective only if a high enough proportion of the population uses the same app and shares the data it gathers. And, as the Ada Lovelace Institute points out in a thoughtful report, that will depend on whether people regard the app as trustworthy and are sure that using it will help them. No app will be effective if people are unwilling to provide “their” data to governments rolling out the system. If I decide to withhold information about my movements and contacts, this would adversely affect everyone.
Yet, while much information certainly should remain private, data about individuals is only rarely “personal,” in the sense that it is only about them. Indeed, very little data with useful information content concerns a single individual; it is the context – whether population data, location, or the activities of others – that gives it value.
Most commentators recognize that privacy and trust must be balanced with the need to fill the huge gaps in our knowledge about COVID-19. But the balance is tipping toward the latter. In the current circumstances, the collective goal outweighs individual preferences.
But the current emergency is only an acute symptom of increasing interdependence. Underlying it is the steady shift from an economy in which the classical assumptions of diminishing or constant returns to scale hold true to one in which there are increasing returns to scale almost everywhere.
In the conventional framework, adding a unit of input (capital and labor) produces a smaller or (at best) the same increment to output. For an economy based on agriculture and manufacturing, this was a reasonable assumption.
But much of today’s economy is characterized by increasing returns, with bigger firms doing ever better. The network effects that drive the growth of digital platforms are one example of this. And because most sectors of the economy have high upfront costs, bigger producers face lower unit costs.
One important source of increasing returns is the extensive experience-based know-how needed in high-value activities such as software design, architecture, and advanced manufacturing. Such returns not only favor incumbents, but also mean that choices by individual producers and consumers have spillover effects on others.
The pervasiveness of increasing returns to scale, and spillovers more generally, has been surprisingly slow to influence policy choices, even though economists have been focusing on the phenomenon for many years now. The COVID-19 pandemic may make it harder to ignore.
Just as a spider’s web crumples when a few strands are broken, so the pandemic has highlighted the risks arising from our economic interdependence. And now California and Georgia, Germany and Italy, and China and the United States need each other to recover and rebuild. No one should waste time yearning for an unsustainable fantasy.
The Tewksbury, Massachusetts–based health system strives to post its first positive balance sheet in more than five years.
Stephen Forney, MBA, CPA, FACHE, excels in fixing “broken” organizations and he has built a track record of achieving financial turnarounds at seven healthcare facilities, he tells HealthLeaders in a recent interview.
Forney has over three decades of experience as a healthcare executive, with a primary focus on problem-solving. He began his career fixing problems in areas such as information technology and supply chain, an approach and skill he has carried over into financial operations in the C-suite.
“In finance, it wound up being the same thing. Pretty much every organization I’ve gone to has been broken in some way, shape, or form,” Forney says. “I’ve developed a specialty doing turnarounds and this will be my eighth.”
Forney speaks about his new CFO role at the Tewksbury, Massachusetts–based Catholic nonprofit health system Covenant Health, which he joined in mid-September, and how driving revenue and reducing expenses must go hand-in-hand to achieve financial balance.
This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
HealthLeaders: Covenant is coming off its fifth straight year of operating losses. What is contributing to those losses and how do you plan to address those financial challenges?
Forney: The thing is, most turnarounds—to a greater or lesser extent—look a lot alike. With organizations that have [financial] issues, there are obviously always unique aspects to every situation, but virtually every healthcare organization that’s not doing well is because of the same relatively small handful of issues.
[For example,] revenue cycle is probably No. 1. Productivity has not been well attended to; expenses haven’t had a lot of discipline around them in a broad sense. That’s not to say that all decisions are bad, but in a systematic fashion, things haven’t been looked at. Frequently, driving volume and growing the business needs a better focus.
In the case of Covenant … there has been a plan developed to address all those areas and we are addressing them already, even though we will be posting another operating loss in fiscal [year] 2019. But the trajectory is good and some of the things that we’re now looking at are what I would consider to be phase two–type initiatives. How do we accelerate and move them to the next level?
On October 1, we outsourced our revenue cycle. I’m pleased that we were able to get that accomplished. Obviously, it’s early but, at least anecdotally, initial trends look good.
HL: Where do you fall on the dynamic between focusing on expense control measures or revenue generation?
Forney: I always feel like you need to do both. Expense management and working towards expense strategies is easier, quicker, and more straightforward.
[Revenue growth strategies] take time, take effort, and tend to [have] a much higher degree of uncertainty around the volume projection. Those are necessary and they’re things that we need to invest in because, at some point, you can’t cut any more from your organization, you’ve got to grow the top line. To me, it’s sort of like step one is stabilize your revenue cycle and stabilize your expenses. Then while you’re doing that, work on growth that’s going to take place 12 to 18 months down the road.
HL: Are you optimistic about the federal government’s efforts to move the industry toward value-based care?
Forney: Going back about a decade, I thought the ACE program, which was [the federal government’s] bundled payment program, was a solid step in the right direction. It gave organizations a chance to collaborate in compliant fashion with physicians to bend the cost curve and have beneficiaries participate in the bending of the cost curve as well. I was with one of the pilot health systems that [participated], and it was a remarkable success.
Everybody got to win; CMS, patients, physicians, and systems won by creating value. Yes, I think that the government has a good role to play in [value-based care] because they have such a large group of patients that they’re willing to experiment like that. [The federal government] can come up with potentially novel ways to get people to buy into this.
HL: What is it like to be at the helm of a Catholic nonprofit system and how does it affect your leadership style?
Forney: From a philosophical standpoint, the principle of creating shareholder wealth and good stewardship are not significantly different. You’ve got an end goal in mind, which is, you’re taking care of the patients and a community. In one case, whatever excess is left goes to a private equity fund or shareholders. In the other case, [the excess] stays in your balance sheet and gets reinvested in the community.
HL: Given your three decades of healthcare experience, do you have advice for your fellow provider CFOs, especially some of the younger ones?
Forney: Focus on being that strategic right-hand person to the CEO. In my experience, that has been one of the things that marks a successful CFO from one that isn’t as successful.
CEOs are going to get ideas from everywhere. They’re outward and inward facing. They deal with the doctors and the community, and they’re going to get all sorts of great ideas.
The CFO needs to be that person [who is] grounded and says, ‘Well, what about this?’ That doesn’t mean saying no. The whole idea is how do you make it [sound] like a yes. To me, the CFO role just grounds all the discussions, from working with physicians to working with the community.
CFOs over the last couple of decades have been operationally oriented. Now they need to start becoming clinically oriented.
There’s a real benefit in being able to sit down and talk with a physician and understand [what] they’re doing. … It winds up becoming a way to help ground the clinicians in the hospital operations because now you’re having a dialogue with them instead of them just saying, ‘You don’t understand. You’re not a clinician.’ That would be something that I would have a young CFO try to stay focused on, even though it’s dramatically outside the comfort zone for people that typically go into accounting.