April 29, 1999

Getting to Know Warren

by Yi-Hsin Chang (TMF Puck)

For someone who is such an extraordinarily successful investor, Warren Buffett comes off as a pretty ordinary guy. Born and bred in Omaha, Nebraska, for more than 40 years Buffett has lived in the same gray stucco house on Farnam Street that he bought for $31,500. He wears rumpled, nondescript suits, drives his own car, drinks Cherry Coke, and is more likely to be found in a Dairy Queen than a four-star restaurant.

But the 68-year-old Omaha native has led an extraordinary life. Looking back on his childhood, one can see the budding of a savvy businessman. Warren Edward Buffett was born on August 30, 1930, the middle child of three. His father, Howard Buffett, came from a family of grocers but himself became a stockbroker and later a U.S. congressman. Warren's mother, Leila, who grew up in rural Nebraska, met his father while the two worked on the Daily Nebraskan at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Even as a young child, Buffett was pretty serious about making money. He used to go door-to-door and sell soda pop. He and a friend used math to develop a system for picking winners in horseracing and started selling their "Stable-Boy Selections" tip sheets until they were shut down for not having a license. Later, he also worked at his grandfather's grocery store.

After frequenting his father's brokerage firm and charting stock prices on his own, Buffett, at the ripe age of 11, bought his first stock: three shares of Cities Service preferred at $38 a share. He watched as his first investment dropped to $27 and then recovered to $40. Buffett cashed out and made $5 profit after commissions -- missing Cities Service's rise to $200 a share.

When his family moved to Washington, D.C., Buffett became a paperboy for The Washington Post and its rival the Times-Herald. When his customers canceled their subscriptions for one of the papers, he was ready to offer the other paper to take its place. Buffett ran his five paper routes like an assembly line and even added magazines to round out his product offerings. While still in school, he was making $175 a month, a full-time wage for many young men.

When he was 14, Buffett spent $1,200 on 40 acres of farmland in Nebraska and soon began collecting rent from a tenant farmer. He and a friend also made $50 a week by placing pinball machines in barber shops. They called their venture Wilson Coin Operated Machine Co.

Already a successful albeit small-time businessman, Buffett wasn't keen on going to college but ended up at Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania -- his father encouraged him to go since he was just 17 years old. After two years at Wharton, Buffett transferred to his parents' alma mater, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, for his final year of college. There Buffett took a job with the Lincoln Journal supervising 50 paper boys in six rural counties.

Buffett applied to Harvard Business School but was turned down in what had to be one of the worst admissions decisions in Harvard history. Nineteen at the time, he was told he was too young and to wait a year or two. The outcome ended up profoundly affecting Buffett's life, for he ended up attending Columbia Business School, where he studied under revered mentor Benjamin Graham, the father of securities analysis who provided the foundation for Buffett's investment strategy.

From the beginning, Buffett made his fortune from investing. He started with all the money he had made from selling pop, delivering papers, and operating pinball machines. Between 1950 and 1956, he grew his $9,800 kitty to $140,000. From there, he organized investment partnerships with his family and friends, and then gradually drew in other investors through word of mouth and very attractive terms: Limited partners would get to keep all the profits Buffett made for them up to 4%. Anything beyond that would be split -- 75% would be earmarked for the investors and 25% for Buffett. In other words, if Buffett's return was 4% or less, he would take home nothing.

Buffett's goal was to top the Dow Jones Industrial Average by an average of 10% a year. Over the length of the Buffett partnership between 1957 and 1969, Buffett's investments grew at a compound annual rate of 29.5%, crushing the Dow's return of 7.4% over the same period, according to Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist by Roger Lowenstein. In other words, had you invested $10,000 in the Dow in 1957, by 1969 you'd have $15,260. The same investment in the Buffett Partnership would've produced $150,270 after deducting Buffett's cut. As for Berkshire Hathaway, you can get a glimpse of its performance by taking a look at this chart. That flat line in blue actually represents the S&P 500 in the booming '80s and '90s.

Buffett's investment strategy mirrors his lifestyle and overall philosophy. He doesn't collect houses or cars or works of art, and he disdains companies that waste money on such extravagances as limousines, private dining rooms, and high-priced real estate. He is a creature of habit -- same house, same office, same city, same soda -- and dislikes change. In his investments, that means holding on to "core holdings" such as American Express, Coca-Cola, and The Washington Post Co. "forever."

That sense of loyalty actually kept Buffett holding on to Berkshire Hathaway's past perhaps longer than he should have. Buffett Partnership bought some shares in the New Bedford, Massachusetts-based textile mill in 1962 when its stock dropped under $8 a share (it had $16.50 a share in working capital) and then acquired control of the company in 1965. Buffett hung on to the company's mills despite the industry's decline and redeployed its capital into a wide range of businesses (see table) before finally selling the yarn mill.

Buffett's tenacious grip on stability and constancy is reflected in his friendships, such as his longtime collaboration with Charlie Munger and his relationship with his wife Susie. They got married when Buffett was 21, and judging from Berkshire's annual reports and other public appearances, they've been happy together ever since.

In truth, Susie moved out shortly after the couple's 25th wedding anniversary. She even set her husband up with other women, including Astrid Menks, a waitress at the French Cafe who ended up moving in and still lives with Buffett. While Susie and Warren remain close, Astrid is his daily companion, though Susie still accompanies him on trips to New York and California and sits on Berkshire's board. Susie and Astrid are friends; they send presents to relatives from "Warren, Susie and Astrid."

Buffett's view of inherited money also departs from the norm. Critical of the self-indulgence of the super-rich, Buffett thinks of inheritances as "privately funded food stamps" that keep children of the rich from leading normal, independent lives. With his own three kids, he gave them each $10,000 a year -- the tax-deductible limit -- at Christmas. When he gave them a loan, they had to sign a written agreement. When his daughter, also named Susie like her mother, needed $20 to park at the airport, he made her write him a check for it.

As for charity, Buffett's strict standards have made it difficult for him to give much away. He evaluates charities the same way he looks for stocks: value for money, return on invested capital. He has established the Buffett Foundation, designed to accumulate money and give it away after his and his wife's deaths -- though the foundation has given millions to organizations involved with population control, family planning, abortion, and birth control. The argument goes that Buffett can actually give away a greater sum in the end by growing his money while he's still alive.

One thing's for sure about Buffett: He's happy doing what he's doing. "I get to do what I like to do every single day of the year," he says. "I get to do it with people I like, and I don't have to associate with anybody who causes my stomach to churn. I tap dance to work, and when I get there I think I'm supposed to lie on my back and paint the ceiling. It's tremendous fun."

It's fun to watch the master at work, too.

Next -- Charlie Munger: Warren's Right-Hand Man