Sunday Herald: The Power of Two

As history has witnessed, it takes all sorts of chemistry between two people to succeed, writes Lakshmi Palecanda

To make a partnership work, there has to be mutual trust and respect.
Highlights: 
Fact: not all artistes love or even like their partners. Some just can’t stand the other person.
Not all partnerships are for the greater good of society. There are some historical crime twosomes who capture our imagination.

Happiness lies in the joy of achievement,” said Franklin Roosevelt. This pleasure is what we chase when we attempt something, work at it and succeed. But, can we succeed if we choose to work alone?

We all like the idea of a genius, a lone brain capable of incredible feats. However, while an Einstein or a Beethoven does make it occasionally, the reality is that no one succeeds alone. In social living, every action needs a community to bring it to fruition. People do need a network or a team to help them achieve success. At the very least, they need a mentor or a partner, one other individual, to make a success of any venture and to reduce its risk.

In a standard partnership, it is reasonable to expect output to increase, as there is more positive input. Simply put, two heads are better than one. So, when two get together, we can expect at least two times the output.

However, sometimes one plus one adds up to more than two, putting mathematics to shame. The association between two particular individuals of talent sometimes creates a synergy that results in an incredible outcome that is far more than the sum of the two talents. What actually happens is that the two great talents are able to collaborate, complement, compete and culminate in stupendous achievement.

Just how do they do it? Is there a formula, a common thread, a master mix of requirements? Well, maybe examining some wildly successful associations that have conquered our imagination can reveal a template, if any, to successful partnerships.

Success story

When two people decide to pool all they have to start a new venture, it is tricky. But if they are related, it turns murkier. If their wives are sisters, it can mean the end of the family as well as the business. However, there are two people who did just this and spun out a mega-billion-dollar empire almost 200 years ago, which flourishes even today.

Ever used ‘Tide’ laundry detergent? Or Pampers disposable diapers? These are but two of the many products pioneered by the company that these two men built, Procter and Gamble.

Born in England in 1801, William Procter migrated to Cincinnati, USA, and worked as a candle-maker in his spare time. There, he met and married Olivia Norris, the daughter of a prominent candle-maker in town, Alexander Norris.

Meanwhile, James Gamble, who was born in Ireland in 1803, also settled in Cincinnati and became a soap-maker. He then married Elizabeth Ann Norris, the second daughter of Alexander Norris.

One being a soap-maker, and the other a candle-maker, both men were competing for the same raw materials, such as tallow and other animal fats. When father-in-law Alexander Norris observed this, he suggested that they form a partnership. On August 22, 1837, they pledged $3,596.47 each and started a company together.

The economy was turbulent at the time, with rumours of a nationwide bankruptcy and an oncoming civil war. However, William and James were calm, focusing on their immediate competition with other candle and soap makers. Their attitude paid off, and in 1859, P&G sales reached $1 million and employed 80 people. Worried that war could interrupt the supply of a certain kind of Southern pine sap required to make rosin, a key ingredient in their products, the two purchased huge quantities of pine sap preemptively. This helped them dominate the market during the Civil War, when they were awarded several contracts to supply soap and candles to the Union armies. P&G never looked back after that.

Not only were William and James good together, their children worked well together, too. James Norris Gamble, James Gamble’s son, was a trained chemist who developed an inexpensive but high-quality soap ‘that floated in the water’, and Harley Procter, one of William Procter’s sons, named it Ivory and convinced partners to allocate money for its advertisements. Later, William Alexander Procter, another son, became the first president of P&G. Today, the company founded by the two brothers-in-law, P&G, has a portfolio of 22 billion-dollar brands and a market capitalisation of nearly $200 billion.

Friends first

Truth to tell, it is hard to be friends with a person for a long time. So it is admirable that Warren and Charlie, both natives of Omaha, Nebraska, have been friends for over 56 years. But add to it that they have built up a multi-billion-dollar partnership, and the duo of Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger becomes a truly exceptional phenomenon. In 2016, their diversified conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, owned more than 60 companies, including Geico Insurance and Dairy Queen. In 2015, it earned $24 billion in profits.

