Sunday Buffet and Business Realities

Whether you work at home for a company and telecommute, run your own home-based business, or work at home as a freelance artist or contractor there’s one fact that persists throughout business (and life): reality is all that matters. Success is built on making decisions based on reality not wishful thinking.

One businessperson who has demonstrated a firm grasp on reality is Warren Buffet. He’s the largest stockholder in Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company worth almost $60 billion, making him the third riches man in the world–and he’s donated all his wealth to charity. Besides a demonstrated business sense, he brings a sense of humor to his work that we particularly like.

Warren Buffet

Here are some samples of his style from the 2007 year-end Letter To Shareholders:

— In regards to naming a successor:

I’ve reluctantly discarded the notion of my continuing to manage the portfolio after my death — abandoning my hope to give new meaning to the term “thinking outside the box.”

— Regarding the home loan crisis:

Some major financial institutions have, however, experienced staggering problems because they engaged in the “weakened lending practices” I described in last year’s letter. John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo, aptly dissected the recent behavior of many lenders: “It is interesting that the industry has invented new ways to lose money when the old ways seemed to work just fine.”

You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out — and what we are witnessing at some of our largest financial institutions is an ugly sight.

— Regarding his mistakes:

My behavior resembled that of a politician Molly Ivins once described: If his I.Q. was any lower, you would have to water him twice a day.

To date, Dexter is the worst deal that I’ve made. But I’ll make more mistakes in the future — you can bet on that. A line from Bobby Bare’s country song explains what too often happens with acquisitions: “I’ve never gone to bed with an ugly woman, but I’ve sure woke up with a few.”

— Regarding his success in the insurance business:

The best anecdote I’ve heard during the current presidential campaign came from Mitt Romney, who asked his wife, Ann, “When we were young, did you ever in your wildest dreams think I might be president?” To which she replied, “Honey, you weren’t in my wildest dreams.”

— Regarding the CEO of one of his companies:

Charlie and I are not big fans of resumes. Instead, we focus on brains, passion and integrity. Another of our great managers is Cathy Baron Tamraz, who has significantly increased Business Wire’s earnings since we purchased it early in 2006. She is an owner’s dream. It is positively dangerous to stand between Cathy and a business prospect. Cathy, it should be noted, began her career as a cab driver.

— Regarding the success of See’s Chocolates:

Just as Adam and Eve kick-started an activity that led to six billion humans, See’s has given birth to multiple new streams of cash for us. (The biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply” is one we take seriously at Berkshire.)

— About their investment in Flight Safety:

One example of good, but far from sensational, business economics is our own FlightSafety. This company delivers benefits to its customers that are the equal of those delivered by any business that I know of. It also possesses a durable competitive advantage: Going to any other flight-training provider than the best is like taking the low bid on a surgical procedure.

— About the airline industry:

Now let’s move to the gruesome. The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down.

— About wanting to own at least 80% of companies:

When control-type purchases of quality aren’t available, though, we are also happy to simply buy small portions of great businesses by way of stockmarket purchases. It’s better to have a part interest in the Hope Diamond than to own all of a rhinestone.

— About the unrealistic assumptions built into the nation’s pension funds:

I should mention that people who expect to earn 10% annually from equities during this century — envisioning that 2% of that will come from dividends and 8% from price appreciation — are implicitly forecasting a level of about 24,000,000 on the Dow by 2100. If your adviser talks to you about doubledigit returns from equities, explain this math to him — not that it will faze him. Many helpers are apparently direct descendants of the queen in Alice in Wonderland, who said: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Beware the glib helper who fills your head with fantasies while he fills his pockets with fees.

What is no puzzle, however, is why CEOs opt for a high investment assumption: It lets them report higher earnings. And if they are wrong, as I believe they are, the chickens won’t come home to roost until long after they retire. After decades of pushing the envelope — or worse — in its attempt to report the highest number possible for current earnings, Corporate America should ease up. It should listen to my partner, Charlie: “If you’ve hit three balls out of bounds to the left, aim a little to the right on the next swing.”

— About the unknowable:

A story I told you some years back illustrates our problem in accurately estimating our loss liability: A fellow was on an important business trip in Europe when his sister called to tell him that their dad had died. Her brother explained that he couldn’t get back but said to spare nothing on the funeral, whose cost he would cover. When he returned, his sister told him that the service had been beautiful and presented him with bills totaling $8,000. He paid up but a month later received a bill from the mortuary for $10. He paid that, too — and still another $10 charge he received a month later. When a third $10 invoice was sent to him the following month, the perplexed man called his sister to ask what was going on. “Oh,” she replied, “I forgot to tell you. We buried Dad in a rented suit.”

At our insurance companies we have an unknown, but most certainly large, number of “rented suits” buried around the world. We try to estimate the bill for them accurately. In ten or twenty years, we will even be able to make a good guess as to how inaccurate our present guess is. But even that guess will be subject to surprises. I personally believe our stated reserves are adequate, but I’ve been wrong several times in the past.

— About the upcoming shareholder meeting:

Then, after a short recess, Charlie and I will convene the annual meeting at 3:15. If you decide to leave during the day’s question periods, please do so while Charlie is talking.

The best reason to exit, of course is to shop. We will help you do that by filling the 194,300- square-foot hall that adjoins the meeting area with the products of Berkshire subsidiaries. Last year, the 27,000 people who came to the meeting did their part, and almost every location racked up record sales. But you can do better. (If necessary, I’ll lock the doors.)

— His closing words:

At 84 and 77, Charlie and I remain lucky beyond our dreams. We were born in America; had terrific parents who saw that we got good educations; have enjoyed wonderful families and great health; and came equipped with a “business” gene that allows us to prosper in a manner hugely disproportionate to that experienced by many people who contribute as much or more to our society’s well-being. Moreover, we have long had jobs that we love, in which we are helped in countless ways by talented and cheerful associates.

Every day is exciting to us; no wonder we tap-dance to work. But nothing is more fun for us than getting together with our shareholder-partners at Berkshire’s annual meeting. So join us on May 3rd at the Qwest for our annual Woodstock for Capitalists. We’ll see you there.

For more help on small business loans, angels and other private investors, venture capital, government loans and grants, preparing a business plan or financing application, and other money management advice, check out our all new, fully revised eBook, Finding Money–Secrets of a Former Banker.

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