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#336 How To Lose A Few Billion Dollars: Samuel Insull
February 1st, 2024 | E336

What I learned from reading Insull: The Rise and Fall of A Billionaire Utility Tycoon by Forrest McDonald. 


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(0:01) Insull had been in the electric business as long as there had been an electric business.

(4:00) He awoke early, abruptly, completely, bursting with energy; yet he gained momentum as the day wore on, and long into the night. Sam had near-demonic energy.

(5:00) Sam's most obvious attribute was a capacity for racing through large quantities of reading material, effortlessly perceiving its important assumptions and generalizations, and thoroughly assimilating its salient details.

(7:00) He eagerly embraced platitudes:

• Idle hands are the devil's workshop

• Time is money

• Things are simply "done" or "not done"

• One reveres one's family

• Only that which is useful is good

• Survival of the fittest

(8:00) Opportunity handled well leads to more opportunity.

(12:00) He developed an ability to concentrate on a single subject and to completely shut out everything else, no matter how pressing.

(13:00) A theme from the robber baron era: How do we turn a luxury product into a necessity?

(18:00) If you do everything you will win.  — Working by Robert Caro. (Founders #305) and The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection of His Written and Spoken Words edited by J. Christopher Herold. (Founders #302)

(19:00) Insull reread every one of Edison's European contracts, and he took it upon himself to write weekly letters to Johnson, summarizing the fluctuations in the telephone situation and outlining Edison's shifting interests in connection with it. These letters proved to be the best selling points Johnson could have in recommending Insull to Edison.

(20:00) One of his most deep-rooted traits was that he was absolutely unable to imagine the possibility of his own failure; he entirely lacked the sense of caution of those who doubt themselves.

(21:00) Caution, like relaxation, was unnatural to him.

(21:00) We will make electric lights so cheap that only the rich will be able to burn candles.

(27:00) Edison had an almost pathological hostility to any form of system, order, or discipline imposed from without.

(33:00) Warren Buffett on leverage:

Unquestionably, some people have become very rich through the use of borrowed money. However, that's also been a way to get very poor. When leverage works, it magnifies your gains. Your spouse thinks you're clever, and your neighbors get envious. But leverage is addictive. Once having profited from its wonders, very few people retreat to more conservative practices.

And [to repeat] as we all learned in third grade-and some relearned in 2008–any series of positive numbers, however impressive the numbers may be, evaporates when multiplied by a single zero. History tells us that leverage all too often produces zeroes, even when it is employed by very smart people.

Leverage, of course, can be lethal to businesses as well. Companies with large debts often assume that these obligations can be refinanced as they mature. That assumption is usually valid. Occasionally, though, either because of company-specific problems or a worldwide shortage of credit, maturities must actually be met by payment. For that, only cash will do the job.

The Essays of Warren Buffett by Warren Buffett and Lawrence Cunningham. (Founders #227)

(35:00) Smart men go broke three ways: liquor, ladies and leverage. — Charlie Munger

(42:00) To make electricity as cheap as possible we need the largest base of customers. The way to get the largest base of customers is through monopoly.

(45:00) He understood the potential of his industry in a way others did not.

(45:00) We are only going to do things that other people can not do.

(47:00) While money may not buy friends it will keep many a man from becoming an enemy.

(50:00) The moment of applause was the moment for action.

(1:00:00) You need to tell your customers what goes into making your product. It may be normal to you because it is your everyday thing. It is not normal to them. And if you explain and you educate your customers they will find it fascinating. And as a result it will make the service and the product you provide more valuable in their eyes.

(1:00:00) Sam Insull made electric power so abundant and cheap in the United States that people who had never expected to use it, found it as natural and as necessary as breathing.

(1:06:00) He took his leverage too high and the structure of the leverage was a problem. —  Ted Turner's Autobiography.(Founders #327)


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