Success in a World of Short-term Trends

The legacy of Henry Singleton, the visionary industrialist who built Teledyne into a powerhouse, offers valuable lessons for business owners, entrepreneurs and investors alike.


If you took the top 100 business school graduates of all time, Warren Buffet once said, and made a “composite of their triumphs”, those triumphs would still not be close to as good as those of one man: Henry Singleton. The “failure of business schools to study men like Singleton is a crime,” said Buffet. “Instead, business schools hold up as models, executives cut from a McKinsey and Co. cookie cutter.” Wall Street legend Leon Cooperman was a student of Singletons. “He was”, said Cooperman, “the most brilliant industrialist I’ve ever met, and I’ve met many.”

Indeed, when the history of the 20th century’s most successful entrepreneurs is written, Buffet’s name will be in it, and so will Cooperman’s. But Henry Earl Singleton is a name that should be in any such record. Singleton’s accomplishments are as significant, if not as well known, as Benjamin Graham, Ray Kroc, Alfred P Sloan, or Walt Disney. But to ignore Singleton would be to ignore a fundamental lesson in commerce, investment, and risk management. Because experience is a master teacher, even when not our own.

An engineer, a scientist, and a business original, Singleton’s whole life is a defiance of conventional business laws. A defiance of fads and trends. A defiance of predictions. He was not raised or educated to become a businessman, and attended no business schools. The son of a Texas ranger, Singleton studied at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, coming first in mathematics (in a class of 820). Medical problems forced him to switch universities. He went to MIT, studied electrical engineering there, and earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in that field. In 1939, he was one of three students who came joint-first in the world’s most prestigious university-level mathematics competition, the Putnam Exam. One of the other winners was the future Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, among the most outstanding physicists of all time.

A mind as great as Feynman’s is rare indeed, but that is the sort of mind Singleton had. He worked as an electrical engineer after graduating from MIT in 1940. In 1944, when the US planned to invade Normany to help end the war in Europe, Singleton worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the modern CIA. He continued research after the war and worked in business, aerospace, and in the then-emergent fields of digital and semiconductor electronics. He developed the first missile and fighter jet guidance systems, and his patented inventions, or modifications of them, are still in use to this day.

It was not until midway through 1960, at the age of 43, that Singleton became a business owner. He acquired the company that would become his most well-known venture, Teledyne Incorporated (known today as Teledyne Technologies). When he decided to enter the business world, Singleton’s idea was to build a major electronics processing firm. He aimed to do this, by buying existing smaller companies. Teledyne was one of the first of those, and grew from there. When he set out, Singleton met with two of the most imaginative and brilliant business minds of the period, George Kozmetsky, and Arthur Rock. Kozmetsky was, like Singleton, a technology innovator. Arthur Rock was one of America’s first and most successful venture capitalists, and an inspired investor, whose early outlays into such firms like Apple and Intel helped them grow into the thriving companies they are today.

Using a 450 000 USD investment provided by Arthur Rock, Singleton and Kozmetsky expanded Teledyne: internal growth and acquisitions helped the company thrive. In 1966, Kozmetsky left Teledyne on good terms to become the dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Texas. Singleton stayed at Teledyne, and his acquisitions expanded from microelectronics into other industries: aerospace, consumer electronics, optics, microwave, and firms whose specialist advancements attracted Singleton’s eye.

In 1966, Singleton made one of his most important acquisitions: he purchased Brown Engineering. That firm, composed of innovative and brilliant scientists and engineers, built the first lunar rover (the so-called ‘moon buggy’) for the Apollo moon missions. Teledyne Brown, as the firm is now called, will build the lunar rover for the Artemis program. That program aims to place humans on the moon for the first time since Apollo 17.

Throughout the 1960s, Teledyne continued to prosper. Singleton acquired 150 companies in broader fields: steel and automotive firms, metals and machine tools, banks and insurance companies. From a single office devoted to manufacturing, Teledyne had, by the end of the 1960s, become one of America’s greatest industrial conglomerates. It was divided into 16 groups across 120 locations. In 1969, Teledyne’s sales were 2.7 billion USD. Its net income was 372 million USD.

