It's pretty tough to get a chance to talk to big-time entrepreneurs, such as Michael Dell or Starbucks' Howard Schultz. You can, however, get some interesting insights from reading their autobiographies.

That's why I looked forward to reading The Real Deal: My Life in Business and Philanthropy, the story of Sandy Weill's incredible journey, which culminated in the building of Citigroup (NYSE:C). Shareholders in Citi made a bundle from his leadership. From 1986 to 2003, the total return was about 2,644%, compared with 2,583% for Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) and 1,081% for AIG (NYSE:AIG).

Formative years
Weill got his start in the 1950s; his first job was as a margin clerk. It would have a lasting impact on his career, since it was here that he learned the importance of building a rock-solid back office, which would become his platform for growth.

By 1960, he partnered with several young Wall Streeters to create a new firm -- Carter, Berlind, Potoma, & Weill. The business grew along with the surging economy. But Weill continued his focus on operations. "On occasions," he writes, "I'd even spend the night in the back office."

He also made sure the firm had a strong capital base -- which got a boost from a public offering -- as well as a low cost structure. When equities went into a tailspin during the 1970s, Weill was able to string together a variety of acquisitions, including purchases of Hayden Stone, H. Hentz, Shearson Hamill, and Loeb Rhoades.

Yet despite the success, Weill thought his firm was vulnerable to bigger players. So, he thought, why not merge? That's what he did in 1981, when he sold his firm to American Express (NYSE:AXP) for about $1 billion. However, Weill did not like the bureaucracy and left four years later.

The next step
Weill flirted with becoming the CEO of Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), but there was too much resistance from management. He ultimately thought a better approach was to come on board with a smaller company: Commercial Credit. During the mid-1980s, this was an underperforming consumer-finance company. But in short order, Weill restructured the company and orchestrated a huge $900 million IPO. His goal was to build "the preeminent U.S. financial institution." To him, this meant growing earnings at about 15% per year. Weill did just that by engineering transformative deals, such as for Primerica, Shearson, Salomon, and Travelers.

Of course, the ultimate deal would be the merger with Citicorp. Weill saw this event as creating "an entirely new sort of financial services company embodying unprecedented diversification and scale."

This new company, now called Citigroup, was both a thrill and bane for Weill. He definitely saw his vision come to light, but on the other hand, there was tremendous politicking. For example, the co-CEO structure fell apart as John Reed departed. Weill also admits that he was caught flat-footed in terms of the regulatory backlash in 2001-2002. In fact, he goes into great detail on his one-time star analyst, Jack Grubman, who was a cheerleader for WorldCom. Yet after much investigation -- and much media uproar -- Weill was not implicated in any wrongdoing.

In 506 pages, Weill provides a good deal of detail on his deal-making and, most importantly, on his strategic thought process. Basically, he thinks very clearly.

No doubt, he is a true legend of finance. And if you want to learn from the source, this book is an excellent choice.

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Fool contributor Tom Taulli does not own shares of companies mentioned in this article.