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What Makes Warren Buffett So Great

There are a couple of million Warren Buffett wannabes but only one Warren Buffett. How did Buffett climb to the top of an ultra-competitive business world to take the No. 2 spot in the Forbes 400? With the benefit of perfect hindsight, let's do a little Buffett reverse-engineering.

The natural
Unfortunately, not everyone can be Buffett, the chairman of Motley Fool Inside Value selection Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) . He's probably not the smartest person in the world based purely on IQ, but he's certainly up there. Some books I've read say he has a photographic memory. Others say that as a college student, Buffett would spend the first couple of days reading the course textbook and not need to study for the rest of the semester.

I can't vouch for the veracity of these claims, but after attending Berkshire's shareholder meeting and listening to him answer shareholder questions, it's clear that Buffett was born with intellectual gifts that gave him a profound edge.  

Buffett works harder than anyone else out there. Among the nuggets I've picked up:

  • According to an interview with Kevin Clayton, CEO of Clayton Homes, Buffett follows "literally every publicly traded company."
  • Buffett wastes very little time. He doesn't do conference calls or analyst presentations. Unlike hedge fund managers, he doesn't do marketing road shows for investors. He delegates most of the operational work and hires people with unquestionable skills and integrity, which leaves him time to do what he does best: research and find wonderful investments like Stock Advisor pick Moody's (NYSE: MCO  ) , Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) , Washington Post (NYSE: WPO  ) , and Gillette (now a unit of Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) ).
  • Even on vacation, Buffett works. He wanted to buy Long-Term Capital Management's assets after its blowup, but was on vacation in Alaska with Microsoft founder Bill Gates. He said it was too hard to negotiate the deal by cell phone, and later joked that "Bill Gates cost me $3 billion."

A better network than Verizon
As a 21-year-old student, Buffett spent a Saturday taking his famous train ride out to GEICO's headquarters and ended up talking for four hours with Lorimer Davidson, who eventually became GEICO's CEO. Buffett later bought GEICO.

Buffett has friends in the highest circles of the business world. According to lore, Buffett was thinking of selling his American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) stake, but changed his mind while playing a round of golf with former Hertz (NYSE: HTZ  ) CEO Frank Olson. According to Berkshire's 1997 shareholder letter:

Frank is a brilliant manager, with intimate knowledge of the card business. ... By the time we reached the second green, Frank had convinced me that Amex's corporate card was a terrific franchise. ... On the back nine I turned buyer, and in a few months Berkshire owned 10% of the company.

When asked what he does all day, Buffett says he spends several hours on the phone, probably with his business contacts, learning more and more about the nuts and bolts of the industries he's invested in.

Reppin' his block
Buffett has a ton of (Wall) Street cred. His reputation as an honest, extraordinarily skilled, successful businessman serves numerous purposes. First, it makes him the preferred buyer for many business owners.

Owners, including Kevin Clayton of Clayton Homes and Barnett Helzberg of Helzberg Diamonds, wanted to sell their companies to Buffett, although they could have made way more money by selling their companies to the highest private-equity bidder.

Some buyers seek out Buffett themselves rather than waiting for him to find them. Imagine being a businessman and receiving a letter from Eitan Wertheimer, owner of Iscar Metal, telling you that he wants to sell you his fabulous business at a reasonable price. Plus, he'll stay on and run the thing!

Of the handful of billionaires in the world, very, very few have the reputation that Buffett does. It's a tremendous edge.

Foolish thoughts
I'm just scratching the surface here. There are so many other layers that account for Buffett's incredible success. However, I feel these are three of the most important.

The best part is that some of it is replicable. We can't choose to raise our IQs, but we can choose to make a career in something we're devoted to. We can also start building networks of successful people we admire, and we can choose to live ethical lives.

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