Newsweek published this story under the headline of “Omaha's Plain Dealer” on April 1, 1985. Because Warren Buffett's recent business acquisition battles made headlines, Newsweek is republishing the story.
In his best-selling book Supermoney, author Adam Smith offered this admiring portrait of Warren Buffett: "While the gunslingers of the Sixties were promoting each other over drinks at Oscar's, then going back to their office so they could watch the tape, Buffett was compiling the best records in the industry from Omaha, Nebraska. No quote machines, no ticker, no Oscar's, no chewed fingernails, no tranquilizers, no Gelusil, no backgammon after the close, no really big spectacular winners . . . [just] quiet, simple stocks, easy to understand, with a lot of time left over for the kids, for handball, for listening to the tall corn grow."
At 54, Warren Buffett is still in Omaha, still listening to the tall corn grow—and still dazzling his envious colleagues on Wall Street with his perspicacity in the marketplace. Last week he made one of the boldest plays of a 34-year career that has seen a lot of them: his Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a holding company with stakes in everything from insurance to newspapers, put up $517.5 million of the $3.5 billion Capital Cities Communications will spend to take over ABC.
Aside from its size, perhaps the most untypical thing about the deal was the high visibility it gave Warren Buffett, who much prefers a low profile. "It's not a plus to get terribly well known," he told a visiting reporter last week, waving an arm at his spare, six-person set of offices. "As you can see, we're not equipped to handle tons of inquiries. We get letters from people all over who want advice on investments. I don't like to be hard-nosed, but there's also no way I can do it and get my job done."
When one looks at his track record, it's easy to understand why investors pester Buffett. A student and disciple of the late Benjamin Graham, a Columbia University professor once called the Maimonides of portfolio management, Buffett set up his first investment partnership in 1956 at the age of 25. When he dissolved the firm in 1969, an investor who had risked $10,000 in 1956 would have collected $300,000. In 1969 Buffett emerged from the final distribution of his partnership with control of Berkshire Hathaway, a New England textile firm. Since then he has built Berkshire Hathaway into a more than $2 billion conglomerate that owns, among other things, 13 percent of The Washington Post Company, 36 percent of GEICO, a major property and casualty insurer, and smaller pieces of such disparate properties as Time Inc. and Exxon Corp. (chart).
Buffett's investment philosophy sounds deceptively simple. "Most people get interested in stocks when everyone else is," he once told an estate-building seminar for women at Omaha's Creighton University. "The time to get interested is when no one else is. You can't buy what is popular and do well." That advice is backed by what his admirers rate as a superb—and uncluttered—business mind, aided, they say, by the detachment his base in Omaha affords. "He's totally uninfluenced by any Wall Street trend or theory or concept," says a fellow Washington Post board member. "He has no research department. He just reads and thinks and makes things happen. And he's a ferocious calculating machine in his ability to deal with numbers in his head." An example of Buffett's seat-of-the-pants smarts came in the 1960s, when American Express was feared by some to be near bankruptcy after it was revealed that it had invested heavily in nonexistent salad oil. After the stock had fallen from a high of over 62 to 35, Buffett haunted Ross's Steak House—one of his favorite eating places—and other businesses in Omaha and discovered that the salad-oil scandal had practically no impact on the number of people still paying for their purchases with American Express cards. His Berkshire Hathawayproceeded to buy 5 percent of AmEx—and saw the stock soar from 35 to 189 in the next five years.
A Rumpled Profesor: The son of a four-time Republican congressman from Omaha, Buffett is a moderate Democrat whose personal causes include population control and nuclear nonproliferation. He still lives in the relatively modest, upper-middle-class house he bought some 30 years ago (the only visible extravagance is an indoor handball court). He drinks Pepsi-Cola, dresses like a rumpled professor from the '50s (he jokes about how his friend, Washington Post chairman Katharine Graham, has tried to upgrade his style by sending gifts of colored shirts), has a fondness for media types and a way with words. Among his proudest possessions is a Pulitzer Prize won by a now defunct weekly he once owned, the Omaha Sun, for exposing a fundraising scam at nearby Boys Town. And his chatty annual letters to Berkshire Hathaway stockholders are sprinkled with quotes derived from everyone from Pogo ("The future isn't what it used to be") to Goethe ("When ideas fail, words come in very handy"). And even with a personal fortune worth upward of $700 million, Buffett is still close with a buck; once urged by other members of his golfing foursome to double their bet of $1 a hole, he prudently replied: "Based on the way we're playing today, it wouldn't be a good bet." Others recall another occasion when Buffett was offered a glass of expensive wine at a dinner party; he held his hand over his glass and said: "No thanks, I'll take cash."
With 45 percent of Berkshire Hathaway owned outright by the Buffett family, Warren Buffett is clearly in a position to exert great influence on the future of ABC. But based on past practice, he won't; he prefers to leave management to the managers. "He very carefully refrains from exercising influence," says John Byrne, GEICO's chief executive officer. "He is a no-surprise investor." Instead, the plainsman from Omaha will continue doing what he does best—quietly making a bundle for himself and the lucky investors in Berkshire Hathaway. And why not? "To an almost sinful degree," he confessed in one letter to shareholders, "we enjoy our work . . ."