Both Buffett and Munger came from similar backgrounds. In fact, as boys, both worked at the Buffett & Son grocery in Omaha, for Buffett’s grandfather, Ernest Buffett. The old man had a strong work ethic for his employees, making the boys work 10 hours for $2. So, what did this experience teach them? Buffett laughs, “The main thing we learned from the grocery store is we didn’t want to work in a grocery store.”

However, there was another experience gained at the grocery store. A sign posted near the meat department read, “Good meat priced right is better than poor meat priced cheap.” This was an investment lesson that would take the Buffett-Munger partnership into the stratosphere of business.

Buffett and Munger followed something called the ‘cigar butt investment philosophy’. The idea was to buy underpriced, out-of-favour businesses, hold them and then sell them for a little profit, like cigar butts that could still emit a few puffs. This was lucrative, but not earth-shaking. It was Charlie Munger who suggested instead, “Let’s buy truly wonderful businesses.” This was a paradigm-shattering idea that widened their field of potential investments and led to some of Buffett’s biggest acquisitions, such as BNSF Corp.

Buffett knows the key to a good partnership. About his own, he was blunt while talking to Michael Eisner of Disney. “Take Charlie and me: I want the spotlight, but he doesn’t. So it works. And Charlie has integrity, which further ensures that it works.” About the trust they share, Eisner says, “They have complete trust, complete faith, and complete belief in each other. And that reverberates through every phone call they have, every deal they discuss, and every decision they make.”

Munger adds another facet to the partnership. He plays an alpha role in many situations, but he is also willing to play a secondary role. “Warren’s a more able man in doing what we’re doing, so it’s the appropriate response. There are some times you should be first, sometimes you should be second, and sometimes you should be third.”

He also believes in humility in partnerships. “It’s not letting ego, or jealousy, or your own personality take over. Intelligence takes over.” It also helps that that they have high moral values. Buffett says, “Take the high road, it’s uncrowded,” and Munger adds, “You have a huge advantage on the high road, there’s not too many competitors.”

The two are very much alike, and like each other very much, too. Their minds work the same way to a great degree, and they agree on what is humorous and what is deplorable. Though they don’t agree totally on everything, they’re quite respectful of each other. Once Buffett told the CNBC show, ‘On the Money’ that whenever they do disagree, “Charlie says, ‘Well, you’ll end up agreeing with me because you’re smart and I’m right.’ I haven’t quite figured out the answer to that yet with 56 years of practice.”

Creative collaboration

Both of the above are business partnerships. Could the same ideas work with creative people, too? Let’s see.

The alliance between John Lennon and Paul McCartney is said to be the greatest artistic partnership in recent times. These were friends, young men with fantastic talents of their own, whose collaboration resulted in some extraordinary musical compositions.

They clearly complemented each other: Paul was organised; John was in constant chaos. Paul was the communicator, diplomatic and polite, and hard-working. John couldn’t articulate well, was often loud-mouthed, and rude and impatient. Paul was more of the pop-music talent, warm and fuzzy, while John was more into gritty realism and aggression. John said he wished he could write a pop song like Paul, while Paul said he always wanted John’s steely, skeptical look at sacred institutions.

They also competed. However, in Paul’s own words, “...it was a very friendly competition.” Though the songs these two composed were under the Lennon-McCartney partnership, at least some of these songs were composed by one or the other. Yet, it is undeniable that the two fed off of each other’s talents, increasing their own repertoire. John and Paul together shaped every song on the album ‘Sgt. Pepper’, trading words off each other while composing songs like ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, which was inspired by a drawing by John’s son Julian. The collaboration was so powerful that they merged into a single creative called The Beatles.

Sadly, it couldn’t stand the test of time. The two had formed a partnership, a marriage of complementing skills, because they saw a great opportunity. But, they didn’t have clear-cut ideas of roles and responsibilities of each, or ideas of payment for actual contribution versus general ownership. And of course, great success, huge egos, and opposing creative forces finished the job. In spite of the sad end, theirs continues to be one hell of a creative partnership that transcended the individual talents of the two.

