This may sound strange, but I don’t actually remember the first time I met Warren Buffett. The reason is that Buffett was always kind of around during my 29-year tenure at Fortune Magazine, which began in 1985. By being around I mean that Buffett, mostly through his friendship with one of my mentors, legendary journalist Carol Loomis, would stop by our offices, or attend a Fortune event or meet some of us at a nearby hotel for a Coke. (All those years, and I don’t remember him drinking anything else.)
Early on for me, Buffett was kind of like a distant workplace uncle.
By the mid-1990s, we had talked a few times briefly, and by late that decade I had interviewed him a little bit. But I’m pretty sure the first time I really sat down with for an extended period was some 17 years ago over a weekend at Pebble Beach on a golf outing with Don Graham, the former CEO of the Washington Post, among others. It was for a cover story on him that I wrote and that was in fact memorable.
Buffett was and is, to use a phrase I heard him employ about others (including George W. Bush), “comfortable in his own skin.” He was relaxed, and in his PJs, and we spoke for hours in his cabana-like room right off the sixth green.
An investor with a high ‘emotional quotient’
What is like to talk to Warren Buffett? I would have to say super enjoyable. You might have expected me to say how smart he is, and of course he is, but the first thing I would say about him is that he has a very high EQ, or emotional quotient. Buffett is warm, very funny and is genuinely interested in finding out about you. He is thoughtful and self-aware. I would say he is as good with people as he is with business. And of course one is connected with the other.
After that cover story, we spoke from time to time. I wrote more stories about him and what he thinks of the markets, and his partner Charlie Munger and smaller pieces for my column, Streetlife/Captain’s Blog. (Nice pic of Warren and Obama in this one.)
When I became editor of the magazine in 2006, I would fly out to Omaha to have lunch with him once a year. And I still sit down with him annually now that I am at Yahoo Finance. It’s been most generous of him to give me all those hours. Time of course is his most precious resource, and let’s just say at 88, his supply isn’t exactly increasing.
I’ve done a number of fun interviews since I’ve been at Yahoo, like this one where he said good habits may be more important than IQ or here where he said that there comes a point where money “has no real utility.” Or this year’s interview where he said that “All you have to do is just buy a cross-section of America and then never listen to people like me or read the papers or do anything subsequently.”
Sometimes what he says is a bit repetitive. So be it. I’ll tell you this, I’ve never come away from talking with him without learning something important.
An imperfect but exceptional American
To be clear, there are many more people much closer to Buffett than I am. I just know him a bit, but you do get a pretty good sense of someone over a couple decades. (The aforementioned Carol Loomis is particularly close. I once walked into her office years ago and asked her something about Buffett. She said, “Hmm, I don’t know. Let’s find out.” She picked up the phone and dialed a number. “Hey,” she said into the phone. And then she asked the question to the man himself.)
There are a few people who don’t like Buffett so much. They harp on his mistakes (like owning IBM stock), or they think he’s a hypocrite or just stupid for owning Wells Fargo (WFC) and Kraft Heinz (KHC) shares. Some don’t like his politics, (pro-business, liberal), or find him sanctimonious when waxing on about taxes or corporate governance. (By the way, these people really don’t bother him.)
Ok so, a) Buffett’s not perfect and b), yes, he’s a businessman. After we have that out of the way, I would submit that Buffett ranks pretty dang high on a list of exceptional Americans, or citizens of the world for that matter. Not only is Buffett the greatest investor of our time, but he sets a standard for business leaders as well. And he gives a huge amount of his time to teaching, explaining and sharing his wisdom, not just to shareholders and executives but to thousands of students.
And then there’s his generosity—and his philanthropic fundraising which is really unparalleled. Buffett along with Bill and Melinda Gates founded The Giving Pledge which is “an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or in their will.”
Buffettt has pledged to give away almost all of his $80 billion fortune. And he and the Gateses have personally rallied some 190 of the richest people on the planet (mostly billionaires) to do so, as well. (Buffett’s philanthropy of choice is the Gates Foundation, because he thinks it can do a better job giving away his money than he can. It’s sort of like “I’m good at making money, my buddy’s foundation is good at figuring out what to do with it.”)
So you can take pot shots at Buffett. You can take pot shots at anybody. But to me it makes a whole lot more sense to listen to what the man has to say.
You never know, you just might learn something. I know I will.
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance.
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