It all began in the family grocery store back in Omaha. Buffett's great grandfather started the store in 1869 and it was in the Buffet family until 1969, till his uncle finally retired. But it's at this store, where he began going around his neighbourhood selling gum. This was before his stint at his father's firm.
Warren Buffett told CNBC's Liz Claman, "My grandfather would sell me Wrigley's chewing gum and I would go door to door around my neighbourhood selling it. He also sold me six Coca Cola for a quarter and I would sell it for a nickel each in the neighbourhood, so I made a small profit. I was always trying to do something like this."
From small beginnings come bigger things and so after selling gum, soft drinks and working with his father, by age 14, he had bought a 40 acres farm in Washington, Thurston County. But he confesses that he never enjoyed the farm as much as he enjoyed investing in stocks. But the first stock he bought was "Citi Service preferred stock. I had three shares and made all of USD 5 on it. I had bought it at USD 38.25 and then I sold it around USD 40, it went down to USD 27 in between and after I sold it at USD 40, it went to USD 200!" From that poorly timed stock sale in 1944, he learnt a lesson that became his legendary investment strategy - which is essentially - patience pays, so buy them and hold them. He figured out two other critical things about himself in the 1940s - what he is good at and what he likes to do.
This pivotal moment in his journey came in 1956, when he was just 25 years old. This man who was rejected by Harvard and now armed with contributions from family and friends and USD 100 of his own money starts a limited partnership with seven people. Over the next nine years, Buffett turned a USD 105,000 into USD 26 million - a stunning 24,000% increase! He had invested mostly in textile companies, farm equipment manufacturers and even a company making windmills.
Thirteen years later, Buffett forms another partnership that becomes one of the greatest teams in the history of investing. He convinces longtime friend Charlie Munger to quit his investment partnership to join Buffett as his Vice President of Berkshire Hathaway. And now with the 82-year-old Munger, Buffett sits on top of the greatest holding companies ever. So, it's understandable that this man is looked up to for investment and business advice all the time. But what's the secret gift he's got? How does he pick the right investments all the time? He explains, "I look for something that I can understand to start with, there are all kinds of businesses I don’t understand. "
"I don’t understand what car companies are going to do 10 years from now, or what software or chemical companies are going to win/do ten years from now but I do understand that Snickers bars will be the number one candy company in the US - like its been for 40 years. So, I look for durable competitive advantage and that is hard to find. I look for an honest and able management and I look for the price I'm going to pay."
While Buffett’s big acquisitions have made headlines; wise investments in companies like Coco-Cola, the Washington Post and Gillette have provided the capital to make those acquisitions possible. Since taking control of Berkshire in 1964, the company has acquired 68 subsidiaries. In March of 1964, Berkshire acquired its first insurance company National Indemnity.
In 1972, See’s Candies for USD 25 million, in September of 1983, Nebraska Furniture Mart and Borhseim’s in 1989. In 1998, Berkshire acquired Dairy Queen and Geico in January, Net Jets in August and General Re Corp in December. In April of 2002, Fruit of the Loom and most recently Buffett is looking abroad for new business.
Recently, he bought 80% of the Israeli Metal Works Company and he did it without even seeing it. He was approached by the promoter via a letter and what was in that letter convinced him that 'this was the kind of the person I wanted to do business with and it is the kind of business we wanted to own.' How does this 'daring bit of investment fit in with his usual careful way of investing? He explains, "I had to size up the business but that’s a background of being in stocks. If you put your whole net worth in stocks when you are 20-21 years old - you have not visited the businesses but you are really analyzing their financials, you are trying to assess whether they have durable competitive advantage, assess the quality of the management and the integrity of the management and then you try to figure out whether you are buying it at a reasonable price and that’s it, that is all we do."
