Warren Buffett may have been born with business in his blood. He purchased his first stock when he was 11 years old and worked in his family’s grocery store in Omaha. His father, Howard Buffett, owned a small brokerage, and Warren would spend his days watching what investors were doing and listening to what they said. As a teenager, he took odd jobs, from washing cars to delivering newspapers, using his savings to purchase several pinball machines that he placed in local businesses.

His entrepreneurial successes as a youth did not immediately translate into a desire to attend college. His father pressed him to continue his education, with Buffett reluctantly agreeing to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He then transferred to the University of Nebraska, where he graduated with a degree in business in three years.

After being rejected by the Harvard Business School, he enrolled in graduate studies at Columbia Business School. While there, he studied under Benjamin Graham – who became a lifelong friend – and David Dodd, both well-known securities analysts. It was through Graham's class in securities analysis that Buffett learned the fundamentals of value investing. He once stated in an interview that Graham's book, The Intelligent Investor, had changed his life and set him on the path of professional analysis to the investment markets. Along with Security Analysis, co-written by Graham and Dodd it provided him the proper intellectual framework and a road map for investing.

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Warren Buffet: The Road To Riches

Key Takeaways

  • Warren Buffett, sometimes known as the 'oracle of Omaha', is one of the world's wealthiest men and a renowned investor.
  • Buffett was a disciple of Benjamin Graham's philosophy of intelligent investing.
  • In 1962, Buffett bought out textile company Berkshire Hathaway, which he converted into a holding company within which he built a diversified corporate empire.

Benjamin Graham and The Intelligent Investor

Graham is often called the "Dean of Wall Street" and the father of value investing, as one of the most important early proponents of financial security analysis. He championed the idea that the investor should look at the market as though it were an actual entity and potential business partner – Graham called this entity "Mr. Market" – that sometimes asks for too much or too little money to be bought out.

It would be difficult to summarize all of Graham's theories in full. At its core, value investing is about identifying stocks that have been undervalued by the majority of stock market participants. He believed that stock prices were frequently wrong due to irrational and excessive price fluctuations (both upside and downside). Intelligent investors, said Graham, need to be firm in their principles and not follow the crowd.

Graham wrote The Intelligent Investor in 1949 as a guide for the common investor. The book championed the idea of buying low-risk securities in a highly diversified, mathematical way. Graham favored fundamental analysis, capitalizing on the difference between a stock's purchase price and its intrinsic value.

Entering the Investment Field

Before working for Benjamin Graham, Warren had been an investment salesman – a job that he liked doing, except when the stocks he suggested dropped in value and lost money for his clients. To minimize the potential of having irate clients, Warren started a partnership with his close friends and family. The partnership had unique restrictions attached to it: Warren himself would invest only $100 and, through re-invested management fees, would grow his stake in the partnership. Warren would take half of the partnership’s gains over 4% and would repay the partnership a quarter of any loss incurred. Furthermore, money could only be added or withdrawn from the partnership on December 31st, and partners would have no input about the investments in the partnership.

By 1959, Warren had opened a total of seven partnerships and had a 9.5% stake in more than a million dollars of partnership assets. Three years later by the time he was 30, Warren was a millionaire and merged all of his partnerships into a single entity

It was at this point that Buffett’s sights turned to directly investing in businesses. He made a $1 million investment in a windmill manufacturing company, and the next year in a bottling company. Buffett used the value-investing techniques he learned in school, as well as his knack for understanding the general business environment, to find bargains on the stock market.

Buying Berkshire Hathaway

In 1962, Warren saw an opportunity to invest in a New England textile company called Berkshire Hathaway and bought some of its stock. Warren began to aggressively buy shares after a dispute with its management convinced him that the company needed a change in leadership. Ironically, the purchase of Berkshire Hathaway is one of Warren’s major regrets. (For more, see: Always Bet On Berkshire Hathaway.)

Understanding the beauty of owning insurance companies – clients pay premiums today to possibly receive payments decades later – Warren used Berkshire Hathaway as a holding company to buy National Indemnity Company (the first of many insurance companies he would buy) and used its substantial cash flow to finance further acquisitions.