Unfriendly pairing

Fact: not all artistes love or even like their partners. Some just can’t stand the other person. If you wonder if it showed in their performances, just watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in ‘Swing Time’ and see if their animosity shows. Yes, the duo who took romantic love to a whole dimension with their dancing, was not even friends.

They came from different backgrounds. Fred Astaire, born Fred Austerlitz, was a trained dancer who started attending classes when he was three. Virginia Katherine McMath, as Ginger was born, also began her career as a successful dancer in vaudeville, though she didn’t have early training in dance. She was also more interested in an acting career as opposed to being a dance partner.

Fred, as the choreographer, planned routines “as though he were planning a military operation,” says Astaire’s biographer Michael Freedland, in The Telegraph. “Every step that he intended to take was mapped out on paper by him in advance and then on a blackboard.” Ginger, who had never danced with a partner before, and who preferred dramatic work, resented it. However, to see them float on the floor, defying gravity and embodying all that love is, or rather, should be, one would never guess at their inner feelings.

They were able to accomplish this because they were both consummate professionals. Fred was a perfectionist who often rehearsed one dance up to 18 hours a day, for six to nine weeks at a stretch, with his partners. Of all his dance partners, Ginger lasted the longest because she cared about the value of the results and was okay with ‘one more take’. Once, after 54 takes of one shot on The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, a cleaner polishing the dance floor noticed a stream of red sticky liquid leading to where Ginger sat. Her shoes were bloody, the result of burst blisters.

In Fred’s own words, “She was the ideal kind of girl to work with.” Ginger understood that the acting did not end when the dancing started. According to dance commentator John Mueller, “...the reason so many women have fantasised about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable.” In the Frank and Ernest cartoon, cartoonist Bob Thaves brought out the greatness of Ginger Rogers by saying, “Sure, he (Fred Astaire) was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards, and in high heels.” Not to mention in her flowing gowns. Katherine Hepburn got it just right: “Astaire gave her class; Rogers gave him sex (appeal).” This, despite having shared only one on-screen kiss, that lasted just four seconds.

But what of a personal rapport, a bond, a chemistry that shone through their performance? Movie director Charles Walters sums up their relationship. “They met on the set. Did their thing. And parted. No animosity. Very polite, but you’d think they had just met. After the years of association, the years of the closeness, you’d think there would be a real rapport. None.”

Fred’s comment was simpler: “We worked together. That’s all.”

Unsavoury duo

Not all partnerships are for the greater good of society. There are some historical crime twosomes who capture our imagination. The partnership of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the 1890s was romanticised in the 1967 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Only, it wasn’t quite so innocuous or endearing in real life.

Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy) joined horse thief and cattle rustler Mike Cassidy as a teenager. He was so influenced by the outlaw that he even took his name. Harry Alonzo Longabaugh was jailed in the Sundance jail, Wyoming, for horse theft, hence the name Sundance Kid. Together these two men formed the ‘Wild Bunch Gang’ and with three others, robbed banks and payroll offices.

But their favourite work was robbing trains, by blowing up armoured cars that carried money to various parts of the US. After the ‘jobs’, the gang would split up, going in different directions, and later meeting up at pre-arranged rendezvous points. The Pinkerton detective agency’s men and the Union Pacific police riflemen followed these trains hoping to catch the Wild West outlaws, but never succeeded. The two then moved to Argentina and then Bolivia, robbing mine trains and stealing gold and payroll boxes. No one quite knows what happened to them after that.

If the aim of a partnership is to remain unbroken, they were very successful.

The bottom line?

The takeaway from these stories appears to be that, to make a partnership work, there has to be mutual trust and respect. Strangely enough, friendship and liking seem to be optional. However, partners have to share the same vision and bring different and complementary strengths to the collaboration. Having the same values and work ethic, being able to work together and communicate effectively, and adding checks and balances are also essential. It also appears to help greatly when the individuals have a flourishing career individually, too, and are not dependant on the partnership for their own livelihood.

With these ingredients, we two can put math to shame!

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Sunday Herald: The Power of Two

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