Before Warren Buffett became the world's greatest investor at Berkshire Hathaway, he was a world-class shoplifter.
He retold the story, which was published in The Snowball, an authorized biography of his life. Warren Buffett tells Alice Shroeder, the author, that he and a friend had a particular favor for stealing from Sears.
We'd just steal the place blind. We'd steal stuff for which we had no use. We'd steal golf bags and golf clubs. I walked out of the lower level where the sporting goods were, up the stairway to the street, carrying a golf bag and golf clubs, and the clubs were stolen, and so was the bag. I stole hundreds of golf balls.
It was part of a stage of delinquency in his life. Around the same time, Buffett's grades had plummeted, and he began to act out in class.
A humanized legend
What's truly remarkable is that, before this story was ever told in his biography, it wasn't ever really public. Buffett could have taken this story to the grave. But he didn't.
He told it, and he told it honestly in a book that he knew millions of people would read.
Buffett works very hard to keep a pristine image. He doesn't flaunt his wealth. He was personally troubled by problems with insider trading by one Berkshire employee, David Sokol. And he never sells a Berkshire Hathaway business, lest people think he's just another private equity investor looking to buy and chop up businesses for resale.
Of course, this story will change the way some people think of him. When I think of Buffett, I like to think of him as someone who made a killing the honest way -- by finding and buying great companies.
Much of his wealth did come this way. Surely, whatever he may have potentially earned from his shoplifting adventures probably didn't have much impact on his billions.
What's the takeaway?
No one is perfect -- not even people who have crafted a perfect public image. Buffett's secret shoplifting adventures just go to show that a troublemaking eighth grader might just end up being one of the world's brightest businessmen of all time.
And people can change. Buffett undoubtedly learned from his shoplifting experiences. Much later, and with gray hair, he told a class of undergrad students how important it is to hire honest people. He retold the story of one Omaha businessman, and how he picked good employees:
There was a guy, Pete Kiewit in Omaha, who used to say, he looked for three things in hiring people: integrity, intelligence and energy. And he said if the person did not have the first two, the latter two would kill him, because if they don't have integrity, you want them dumb and lazy.
Buffett's not perfect, but he is wise.