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Learning Business from Moby Dick

“We’re in the oil business & as in any business the probability of success must always be greater than the risk incurred.”

- sourced from Google Images

– sourced from Google Images

These were the words of Captain George Pollard from the Ron Howard film, “In the Heart of the Sea”. A spectacular film worth watching if only to visualise the true cost of doing business. The film brings to screen how the thriving whale oil business in the mid 1800’s leads young men on very dangerous whaling expeditions. Most of us alive today will have absolutely no memory of a business that was necessary for the daily needs of illumination. Before electricity was invented, we used to burn things in our homes to provide us with light. (we still do, not in our homes & certainly not whale oil).

A whole industry, in a hundred year cycle, saw the birth of whale oil as a primary & essential commodity used for illumination. That didn’t make the job any easier. As an oil seller, you needed to employ a naval crew & strong ships to brave the seas & get closer to the school of whales & hunt them with harpoons, one at a time. The film shows some very dramatic scenes that take us in the middle of all this action. Ultimately all they’re doing is filling up barrels after barrels of oil extracted from a whale’s blubber (fat).

A commodity as useful as whale oil used to command its own premium, as shown in the film, which leads to more and more men taking risks with the elements of nature that were squarely beyond their control. As with any commodity, there is a point where it forces sane men to invest their egos into going after that one incredible kill. They leverage their energy in the hope of a quick and ultimate payoff fearing neither life nor losses. No amount of bravery can justify catastrophic losses especially when you’re hunted down by a giant white whale (just for the record, it also doesn’t help even if you’re Thor in the Avengers series).

In the heart of the sea, based supposedly on a true story from which the novel Moby Dick was inspired, is a very stark reminder that no business is permanent. What gives human ingenuity its reputation is quite capable of displacing old ways of doing things with new, unimaginable ones.

At the end of the film when the fictional Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) has heard one of the most riveting stories of a whaling expedition gone wrong, the narrator of the story says –

“I heard a man from Pennsylvania drilled a hole in the ground recently & found oil. That can’t be true!

Oil from the ground!

Fancy that!”

About Raunak Onkar

Raunak Onkar heads the Research department at PPFAS Mutual Fund. He started his career at PPFAS as part of his internship during MBA. He holds an MMS (Finance) degree from the University of Mumbai.

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