By 1972, the firm was ranked as the 202nd most profitable company in America. Year by year, at Singleton’s helm, the company flourished. By 1978, it was the 68th most profitable company in the US, ahead of luminaries like Texas Instruments, Avon Products and International Paper. Teledyne was distinguished in these accolades, because the inflation of the 1970s had eroded most corporate margins. Yet during that period, when many other companies were selling off assets and trying to rein in spending, Teledyne’s profits continued to rise.

A considered and thoughtful man, Singleton was unique. He avoided the Business Roundtable, and other similar associations. He did not see the need to glad-hand, or be glad-handed. He was immune to criticism and the media’s coverage of his company, good or bad. He carefully chose the best managers, operators, and executives to head his acquisitions, but gave them considerable freedom. One of his chief maxims? Adaptability. We are all, Singleton said in a 1979 Forbes profile piece, “subject to a tremendous number of outside influences and the vast majority of them cannot be predicted, so my idea is to stay flexible”.

Singleton faced setbacks too. During the economic downturns of the early 1970s, opportunities for good acquisitions became difficult. Investors, and brokers deserted Teledyne. Ignoring the media, Wall Street advisors, and his own board, Singleton responded by using cash to purchase Teledyne’s undervalued common shares. Undervalued, at least, according to Singleton: “I don’t believe all this nonsense about market timing,” he said. “Just buy good value and when the market is ready, that value will be recognized.”

He was right. Singleton believed Teledyne’s shares were worth more than they were being traded for. Another of his maxims was to hold a long-term view of his company, and of his acquisitions. He had, the Forbes profile said, “an uncanny ability to resist being caught up in the fads and fancies of the moment”.

By repurchasing shares, Singleton demonstrated his confidence in the company’s long-term prospects. He was convinced the share prices did not accurately reflect Teledyne’s value, no matter what the market said. Teledyne only made one acquisition from 1972 to 1979, but its internal sales and revenues increased. While Wall Street all but ignored Teledyne shares through the 1970s, brokers and analysts eventually caught on. The share price went from 7 dollars in 1974, to 100 dollars in 1979.

Singleton had flouted the rules and conventions, and won. Teledyne became one of America’s best-performing stocks. Earnings per share surged 11 times faster than the average Dow stock.

Singleton was an extraordinarily disciplined pursuer of high returns. He disdained surprises. A “coolly rational man”, Singleton “carefully rationed” risk. He emphasized, when choosing acquisitions and investments, a conservative approach. He invested only in firms which he was familiar with, or which he could become familiar with. He restrained spending and applied a shrewd and patient approach to everything he did.

When he retired from Teledyne, in 1989, after 29 years at the helm, it was the peak year for the firm: sales were 3.5 billion USD, earnings 390 million USD, and the stock price was $388, the highest-priced stock in the country at that time. The firm employed 43 000 people.

In his post-Teledyne years, Singleton invested in land, buying ranches across the American West. He learned about ranching and land investment to the point of expertise. His personal interests were broad. He was a dedicated fan of science fiction and published the first fan magazine devoted to science fiction poetry. He attended science fiction conventions and was friends with many of the great science fiction authors of the 20th century. His love of poetry was not confined to science fiction. He adored classical poetry too and could recite, from memory, anything from Homer to Tennyson. He played tournament chess and hiked in the western wilderness. With his keen eye for technology, he became an avid user and programmer of early personal computers. He personally backed Apple in that company’s early years.

Singleton died in 1999 at the age of 83. But his lessons endure. He ignored Wall Streets’ “mania for bigness”. He was a curious person, constantly keen to learn. He was a meticulous thinker and brought those attributes to business. He avoided risky ventures or gambles. While he was rigorous, he was flexible too.

Most importantly, he maintained a far-sighted view of his company and investments. He ignored what the media said about him and his actions. He never consented to the fleeting, the momentary, or the fashionable. What was fashionable concerned him least.

And this made Teledyne successful – and made Singleton successful. These attributes will make anyone successful if applied consistently and constantly. As the saying goes, the more you learn from the lives of others, the less you pay in the tuition fees of your own life, and one can learn a great deal from the life of Henry Earl Singleton. An extraordinary man and one worth emulating.