Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B) CEO Warren Buffett is never shy about sharing wisdom. The brilliant investor is known for witty quips ("Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget Rule No. 1.") as well as longer parables (such as "The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville").
But could any one of Buffett's gems of wisdom be the best? Could there be one Buffett-ism to rule them all? To find out, I grabbed five game Fools to weigh in.
Scott Phillips: In trying to distill Warren Buffett's brilliance, many Buffett-watchers lean heavily on the Oracle of Omaha's formative years at the metaphorical knee of his mentor, the famed value investor Ben Graham.
Graham was notoriously mechanical in his investing; seeking to find companies with specific financial characteristics, then buy them in bulk. However, Buffett -- particularly after he met his business partner and Berkshire Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger -- is far from the myopically mechanical investor some would paint him to be. Indeed, in his 1982 Chairman's letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Warren Buffett wrote:
Managers and investors alike must understand that accounting numbers are the beginning, not the end, of business valuation.
Yes, the reported numbers matter -- a lot -- but they are a guide to starting to understand the business, not neatly packaged answers.
Buffett's brilliance was in taking the fundamental lessons he'd learned from Graham and improving on them by understanding the factors that build and sustain great companies. Buffett has said he has one message for the managers of Berkshire's subsidiaries -- "widen the moat." He wants them to focus on doing those things that make the business stronger and less vulnerable to the competition. Talking about Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), he said "Give me $10 billion and how much can I hurt Coca-Cola? I can't do it." That fact won't show up in black and white on the financial statements, but is far more important than the numbers themselves.
Jason Moser: I had the great fortune of attending the Berkshire meeting last year, and while I've followed Buffett for a while now, something he said during the Q&A session last year resonated with me. Someone asked him his opinion on gold, to which he replied (and I'm paraphrasing):
Let's say you own an ounce of gold today. You hold it, love it and caress it. In 50 years you'll still own an ounce of gold. Now say you own 100 acres of farmland today. In 50 years you'll still own that same 100 acres of farmland. The difference is you'll also have had the time to produce crops to grow more stuff to buy more farmland and whatever else you want. In other words, there's a tremendous cycle of production there. Gold on the other hand is more or less an unproductive asset.
This, to me, is key to why Buffett has been such a successful investor all these years. Not only is he able to focus on longer periods of time, but also the ever-so-valuable cycles of production that can occur during that time. It should therefore come as no surprise that if you gave me a bar of gold today, I would sell it and go buy stocks.
Tim Beyers: While Buffett is often thought of as the patron saint of value investing, I find him in many ways to be the quintessential Rule Breaker. Just listen to what he said at last year's confab:
I would never spend a lot of time valuing declining businesses. The same amount of energy and intelligence brought to other businesses is just going to work out better.
I'd never have believed it had I not heard it myself. After all, what is value investing if not for figuring the worth of an oversold business that may, in fact, be in decline?
Buffett's lesson here, I think, is to be open to a broad range of stock ideas. Don't merely look for a low price-to-earnings ratio. Look instead for businesses that are surprisingly strong defenders of the majority share of a profitable niche, such as Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS). The House of Mouse isn't cheap at 20 times earnings, but can you name an enterprise with more big-name brands under its belt? Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and all those princesses that seven-year-old girls worship? Don't be surprised if Berkshire takes a close-up tour of the Magic Kingdom.
It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.
This quote always stuck with me because it's so applicable to both life and business. It takes a long history of coming through for people to build a reputation with your friends, family, and coworkers, but one big mistake can shatter that reputation and leave a lasting bitter taste in the mouths of people who know you. Whether you're the normally responsible friend who had too a few too many drinks at a party, or the go-to guy at work who told off the wrong client, a person's worst impression of you is usually their most lasting.
This is even more true for the highest levels of management in a large company. It can take decades for a company to earn the trust of its customers, shareholders, and employees. And while a big accounting scandal may take years to fully percolate, it starts with one bad decision. Whether it was the massive accounting scandals at Enron, Worldcom, or even Waste Management, an unethical decision that could have been avoided can, at best, result in massive fines, like WM's half-billion dollar shareholder suit, or even jail time in the case of Enron and Worldcom executives. These unfortunate fates could have been avoided by managers at the top simply deciding to do things differently in that crucial moment.
Buffett: I tell college students, when you get to be my age, you will be successful if the people who you hope to have love you, do love you. Charlie and I know people who have buildings named after them, receive great honors, etc., and nobody loves them -- not even the people who give them honors. Charlie and I talk about wouldn't it be great if we could buy love for $1 million. But the only way to be loved is to be lovable. You always get back more than you give away. If you don't give any, you won't get any. Everybody loves Don. There's nobody I know who commands the love of others who doesn't feel like a success. And I can't imagine people who aren't loved feel very successful.
Munger: You don't want to be like the motion picture exec who had so many people at his funeral, but they were there just make sure he was dead. Or how about the guy who, at his funeral, the priest said, "Won't anyone stand up and say anything nice for the deceased?" and finally someone said, "Well, his brother was worse."
Buffett: Most people in this room and most college students I talk to will have plenty of money, but some will have few friends.
-- 2003 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting