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How a $650,100 lunch with Warren Buffett changed one hedge fund manager's life

·Former Correspondent
On June 25, 2008, value investor Guy Spier and Mohnish Pabrai had a charity 'power lunch' with Warren Buffett at Smith & Wollensky's they won for $650,100 during an eBay auction. (Alex Z Photography)

The 17th annual “power lunch” with Warren Buffett was recently won by a mystery bidder for $3,456,789, matching the record price paid back in 2012.

The anonymous winner will get to bring up to seven guests to have lunch with Buffett at Smith & Wollensky's Midtown Manhattan location.

While it might seem like a hefty price to pay for a steak lunch, all the proceeds go to a worthy cause, GLIDE—a charitable organization focused on alleviating poverty. For those who have won in the past, it's absolutely worth it too.

Value investor Guy Spier, who won the lunch in 2008 bidding alongside his friend Mohnish Pabrai, recounted the experience in his book "Education Of A Value Investor." Spier, the founder of Aquamarine Fund, wrote that meeting Buffett had a “life-changing” impact on how he lives his life and invests.

Just a year prior, Pabrai convinced Spier that they should team up to bid in a charity auction on eBay. A young fund manager with a third child on the way at the time, Spier was good for contributing up to $250,000. The duo won the eBay auction on their second attempt for $650,100.

Call me 'Warren'

On June 25, 2008, Spier, Pabrai, their wives, and Pabrai’s two daughters joined Buffett at the iconic steakhouse.

"I was very nervous beforehand," Spier told Yahoo Finance. "I wanted him to like me. I knew he didn't have to like me, he was there to have lunch with me. I didn't sleep very much or well. I arrived a bit like showing up for a really important exam."

Guy Spier, the founder of Aquamarine Fund, with Warren Buffett at Smith & Wollensky's.
Guy Spier, the founder of Aquamarine Fund, with Warren Buffett at Smith & Wollensky's.

Buffett immediately put the group at ease, telling them to call him "Warren" and even joking with Pabrai's young daughters that he eats only things he would've as a five year-old.

Over medium-rare steaks, hash browns, and Coca-Colas (a Cherry Coke for Buffett, of course), they spent three-hours engaged in a wide-ranging conversation. It wasn’t just the pearls of wisdom that Buffett would drop, but rather the subtleties that would stay with Spier.

Being in a room with Buffett, Spier explained, you realize he has this "prodigious intelligence, incredible intensity, and amazing simplicity." Just being in a room with Buffett was a lesson itself.

"I think the air vibrates differently around some people," Spier said, adding, "Leadership is the way you make people feel when they're in a room with you."

One takeaway was to surround yourself with the right people. It not about trying to be that person, but rather learning from them.

Buffett told Spier and Pabrai: "Hang out with people better than you, and you cannot help but improve."

The 'Inner Scorecard'

Perhaps the most profound takeaway from their discussion with Buffett was the importance of measuring yourself by an “inner scorecard” as opposed to an “outer scorecard"— the need for public approval and recognition.

To make his point, Buffett asked the table: “Would you rather prefer to be considered the best lover in the world and know privately that you’re the worst—or would you prefer to know privately that you’re the best lover in the world, but be considered the worst?”

An anonymous bidder agreed to pay $3,456,789 for lunch with Warren Buffett.
An anonymous bidder agreed to pay $3,456,789 for lunch with Warren Buffett.

Spier found this to be the greatest lesson, and it also applies to investing.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of Buffett’s insight. After all, how many of the self-serving excesses and moral compromises that caused the financial crisis of 2008-2009 would have been avoided if mortgage brokers, bankers, and others had lived by an inner scorecard? As Warren helped me to understand, people too often justify their improper or misguided actions by reassuring themselves that everyone else is doing it too,” he wrote.

He continued: “One of Buffett’s defining characteristics is that he so clearly lives by his own inner scorecard. It isn’t just that he does what’s right, but that he does what’s right for him. As I saw during our lunch, there’s nothing fake or forced about him. He sees no reason to compromise his standards or violate his beliefs.”

While there's many ways to emulate Buffett, there's one that's impossible to replicate—his mind. According to Spier, it can be exhausting being in a room with him because you also realize the speed at which his brain operates.

"I felt the sheer intensity of his mind and simply knew that he was operating at a much higher clock speed than I was," Spier wrote.

"In the past, having come top of my class at Oxford, I'd somehow convinced myself that I had the mental capacity to compete with him, and I had hoped that I might one day learn to perform equally well. Seeing him in person that day, I was left with no doubt at all that I could ever hope to match him."

Spier realized that he couldn't beat Buffett's brainpower. And that's OK.

"This became my goal: not to be Warren Buffett, but to become a more authentic version of myself. And he taught me, the path to true success is through authenticity."

A Buffett 'lifeline'

The charity power lunch wasn’t the first time Spier had been in a room with Buffett. The famed investor spoke at Harvard Business School in 1991 during Spier's first semester. Admittedly, the younger Spier was more interested in a female classmate than what Buffett was talking about. Even today, he can’t remember anything that Buffett said.

Michael Douglas' character 'Gordon Gekko' from Oliver Stone's film 'Wall Street.'
Michael Douglas' character 'Gordon Gekko' from Oliver Stone's film 'Wall Street.'

After graduating from Harvard Business School, Spier made a "spectacularly foolish" decision to join D. H. Blair—a third-tier firm that was eventually shut down by regulators—where he was exposed to a "snake pit" of Gordon Gekkos and bankers that pushed boundaries.

He was miserable.

“When I discovered the world of Warren Buffett, it was as if I had found a lifeline,” Spier wrote.

It happened during his lunch break when he popped in a bookstore just off Wall Street. He read Benjamin Graham’s "The Intelligent Investor," which had a preface written by Buffett. After that, he read "Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist" by Roger Lowenstein.

He found Buffett to be the antithesis of the Wall Street that he had encountered while at D. H. Blair. He wanted to make a change.

"I had to go through the depths of despair to be open to someone like Warren Buffett," Spier said, adding, "Failure, if it's big enough, has the ability to unhinge you and loosen you up and make you open to new things."

When Spier left D. H. Blair, he had trouble finding another job on Wall Street because of the firm's reputation. During that time, he continued to read essays and reports from Buffett. He also made the trip out to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting.

In 1996, Spier’s father called him to suggest managing some of his money. He gave him about $1 million to start and eventually two of his businesses associates invested. The Aquamarine Fund, which is inspired by the original 1950s/60s Buffett partnerships before Berkshire Hathaway, began trading on September 15, 1997 with around $15 million in assets.

Initially, Aquamarine, at the suggestion of advisers and lawyers to follow the hedge fund industry standard, began charging a 1-and-20% fee structure, which is still modest compared to the traditional 2-and-20% that's charged. Spier, however, really wanted to charge no management fees like Buffett.

“People will always stop you doing the right thing if it’s unconventional,” Buffett told him over their lunch.

For Spier, meeting with Buffett for lunch was transformational. Soon after, he stopped charging management fees to new investors. Also taking a page from how Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway operates far away from Wall Street in Omaha’s Kiewit Plaza, Spier moved his family and fund to Zurich, Switzerland to escape the New York “hedge fund vortex.” In addition, he began using his Bloomberg terminal less, no longer checking stock prices at every moment.

And if he could do it all over again, he wouldn't have accepted a vice president position at a "sleazy bucket shop" after business school.

"I really would have done it straight from Warren Buffett's playbook: 'Go work for someone you really admire."

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance.

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