Buffett's Path to a Billion

Most of the literature discussing Stock Advisor recommendation Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) chairman Warren Buffett focuses on the later stages of his career. By then, he was already wealthy and making billion-dollar bets on companies like Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) and American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) .

Most of us will never attain that level of wealth. We could learn more from Buffett's early career, when he made his first millions. Here are some ways regular folks like you and me can emulate Buffett's early successes.

Experiment with business startups
As an adolescent, Buffett's business schemes involved Inside Value pick Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) and chewing gum arbitrage (buying packs of gum and soda and selling the items individually at higher prices), newspaper routes, golf ball retrieval, and pinball machines.

These businesses were low-capital startups that allowed Buffett to make a nice grubstake for later in his career. It also gave young Warren an early sense of the nuts and bolts of running a business.

I've noticed other successful investors, like Mohnish Pabrai and Sardar Biglari, were also entrepreneurs who later credited part of their investing success to the knowledge they gained from running a business. I'd encourage any readers who are thinking of establishing a low-cost startup to go ahead and take the leap. At the very least, you'll gain some business experience.

Pick a great teacher
As a college student, Warren sought mentorship from Ben Graham, the father of value investing (and the former chairman of GEICO). At the time, Graham also taught classes at Columbia University. Under Graham's tutelage, Buffett learned to buy stocks when their prices were far less than their intrinsic value -- a method that would serve Buffett well throughout his career, and especially in his early years.

It's no coincidence that many great investors emerged from Graham's classrooms. Likewise, investors today would do well to find great teachers like Columbia professor Bruce Greenwald, who has a list of former students that reads like a value investing hall of fame.

Turn over a lot of stones
After working for Graham for a couple of years, Buffett opened an investment partnership. According to recollections, the early years of running the Buffett partnership were similar to running a Geiger counter over the stock market and waiting until it beeped.

One success from this "Geiger Counter" method was Sanborn Maps. In 1958, Sanborn Maps, a profitable company, sold for $45 per share, but its balance sheet contained $65 per share in cash and stocks. It's hard to lose in situations like that, and Buffett's partnership trounced the market and eventually made him his first millions.

Believe it or not, the Geiger counter method still works today. For example, right now there is a company in the stock market that traded at a $170 million market cap (now $180 million), but has $215 million in net cash on its balance sheet, and no hidden liabilities or operating losses. A simple dividend would return 20%-25% to shareholders.

Finding low-risk situations like these doesn't require incredible analytical skills. It's a simple matter of turning over a lot of stones, and no one turns over more stones than Buffett.

Pick a great partner
Three years after starting the Buffett partnership, he met Charlie Munger. Buffett was 29 and working alone. Why did it take him so long to find a partner? He was looking for his intellectual equal and wouldn't compromise on quality.

Munger is often credited with helping Buffett transition from the Geiger counter method, which allowed Buffett to make millions, to the "Phil Fisher" method of investing in strong companies with enduring economic moats. These investments allowed Buffett to reach the next level with stocks like Gillette (later bought by Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) ) and Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM  ) .

Although Buffett probably would've been fine without Munger, it's clear that neither would have been as successful without the other. Not only did Munger complement Buffett's strengths, he also covered up some of his weaknesses. Likewise, I think Fools should acknowledge the fact that two heads are often better than one, and to be on the lookout for potential symbiotic partnerships.

Foolish thoughts
Given Buffett's success in the investing world, it would be foolhardy not to study the path to his initial successes and learn from them. So I'd encourage Fools to:

  • Take the plunge and start a business.
  • Hunt for mentors or teachers.
  • Be on a constant lookout for investment opportunities.
  • Seek great partners.

Related Foolishness:


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