He's never had anything lacking - his acute business brain has made him a lot of money. He also feels that the youth of today are living better than John D. Rockefeller. His own style remains the same - he lives in the same house for 48 years, carries no cellphone, has no computer on his office desk, does not move around with an entourage. As he puts it, "I have had everything I wanted all my life. At 20, I was having the time of my life doing what I did. Today, I'm eating the same things I always eat - burghers, fries and cherry coke. Only my clothes are more expensive now but they look cheap when I put them on!"
At 76, he married his long-time companion, Astrid Menks at a low-key ceremony at his daughter Susan’s house. He is also amazingly healthy for someone on a burgers-coke diet. He's also surprisingly down to earth. He moves around freely unencumbered by a security detail. He does have a few guards with him during the annual shareholders meeting but he says he doesn’t feel the need to put himself in a cocoon. Which probably explains, why he wasn't nervous about visiting a factory in Israel, which is close to the Lebanese border. He says of that visit, "Our plant there is about 8-10 miles from the Lebanese border and there were maybe a rocket or two that hit the parking lot or something like that but it can be dangerous being in this (US) country as well."
Buffett is comfortable in Omaha in part because people leave him alone with the exception of a random fan or two. This billionaire doesn’t even have a chauffeur - he drives himself around in a 2006 Cadillac DTS, recently purchased after he auctioned off his old Lincoln Town Car, which was famous for its Thrifty license plate. And no, he does not want a yacht or many mansions. He just wants to be left alone to enjoy a good football game in his sweatsuit on a big screen television - with popcorn.
It’s really no surprise that America’s most prominent investor chooses to live far from the nation’s wealthy-elite in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. He says that when he was in New York, he had about a 100 ideas about where to invest but it was over-stimulation. In Omaha, he needs one good idea in a year and he feels he can think better and with less distraction. He feels there is a sense of community in living there.
His investing theories have been talked about ad nauseum by almost every business/finance writer and is a cottage industry all by itself. But one he finds closest to reflecting his views is a book written by Larry Cunningham - 'The Essays of Warren Buffett - Lessons for Corporate America' is required reading in a one of a kind course start at the University of Missouri School of Business. The course is called Investment Strategies of Warren Buffett. It turns up Buffett is hot on campus too. The class now in its eighth year and is the brainchild of Buffett’s friend Harvey Eisen.
Harvey Eisen recalls, "This course is a breakthrough in terms of reality meeting academics. I said why don’t we have a course like this and the academics scratched their head and said 'well we don’t' and I said 'why don’t we' and then we got it done.' Dean of the University of Missouri School of Business Bruce Walker bought the idea. He says, 'We want our students to be exposed to many different approaches to investing."
The Buffett playbook is taught, analysed and written about but it is best summed up like this. Harvey Eisen explains it, "Number one - Don’t lose the money and number two - don’t forget rule number 1! Number three - look for unique companies that are hard to replicate - he calls that a moat around the business. Number four - he talks about the circle of competence, which means in simple English, do what you know. Everybody in the stock market knows about the economy or about the Federal Reserve. Warren focuses on what he knows and he has made enormous successes at that."
He does not want his managers to report in at any committee meeting of any kind and he lets them get on with the business of running their businesses. But there is one thing he requires of each CEO. Buffett says, "I asked them to send me a letter, that I would keep in a private place that will tell me what to do tomorrow morning, if they are not alive in terms of their successor." But what about his own successor? He says, "The succession plan is very simple. Our board met a few days ago and we talked about that every in single meeting and we have at least three people inside Berkshire, who in many respects will do my job better than I do. I can't give you the names but the board knows which one of those three they would pick, if something happened to me."
Warren Buffett has also given away USD 31 billion of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and he "hopes it will accomplish just what they have set out to accomplish. I have observed their Foundation very carefully and Bill and Melinda decided initially they were spending about a billion a year. They have decided they were going to try and figure how they are going to save the most lives, relieve the most human suffering."
Ultimately, that's what money is really meant for, isn't it?
Written for www.moneycontrol.com