When asked at the October 7, 2008 presidential debate whom he would appoint as his Treasury Secretary, John McCain commented that "it’s going to have to be someone that inspires trust and confidence." The first specific name McCain mentioned was that of Warren Buffett, someone, as McCain noted, that has "already weighed in and helped stabilize some of the difficulties in the markets."
In some ways, it is no surprise that McCain mentioned Buffett (notwithstanding the fact that Buffett has – as McCain duly noted – publicly supported Barrack Obama), given Buffett’s prominence and reputation. And in view of Buffett’s wealth and well-known business approach, it is unsurprising that once again Buffett is in the position to offer financial aid to troubled companies.
But while Buffett’s mention as a potential Treasury Secretary in a time of turmoil might now be unsurprising, it is worth reflecting that there is nothing about the way Buffett achieved his wealth, prominence or reputation that was inevitable. The remarkable story of how Buffett achieved this level of respect while he accumulated his vast fortune is compellingly told in Alice Schroeder’s splendid new biography, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.
While numerous prior authors have attempted to detail Buffett’s life, none had the benefit of direct access to Buffett himself, as well as to his blessing to contact his family and friends, as Schroeder did. In addition, because Schroeder spent five years between 2003 and 2008 gathering material and writing her book, she wound up as a percipient witness to many of the critical events of the most recent years of Buffett’s life.
What emerges is more literary than a mere business biography. Indeed, prospective readers should probably be forewarned that this book is not devoted to the minute exploration of Buffett’s investment philosophy or his approach to investment decisions. Readers particularly interested in that aspect of Buffett’s story would do better to read Roger Lowenstein’s excellent 1995 Buffet biography, entitled Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist.
Readers who want to understand the development and character of a man who has come to embody trust and integrity at a time when those qualities are sorely lacking (particularly in the financial marketplace) will find Schroeder’s book absorbing and instructive. The power of the book is its deep appreciation of the sweep of Buffett’s life, the role of so many of the key people he befriended along the way, and its respect for the way that events and experiences shaped and changed him.
For Buffett devotees such as myself (full disclosure: I own Berkshire Hathaway B shares, although not nearly as many as I wish I did), the book is full of rich anecdote and fascinating detail even with respect to events well told before. For example, the details of Buffett’s childhood have been well-chronicled, but no prior account of his life so thoroughly explores the significance of Buffett’s relationship with his parents, particularly his respect for his stock broker and congressman father and his fear of his tempestuous, unstable mother.
As a result of Schroeder’s access, her book also discloses numerous interesting details about Buffett’s early life, such as the fact that the current paragon shoplifted extensively from the Sears near his parents’ home while his father sat in Congress.
In an incident full of significance given recent events, Buffett, while a ten-year old on a visit to New York with his father, visited the offices of Goldman Sachs. Who could have foreseen the role he would come to play a half century later at a critical moment in the firm’s existence?
And the counterparty on Buffett’s first transaction while a brand new trader at Graham-Newman investment bank -- a complex arbitrage deal involving cocoa beans and cocoa bean futures -- was a shrewd investor named Jay Pritzker, whose family business, Marmon Corporation, Buffett would agree to buy in a multi-billion dollar transaction in late 2007 (refer here).
But even more significant than these details is the overarching theme that defines the book. This book is not so much about the way Buffett accumulated wealth as it is the way he accumulated friends and knowledge and insight. The friends enriched his life and contributed each in their own way to Buffett’s remarkable personal story. The roles that Ben Graham and Charlie Munger played have been noted elsewhere but the inside account of how Munger and Buffett met, became friends and began investing together is fully explored in this book. Schroeder’s access allowed her to describe how Buffett met and became friends with Bill Gates, and even more significantly the intellectual and philanthropic interests they share.
Schroeder’s emphasis on Buffett’s relationships, combined with her unfettered access and her obvious preoccupation with the topic, leads her to explore Buffett’s complex relationships with the women in his life. The book makes it clear that Buffett might well not have become who he is without the influence in his early adulthood of his late wife, Susie.
The book also explores Buffett’s relationships with other women, including his long-time friend Astrid Menks, with whom he lived for nearly 30 years while still married to Susie, and whom he married after Susie’s death; Kay Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, with whom he had something more than a mere business partnership; and Sharon Osberg, his bridge partner and frequent companion. Undoubtedly due to her privileged status as authorized biographer, Schroeder is very elusive about the exact nature of Buffett’s relationship with these women, as well as Susie’s relationship with her long time friend and tennis coach (to whom Susie left $8 million in a secret and surprising codicil to her will).
Schroeder’s exploration of Buffett’s emotional life is perhaps at its most perceptive pitch in her analysis of the events surrounding the near collapse of Solomon Brothers in 1991. In the usual retelling of the tale, Buffett is portrayed as the gallant knight riding to the rescue, saving the company by the sheer strength of his integrity. Schroeder makes it clear that these events were for Buffett horrible and extremely challenging.
