Interview With Alice Schroeder: Buffett's Biggest Weakness

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Much has been written about the business and investing savvy of Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A  )   (NYSE: BRK-B  ) Warren Buffett. As his legend grew with well-timed purchases in Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) , American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) , and the like, his oft-repeated investing wisdom is starting to make some Fools downright tired of Warren Buffett.

So what about Buffett the person? What's his biggest weakness? Does anyone in his circle openly disagree with him? How does he measure his success? In part two of our three-part series, my colleague Chris Hill talks about Warren's world with Buffett biographer Alice Schroeder, author of The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.

Chris Hill: I think most people who know about Warren Buffett know about him through the context of his investments, but you got a chance to spend a lot of time with him. What is a typical day like for him?

Alice Schroeder: He has a really consistent routine. He comes in in the morning at around 8:30. He reads five newspapers. He reads The Financial Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Omaha World Herald. Then he has a stack of reports on his desk from the companies Berkshire owns, and some trade press like American Banker or oil and gas journals, and through the rest of the day, he alternates between flipping through this stuff and then talking on the phone to people either who call him or who he calls. He never calls his managers; they can call him. He is really accessible, but he leaves them alone.

Then he has CNBC on all day long with the crawl, with the sound muted and if he sees his name cross along the bottom and they are talking about him, he will turn the sound on to find out what they are saying. That is his day. He doesn't do meetings -- there are no meetings.

Hill: Is he online at all? Does he use email?

Schroeder: No, no computer, nothing electronic in his office, but his secretary, Debbie Bosanek, does have email, and if you want to reach him, you can reach him through her, and he will dictate a response back. He has a computer at home. He uses IM with his friends. He is online playing bridge all the time, but he is very protective of the efficiency of his time, and that is really what the no-email thing is about.

Hill: Could Warren Buffett have come of age in the information age? Because a lot of what he was doing back in the day was digging through 10-Ks when they were hard for people to get access to, and information was much tougher to come by, but now when information is really easy to come by, do you think he would have been as successful?

Schroeder: I don't think he would have been as successful because the two things that he did don't work today. One is, there was a lot of shoeleather involved. He would do the work that nobody else bothered to do. He would go down to some state insurance department basement and dig through records that no one else was looking for. Now everybody has access to everything, and so the diligent are no longer really rewarded the way they used to be.

The second thing is that Warren was uncommonly good at going around and talking to management and getting them to tell him what their business plans were. That used to be perfectly legal. In fact, the insider trading worlds have evolved, and I wrote a long footnote about it in the book, but he used to basically be able to get and trade on inside information, as did everyone in those days. He was great at finding out if there was a tender offer coming or something like that. You can't do that anymore.

Hill: You have said that everyone in Warren's world is his protector, and if you just look at the annual shareholder's meeting, it is really, it is almost like a coronation on an annual basis. Are there people around Warren Buffett who will openly disagree with him?

Schroeder: Very few. One of the roles that Charlie Munger plays that is really important is he is one of the very few who will tell Warren "no" or "you're wrong." Interestingly, Warren has enlisted all of these women to be recruited as his protectors, but there are one or two -- Carol Loomis is one, his friend who works for Fortune, and Sharon Osberg, his bridge partner -- ... who will really stand up to him. It is tough to be in the position he is in where you are incredibly rich, incredibly famous, and known for your wisdom because people are in awe of you. He said to me one time, "When I was 21 years old, I could have been saying the most brilliant things on earth and nobody would have listened to me. Now, I could say that the moon was made of pink tissue paper and everyone would go, 'Wow, look! It really is.' And they would believe me, because I am Warren Buffett." He said it is the strangest thing.

Hill: What would he say that his biggest weakness is?

Schroeder: His biggest weakness is the flipside of his strength. He is pretty rigid and he doesn't really listen. He has incredibly firm convictions and is often right, to say the least. But when he is headed down a track that doesn't make sense, he tends to not pay attention to contrary information.

Hill: And do you get the sense that he recognizes that about himself?

Schroeder: Oh yeah. Oh, he knows that about himself. Could I just step back there?

Hill: Yeah.

Schroeder: I didn't mention greed as his biggest weakness. (Laughing.) I should have mentioned that he loves money so much that it kind of interfered with his relationships with his family for a long time. He would also be the first to say that.

Hill: So in terms of his relationships with his children, with the people closest in his life, how did greed really impact all of those relationships?

Schroeder: Well, when he was younger, making money was so overwhelmingly important to him that he really did not pay a lot of attention to his family. People told me that Susie, his first wife, was sort of a single mother and they would make jokes about his kids, "Who is that, Warren? That's your son." The family suffered from neglect.

Now he came to realize through some losses. Susie moved to San Francisco. It was touching to listen to him talk about the pain that was caused by his realization of the fact that you can't repair and you can't go backwards in time and fix this. It has been heartening to see him strengthening his relationships with his kids in recent years. That has been really a wonderful thing. He realizes that that neglect has paid a price.

Hill: Buffett told you the big question about how people behave is whether they have an inner scorecard or an outer scorecard, and that it helps if you can be satisfied with an inner scorecard. How much does Buffett care about his outer scorecard? You mentioned he has CNBC on in the background and if his name pops up, suddenly he is turning up the volume to hear what they are saying. How much does he care about what other people think?

Schroeder: In The Snowball, I point out that his father had a 100% inner scorecard about everything. His mother had a 100% outer scorecard about everything. She cared desperately what people thought of the family, of their image. The kids were raised with both of these streams of perception coming in on them. Warren is the product of that. When it comes to investing, business, his principles, his ethics, 100% inner scorecard; he knows what's right. He lives by it. When it comes to how he feels about himself, he is very tender and easily wounded, and other people can make him feel differently. He doesn't have that inner scorecard. And there is a complete separation between the two.

Be sure to check tomorrow for part 3 of our interview with Alice Schroeder. And don't miss the first installment!

Mac Greer doesn't own any of the stocks discussed. Berkshire Hathaway is a Stock Advisor recommendation and an Inside Value recommendation. Coca-Cola is an Inside Value and an Income Investor recommendation. American Express is an Inside Value pick. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy has both an inner and outer scorecard.

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (31)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 09, 2009, at 6:20 PM, prginww wrote:

    WB is a very sad human being who has truly missed out on the most important things in life.

  • Report this Comment On November 10, 2009, at 3:32 PM, prginww wrote:

    Ah, yes.....'GREED'.

    Having dedicated over 90% of his personal fortune to charity, I can;t help but agree.......


  • Report this Comment On November 12, 2009, at 2:07 PM, prginww wrote:

    Listening to "The Snowball" right now on CD. Awesome stuff, and it shows that while there is much to admire about Buffett (obviously, his acumen), there is also much to dislike as well (the way he conducted his personal life).

  • Report this Comment On November 23, 2009, at 6:21 PM, prginww wrote:

    It always cracks me up when someone tries to gen up sympathy for a multi-billionaire who is dedicating 90% of his personal fortune to charity. Sorry but I have more respect for the guy making 20,000.00 who gives 2000.00 of it to his or her church. Gee, so poor Warren only have 10 billion dollars left! What a humanitarian! The scum bag is going to die in less than 10 years so a year ago he decides to be a philanthropist! Gee, what a hero!

  • Report this Comment On November 30, 2009, at 5:27 AM, prginww wrote:




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