The Boardroom November 2004

American Everyman

Warren Buffett's billions—and the oft told tale of how he made them—have become the least interesting thing about him. It's Buffett the symbol that matters now
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On a Sunday afternoon in May of last year Warren Buffett, America's second richest man and, some feel, the greatest investor in its history, was meeting the press in an Omaha hotel when a dark-suited man—a bodyguard, apparently—hustled up onto the platform where Buffett was seated and whispered into his ear. The multibillionaire listened without expression while the man in the seat beside him, Charlie Munger, the vice-chairman of their company, Berkshire Hathaway, stared ahead through a pair of horn-rimmed glasses whose lenses weren't merely thick but virtually spherical, like a pair of crystal Ping-Pong balls. Buffett and Munger are quite a duo, with the conversational timing and style of a vaudeville comedy team—Buffett dry and jovial and extroverted, and Munger even drier but blunt and mordant. For an hour or so, until this interruption, the two—both native Nebraskans—had been answering questions on everything from corporate-governance scandals to the likelihood that a major act of terrorism would bankrupt the insurance industry. It's their gift to be able to talk about such subjects so plainly, incisively, and honestly that the reporters had been laughing the whole time.

Now, though, it seemed that something dire was happening. The bodyguard looked concerned—a little panicky, even. When the guard left the platform, Buffett looked up and spoke. The hotel, he informed us, was advising everyone to take shelter immediately in a windowless safe room located in the center of the building: tornadoes had been sighted in western Omaha, and radar indicated that they were headed this way.

For his part, however, he intended to keep on taking questions until no one had anything more to ask or the whole building blew away. He sipped from a can of Cherry Coke and exchanged a look with his straight man Munger, whose myopic self-containment seemed impregnable. Moments later sirens started to wail. A few reporters scuttled out, but most of them took up Buffett's stoic challenge to ignore the warnings and carry on.

The reporters who had done their research knew that this was how Buffett always operates—not only in the face of violent winds but in the face of turbulent markets. He sits tight. He keeps his head while others are losing theirs, and then he moves in, if he wishes, and buys those heads (meaning large blocks of stock or entire companies) at an advantageous price. And then he keeps them. He rolls them into Berkshire Hathaway's almost comically diverse portfolio (the company's wholly owned properties, to list just a few, include a chocolate-candy retailer, an underwear manufacturer, a furniture store, a chain of ice-cream restaurants, a maker of cowboy boots, and an insurance firm that insures insurance firms) and watches his wealth, and that of his shareholders, grow and grow. He watches it grow while the fortunes of other investors—more-excitable types with more-fashionable holdings, which they tend to think about selling the moment they buy them—rise and fall and gyrate and go sideways and eventually, in all too many cases, are ground down between the twin millstones of fear and greed.

The weekend of that stormy Sunday was dedicated to celebrating Buffett's success, or what the business writer Robert Hagstrom has called "the Warren Buffett way"—as though there were some sort of wizardry behind what may be the most thoroughly explained investment method in recent history. Every May, Buffett, Munger, and attending shareholders, whom the two like to refer to as "our partners," gather for Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting: two hectic days of capitalist frolicking, featuring exhibition Scrabble games, hot-dog feeds, and shareholders-only sales at Borsheim's Jewelers and the Nebraska Furniture Mart, two of the company's retail properties. Though Buffett's personal thrift is the stuff of legend (he still lives in the fairly modest house that he bought in the 1950s), he isn't shy about encouraging shareholders to break out their credit cards for diamonds and carpets. At the end of the weekend he totals the receipts and makes the figures public.

The annual meeting's main event, which took place on a Saturday in 2003, is a freewheeling question-and-answer session with Buffett and Munger, held in a cavernous downtown sports arena. Among the thousands of adoring fans are scores of millionaires who owe their net worth to Berkshire's lofty stock price, which hit a three-year low on March 10, 2000, on the same day the nasdaq reached its all-time high, and then reversed course while the nasdaq sank and sank. In the 1990s highfliers derided Buffett for sitting out the run-up in high-tech and dot-com stocks (he once famously said that he simply "didn't understand" them), but this contrarian feat provided sweet vindication.

The May 2003 session began with a short movie in which Buffett poked fun at his rumpled, down-home image while reminding the cheering audience of his unique celebrity—an unquantifiable but valuable asset that he has never been shy about exploiting but that financial writers tend to overlook when analyzing his character and accomplishments. In one segment Buffett appeared as Daddy Warbucks alongside Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator and now the president of New School University, and belted out the song "Tomorrow," from Annie. In another Ron Insana, a balding, huggable CNBC reporter, summarized Berkshire's recent performance by cracking, "While the rest of the market was taking it in the shorts, Mr. Buffett was buying the shorts" (a reference to Berkshire's acquisition of Fruit of the Loom). At one point the singer Jimmy Buffett, a distant relative of the tycoon's, strummed a guitar and crooned, "I bought Berkshire back when it was cheap." For the finale, CEOs from various Berkshire-owned companies put new words to a familiar Coca-Cola jingle: "It's the real thing, Berkshire Hathaway. What the world wants today. Berkshire Hathaway." When Buffett joined in at the close, and urged the audience members to sing along from their seats, they did so, heartily, swaying to the music and clapping in the dreamy, loose-wristed manner of old ladies feeling the spirit at a gospel service.

With its roster of grinning well-known faces letting Buffett upstage them at every turn (Tiger Woods made a cameo appearance too, pretending to coach Buffett on his creaky golf swing), the movie revealed at least as much about the so-called Oracle of Omaha as did his refusal to bow to the tornado warning. Buffett is a conscious, sophisticated performer, the inventor and caretaker of a rare persona that has no equivalent in American business. Not since Samuel Goldwyn, perhaps, has a tycoon functioned in the culture as both a first-class entertainer and the embodiment of his industry. Buffett's Will Rogers folksiness and Mark Twain wit ("Never ask the barber if you need a haircut"; "Price is what you give; value is what you get"; "Predicting rain doesn't count; building arks does") aren't merely colorful secondary traits but stylized expressions of his very being. They represent more than that, in fact. Buffett's attitudes and mannerisms now stand for American capitalism itself—or at least for its more positive aspects. He is what's good about the free market, in human form—akin to what Joe DiMaggio was to baseball. Bill Gates may be richer, and Donald Trump (the anti-Buffett) flashier, but compared with Buffett they're mere character actors. The role of the straight-shooting leading man, trusted by all, belongs to Buffett alone.

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Walter Kirn is the author of Up in the Air.

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