Warren Buffett Admits His Biggest Weakness

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger provide managers with a lot of autonomy -- they "over-trust." This can go visibly wrong, but it has plenty of unseen benefits.

May 17, 2014 at 12:37PM


During the 2014 annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B), Carol Loomis of Fortune magazine asked Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, Berkshire's Vice Chairman, about their biggest weakness. In frank terms, They admitted that they "over-trust" their operating managers.

They are slow to remove inadequate managers, and they don't exercise strict control over the operations or finances of subsidiaries. Below are my notes on Carol's question, along with responses from Warren and Charlie. 

Carol Loomis: In an interview in April, you said "I hope we'll get questions that'll probe at our weak points." My question is what are your weak points, and what can you do to address them?

Warren: That would spoil all the fun for the journalists! We point them out, though. I would say if we executed a sweep account for all our subsidiaries some years ago we'd have a few more dollars now. Who knows what they're doing with some of those balances. We are very disciplined in some ways, and sloppy in other ways. A clear weak point, I am slow to make personnel changes. I like our managers. Charlie and I had a friend, couldn't be a greater guy, we were slow to make a change there. how long would you say we went there, Charlie?

Charlie: I don't know, exactly. But returning to the sweep account, reminds me of a friend I knew when I was in the Air Corps. A nurse took blood from a friend of mine, and all of the sudden, the blood stopped flowing. She screamed, and then, all of the sudden, she fainted. Some companies swept every day, but it created a tone that is definitely less desirable than ours.

Warren: Our managers are listening here, don't give that illustration!

We've waited too long on retirement for some of our managers. We will be slow [to make personnel changes]. There will be times where our lack of supervision, we'll miss something. We think that giving our managers the degree of freedom they enjoy and will also accomplish a lot. Someone will come along some days and say "more checks and oversight." Something will happen that wouldn't have happened, and they'll be right. But they can't measure all the good things that freedom will accomplish. We don't have HR department or in-house legal counsel, which would be unthinkable to others, but on balance it's a benefit. When the downside shows up people will say "well, you should have..." And they'll be right in that individual case only.

Charlie: By the standards of the rest of the world, we over-trust. And so far, our results have been far better, because we carefully selected people who should be over-trusted. I think a lot of organizations work better when there is a culture of trust. And in modern organizations, where there are tight controls and monitoring, I think they're going to be worse for it.

Of course, as both Warren and Charlie pointed out, this weakness is also a strength.

They provide operating managers with a lot of autonomy -- they "over-trust." Of course, this can go visibly wrong -- for instance, a manager could abuse their trust, retain more earnings than necessary, make bad investments, etc... But, it has a lot of unseen benefits.

Operating managers that are empowered (and trusted) are more likely to be effective and motivated, and it allows Berkshire to run very lean with a limited corporate staff at headquarters on Farnam Street in Omaha.

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Brendan Mathews owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out Warren Buffett recently told a select number of investors about the cutting-edge technology that's keeping him awake at night.

This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

That's how Buffett responded when asked about this emerging market that is already expected to be worth more than $2 trillion in the U.S. alone. Google has already put some of its best engineers behind the technology powering this trend. 

The amazing thing is, while Buffett may be nervous, the rest of us can invest in this new industry BEFORE the old money realizes what hit them.

KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

Even one legendary MIT professor had to recant his position that the technology was "beyond the capability of computer science." (He recently confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he's now a believer and amazed "how quickly this technology caught on.")

Yet according to one J.D. Power and Associates survey, only 1 in 5 Americans are even interested in this technology, much less ready to invest in it. Needless to say, you haven't missed your window of opportunity. 

Think about how many amazing technologies you've watched soar to new heights while you kick yourself thinking, "I knew about that technology before everyone was talking about it, but I just sat on my hands." 

Don't let that happen again. This time, it should be your family telling you, "I can't believe you knew about and invested in that technology so early on."

That's why I hope you take just a few minutes to access the exclusive research our team of analysts has put together on this industry and the one stock positioned to capitalize on this major shift.

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David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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