My line of works allows me the luxury of constantly being in situations where I get to meet famous people, especially athletes. My Twitter feed and Facebook photos are proof enough of the absolutely ridiculous things I’ve gotten to do in the past 5 years. But today, Christmas came early. I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to spend 2 hours in a room with a person who was once the richest man in the world, and is currently probably second on the list, at an estimated net worth of $73Bn – The Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet. Or as he was introduced to us as – the best newspaper delivery boy in the midwest in the 1930s. But you’d never know it.
I normally don’t document my interactions with famous people for obvious reasons, but this one was different. Buffet is probably one of the sharpest and wittiest people I’ve ever met, with an incredible enthusiasm for life, all at the ripe age of 84. He dropped some golden nuggets during our time together that I felt would be a disservice to humanity if I didn’t share. So here goes.
On investing: Buffet only invests in companies that he can fully understand with minimal brain damage. He’s never invested in any of the big tech companies because, well, he doesn’t quite understand them. So he likes simple companies, because, as he puts it, “I invest in companies that are so simple, an idiot can run them, because sooner or later, you’re going to have one running them.”
On stocks: Buffet advised to just invest in a handful of stocks, and hold on to them. Pick 5 great stocks out of the thousands out there, and every month, put a little bit of money into them. The rest of it is all speculation and coin flips on how you end up doing.
On inflation: Buffet was asked if he was surprised by how low inflation has been. “I’m definitely surprised”, he replied. “Why is that?” we asked. “If I knew the answer, then I wouldn’t be surprised now, would I?” Pure gold.
On the giving pledge: I asked Buffet what he felt about Chuck Feeney’s “Giving While Living” concept, whereby he gave away nearly $10Bn during his lifetime, as opposed to what Buffet, Gates and several other billionaires have pledged, which is to give away the vast majority of their wealth only when they die. Buffet was practical in his answer – he felt that he could create far more wealth every year if he was putting the money to work while he was alive, and then he could give away a lot more, as opposed to giving it all away now, but in aggregate, giving away far less. Interestingly enough, his estate is setup in a way that all of the money must be spent within 10 years of his passing, and it cannot be given to charities that act as endowments for other causes. Basically, some $70Bn+ will need to be spent to do good for the world, within a decade of Buffet dying. Powerful stuff.
Buffet and his wife decided in their twenties, that they were going to give away all their money. He always wanted to be wealthy, but they also wanted to give it all away. His wife wanted to give it away while they still were living, but Buffet convinced her that he could make a lot more money if it kept compounding. She said it was a cop out. Buffet said that his wife once lost her credit card and he didn’t even bother reporting it to the credit card company because he was pretty sure whoever stole it would end up spending far less money than his wife could.
Buffet also said that he wants people to sign the pledge to give everything away earlier in their life, because, as he put it, “when you’re 90 with a blonde on your lap, it’s pretty hard to think straight.”
On the indicators of success: Buffet said that the best indicator of success was how early on the entrepreneur had started his business – i.e. age. The younger someone starts running a company, the more likely that person is to succeed in business. He also only picks good people to work with, and people who are incredibly passionate about their businesses. The reason for this is that when Buffet buys a company, he’s buying a controlling interest in the company, most often the entire thing. Which means that the managers no longer have equity in the company, but he still needs them to work hard, which they will only do if they really love their business.
On Managers: Buffet doesn’t have a lot of managers leave when he buys their companies. A few retire, but even that is rare he says. Most people just keep doing their job. He had one CEO who was an old woman that continued to be CEO until she was 103. She finally decided to retire, and died the next year.
On Delegation: Buffet doesn’t like the nitty gritty of running businesses. If someone needs his help, they can call him. But he doesn’t spend time operating any of the companies he buys. That’s why he only buys companies with great operators who will keep doing their job. He looks over the books once a year, and that’s that. His people do their job, so he can enjoy doing what he’s best at. He says he wouldn’t enjoy running companies like that, he just enjoys allocating assets.
On Doing Deals: Buffet likes to keep things simple. Half the time, he doesn’t even do an audit of the companies he buys. He picks good people, trusts them, and buys their businesses. He’s currently building a million square foot furniture store in Texas, which he says will do over $1Bn in revenue next year. To put that in perspective, Macy’s on 34th street in NYC barely does a billion in revenue. He bought this furniture store from an old woman. Didn’t audit her books. Just asked her if she owed any money, she said no, and he said okay. He’s done deals in as little as 15 minutes. “Why”, we asked. “Well, I knew the guy was only going to be in the mood to sell for 15 minutes”, he replied. But regardless, he does keep things incredibly simple. His home office of Berkshire Hathaway is only 35 employees, but their companies employ over 330,000 people across the US. He has no meetings, he sends no emails, and decisions are made swiftly.
On Being Lucky: Buffet said that he feels incredibly lucky to have been born in America at a time when he could do what he was best at – invest. Apparently Bill Gates once said to him “Warren, you’re lucky you were born when you were and you could do what you are good at. If you were born a thousand years before this, you would have been some wild animal’s dinner. You’re fat and slow, and you wouldn’t have been able to run away.” Additionally, he says being 84 years old helps, “the thing with compounding is, not much happens early on. The last 10 years are the best for compounding.”
On America: Buffet says we are the luckiest people on earth. America is the land of opportunity as he has seen over and over again in his career. Businesses that were started with $500 are now worth hundreds of millions. Not easy to do that in most places around the world. On socio-economic issues, he believes that America’s heart is in the right place, but that we’re just slow to move, but we eventually do what’s right.
On the Government: “In your entire lifetime, the Government is always going to disappoint you.”
On Loving What He Does: Buffet loves to invest. He’s great at it, and it’s fun for him. The day it stops being fun is the day he stops doing it. If he doesn’t like a deal or a person involved in the deal, he’ll just walk. As he puts it, “the benefit of being rich is that I don’t have to do business with people I don’t like.” He also put it another way, “if you gave me a gun with a thousand chambers and one bullet and told me that for every pull of the trigger, I’d get a million dollars, I wouldn’t do it even once, because it doesn’t seem like something I’d enjoy doing.”
On Coca Cola: As we were sitting there, Buffet popped open his 4th can of coke for the day. Eighty four years old, this dude is drinking coke like a puppy lapping up water after a game of fetch. Anyways, as be pops open the can, he says to us “I own 9% of coke. For every 1 out of 11 cans we sell, I make a buck. So I don’t care whether you drink it or not, but go ahead and open a can if you’re sitting here.”