We can be very sure a company without profit for an extended period is not a well-run company or one that will long survive.
Beyond that, there are only three ways to think about measuring a company. Does it survive and look like it thrives for a while, or did it die right quick or does it thrive over a long period with apparent ease?
The world often confuses operationally excellent with well-run. Blockbuster was operationally excellent and did not survive. For a 100 years, the old AT&T handled the phone calls for the world and seemed operationally excellent – before they went out of business. Kodak knew more about film and printing pictures than anyone before they got sick.
McDonnell Douglas had Douglas Commercial who build DC 8s, 9s, 10s and 11s after making the most successful commercial aircraft in the world the DC3 but Douglas Commercial never made a profit and only survived on McDonnell’s military work.
So there are companies that are operationally excellent that don’t thrive or even survive. Often they make money for years or even decades depending on the bubble and then pass away. It is not unusual that these companies made money when they were a monopoly or in a bubble so massive that operational excellence equaled the ability to fulfill more orders faster.
When these companies were in monopolies or bubbles they could survive and even thrive, at least until the world changed and operational excellence was either not enough or make things worse (when operational excellence, scale, and growth is the answer to every question then things can get much worse).
We all know about this group that did not survive. The DeLorean, Commodore Computer, Premier Smokeless Cigarette, Tucker, Pan Am, Betamax, Pets.com, Enron, SwissAir, Edison Records, and Sharper Image. These did not survive beyond short-term success and investor capital.
Last we find companies that delight their clients for decades or generations. It is not that these companies do everything right. Harley build some BAD bikes, Apple put out the LISA and Disney has their share of failures but all these great companies don’t just make money in a bubble, or while the launch marketing hype was at full speed.
Harley for a time was operationally bad yet their customers still tattooed the brand on their skin and supported the brands’ turnaround and survival.
Blockbuster, Kodak, AT&T and American car companies are examples of making money in bubbles. These and many companies forgot or never knew they only exist to bring value to their customer. When the buyer demand was greater than the supply their operational excellence let them fulfill that demand at unsustainable prices supported by poor service and no positive buyer relationship.
Apple, Disney, Harley, and others live for their customers. When Harley messed up they had built so much history supporting their buyers and the rider culture Harley was rescued by that loyal rider culture.
A profitable company may or may not be well run beyond the bubble. There was a time when the only things that mattered were capital and fulfilling demand. Today there are times when that is true but those times are less frequent and often very short-lived (think our recent housing bubble or the dot. Bomb).
Today capital can look like crowdfunding and nothing is more important than a buyer relationship built on trust. Successful companies will focus on their customer’s problems and commit to solving those problems for a mutual value based win.
The key question is who defines a well-run company? The only place the definition of well-run can come from is the customer, so what else could the definition of a well-run company be other than a company that provides mutual value for buyers and sellers ending up with both being better off than any other option?