Buffett also found these events distressing, but not because he could have lost an enormous amount of money if the company failed. Rather, the events at Solomon filled him with dread and anxiety because the events could have cost him something even more precious – his reputation. In a particularly noteworthy detail about the episode, and one that says a great deal both about Buffett and about the culture of Wall Street, the book recounts that the senior managers at Solomon, whose jobs Buffett saved, sneered that "all he cares about is his reputation."
Notwithstanding her privileged access, Schroeder does not by any means avoid identifying Buffett’s shortcomings. Indeed, he comes across in many ways as a stunted person, someone whose world view is so limited that no matter how important the occasion or the requirements of decorum, he cannot bring himself to eat anything but a hamburger and French fries. His perspective is so narrow that he never noticed that the walls of the guest bedroom at Kay Graham’s house, where he stayed many times, were lined with original Picassos. He also comes off as almost childlike in his extremely squeamish inability to tolerate any discussion of someone’s medical issues or other topics he found uncomfortable.
Buffett was forced to confront many of these issues during Susie’s final illness and death. Because Schroeder was present during many of the events surrounding Susie’s death, her description of these events take on a particularly novelistic quality. Her recounting of the events is interwoven with Buffett’s own description to Schroeder of his thoughts and reactions, feelings and emotions. The depiction of Susie’s death is moving and serves as a reminder that even great wealth is no protection against the most basic of human susceptibilities. Although we are reading about these events because of who Buffett is, it is their universal character that gives the description its power and depth.
It is through the characteristics such as this that the book gains its ultimate insight, which is that Buffett was not born as "Buffett" nor did he one day simply become "Buffett." Rather, Buffett has become who he is as his life has evolved, and he has been becoming Buffett and has continued to become Buffett all along the way. Consistent with the book’s metaphorical title, Buffett has accumulated many things, not just wealth, but friends, and even wisdom and insight.
While she admittedly had a worthy subject to begin with, Schroder has managed to do something remarkable. She has managed to take the story of one man’s accrual of enormous wealth, a feat that might seem base or even vulgar, and turned it into a tale worth pondering. Schroder’s book succeeds because she understands that what makes Buffett fundamentally interesting is not the mere fact of his wealth alone, but how he conducted himself both while he became wealthy and even after (perhaps especially after) his fortune was assured.
That said, this is not a perfect book. For one thing, at 838 pages (not counting endnotes and the index), it is way too long, arguably by as much as one third. By way of illustration, someone should have stopped Schroeder from reporting that Astrid had a pedicure at Canyon Ranch while Susie was recovering from surgery. And the book would have been improved without such details as the lengthy description of Susie’s visit to Bono’s Mediterranean villa. There are many other unnecessary details of the same kind.
I also think it is a flaw, and a surprising one too, that Schroeder does not fully discuss the history of Buffett’s investment in General Reinsurance Corporation. (Full disclosure: for several years, I was employed by a Gen Re subsidiary). Give Schroeder’s background as a PaineWebber securities analyst for the insurance industry, I expected her to have much more to say about the Gen Re transaction and the way it turned out, especially in light of the fact that it was and still is Buffett’s largest acquisition ever. In the book’s "Afterword" Schroeder explains that because of certain continuing legal issues involving Berkshire, and the possibility that she might be a witness, she does not feel entirely free to comment. But while this explanation makes the paucity of discussion of Gen Re understandable, the limited treatment of the topic does diminish the book.
Notwithstanding its flaws, I still enthusiastically recommend the book. The timing of the book’s arrival, coincident with all of the astonishing recent events in the financial markets, dramatically underscores the wisdom of so many of Buffett’s recurring messages. He may or may not be the right choice to be Treasury Secretary, but if his health lasts, he undoubtedly will play a significant role in many of the events to come as the financial crisis continues to unfold.
Regardless of how events play out, Buffett’s humor, wisdom and insight will provide useful guidance for years to come, and not just for investors, but for anyone who aspires to reach a goal and to do so with their integrity intact.
A Literary Afterword: The narrative sweep of Schroeder’s book and the inclusion of so many family, friends and personal details gives the book the air of a family saga, and in many ways the book has the makings of a great novel. This characteristic of the book brought to mind another great book about the conflicts of life and business within one family, Thomas Mann’s first novel, Buddenbrooks.
Though Buddenbrooks is set in a much different time and place (19th century Germany) and though it is much a much darker, fatalistic and negative book (its subtitle is "The Decline of a Family"), it nevertheless represents a sweeping retelling of the fortunes of one family and how business affect the lives of four generations.
Some might consider it more than a stretch to invoke Buddenbrooks in connection with Schroeder’s biography of Buffett. I certainly do not mean to suggest any comparison between Schroeder and Thomas Mann. But I do think the two books share a common goal. That is, both books aspire to draw moral lessons from the interaction of business and life within the context of a single family. The moral conclusions may differ significantly, but both books offer insight into the ways life can be lived, on the practical level where the business of life actually is conducted.