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Bill Freehling is a business writer for The Free Lance-Star and Fredericksburg.com. This blog is on Fredericksburg-area business. Send an e-mail to Bill Freehling.
Book on Buffett gets personal
BILLIONAIRE investor Warren Buffett stood atop the Great Wall of China with pal Bill Gates and gazed at the manmade wonder. The words he spoke are classic Buffett.
The Oracle of Omaha quipped that he would have liked to have had the brick contract on the wall. That anecdote is among the nuggets revealed in "The Snowball," Alice Schroeder’s recently released 900-page biography of Buffett.
That story stands out because it embodies the nearly singular focus on business that has turned Buffett into one of the world’s richest men–but that has often challenged his personal relationships.
Since he was a little boy, Buffett loved making money. He counted soda bottle caps to see which drinks had dominant market share. He delivered papers for The Washington Post. He bought his first stock at age 11. He owned a farm in Nebraska as a teenager.
That entrepreneurial drive propelled Buffett to form an investment partnership that bought shares of Berkshire Hathaway, a struggling New England textile mill that he and partner Charlie Munger turned into a "compounding machine."
Schroeder is not the first person to tell the fascinating story of Berkshire Hathaway and Buffett’s rise to immense wealth. Dozens of books have been written about him, including Roger Lowenstein’s excellent "Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist."
But Schroeder’s project was the first one that Buffett authorized and cooperated with. Schroeder spent hours interviewing Buffett and his family and friends.
As a result, "The Snowball" paints a better picture of Buffett’s personal life and psychological makeup than previous books. Though at 900 pages it’s not an easy read, anybody interested in his life will surely enjoy it.
The public life of Buffett is well-known–the plain-spoken sage from Nebraska with an uncanny ability to target and value outstanding businesses when everyone else is fleeing for the exits.
But the private Buffett is considerably more vulnerable. He was too shy to date girls in high school. He bristles in the face of criticism, a byproduct of a childhood spent with a sometimes verbally abusive mother. He feels awkward in social situations. His relationship with his children is sometimes distant. He tries to block his emotions but is overcome with grief in the face of the deaths of his close friends and family.
"The Snowball" also reveals the complex relationships that Buffett has had with the women in his life–including his late wife, Susie, former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and longtime companion and now-wife, Astrid Menks.
In addition to capturing more details of Buffett’s private life than previous works, "The Snowball" also has an advantage in that it covers recent years. During these years, Buffett warned about the financial meltdown that is now upon us, pledged the bulk of his fortune to the charitable foundation of close friends Bill and Melinda Gates, presided over an ever-expanding business, worked to develop his relationship with his children and grieved over the loss of his beloved wife.
The book also includes a good bit about Fredericksburg resident Doris Buffett, one of Warren’s two sisters. Doris also overcame a childhood spent with an often-critical mother to emerge as a renowned philanthropist who has earned the moniker "The Sunshine Lady" for her many good deeds.
Some critical reviews of "The Snowball" have pointed out that Schroeder takes too many pages to make her point, and that she turns up few new facts. I disagree.