As a value investor, Warren is a sort of jack-of-all-trades when it comes to industry knowledge. Berkshire Hathaway is a great example. Buffett saw a company that was cheap and bought it, regardless of the fact that he wasn’t an expert in textile manufacturing. Gradually, Buffett shifted Berkshire’s focus away from its traditional endeavors, instead using it as a holding company to invest in other businesses. Over the decades, Warren has bought, held and sold companies in a variety of different industries.

Some of Berkshire Hathaway’s most well-known subsidiaries include, but are not limited to, GEICO (yes, that little Gecko belongs to Warren Buffett), Dairy Queen, NetJets, Benjamin Moore & Co., and Fruit of the Loom. Again, these are only a handful of companies of which Berkshire Hathaway has a majority share.

The company also has interests in many other companies, including American Express Co. (AXP), Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST), DirectTV (DTV), General Electric Co. (GE), General Motors Co. (GM), Coca-Cola Co. (KO), International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), Proctor & Gamble Co. (PG) and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC).

Berkshire Woes and Rewards

Business for Buffett hasn’t always been rosy, though. In 1975, Buffett and his business partner, Charlie Munger, were investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for fraud. The two maintained that they had done nothing wrong and that the purchase of Wesco Financial Corporation only looked suspicious because of their complex system of businesses. 

Further trouble came with a large investment in Salomon Inc. In 1991, news broke of a trader breaking Treasury bidding rules on multiple occasions, and only through intense negotiations with the Treasury did Buffett manage to stave off a ban on buying Treasury notes and subsequent bankruptcy for the firm.

In more recent years, Buffett has acted as a financier and facilitator of major transactions. During the Great Recession, Warren invested and lent money to companies that were facing financial disaster. Roughly 10 years later, the effects of these transactions are surfacing and they’re enormous:

  • A loan to Mars Inc. resulted in a $680 million profit
  • Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), of which Berkshire Hathaway bought almost 120 million shares during the Great Recession, is up more than 7 times from its 2009 low
  • American Express Co. (AXP) is up about five times since Warren’s investment in 2008
  • Bank of America Corp. (BAC) pays $300 million a year and Berkshire Hathaway has the option to buy additional shares at around $7 each – less than half of what it trades at today
  • Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) paid out $500 million in dividends a year and a $500 million redemption bonus when they repurchased the shares.

Most recently, Warren has partnered up with 3G Capital to merge J.H. Heinz Company and Kraft Foods to create the Kraft Heinz Food Company (KHC). The new company is the third largest food and beverage company in North America and fifth largest in the world, and boasts annual revenues of $28 billion. In 2017, he bought up a significant stake in Pilot Travel Centers, the owners of the Pilot Flying J chain of truck stops. He will become a majority owner over a six-year period.

Modesty and quiet living meant that it took Forbes some time to notice Warren and add him to the list of richest Americans, but when they finally did in 1985, he was already a billionaire. Early investors in Berkshire Hathaway could have bought in as low as $275 a share and by 2014 the stock price had reached $200,000, and was trading just under $300,000 earlier this year.

Comparing Buffett to Graham

Buffett has referred to himself as "85% Graham." Like his mentor, he has focused on company fundamentals and a "stay the course" approach – an approach that enabled both men to build huge personal nest eggs. Seeking a seeks a strong return on investment (ROI), Buffett typically looks for stocks that are valued accurately and offer robust returns for investors.

However, Buffett invests using a more qualitative and concentrated approach than Graham did. Graham preferred to find undervalued, average companies and diversify his holdings among them; Buffett favors quality businesses that already have reasonable valuations (though their stock should still be worth something more) and the ability for large growth.

Other differences lie in how to set intrinsic value, when to take a chance and how deeply to dive into a company that has potential. Graham relied on quantitative methods to a far greater extent than Buffett, who spends his time actually visiting companies, talking with management and understanding the corporate's particular business model. As a result, Graham was more able to and more comfortable investing in lots of smaller companies than Buffett. Consider a baseball analogy: Graham was concerned about swinging at good pitches and getting on base; Buffett prefers to wait for pitches that allow him to score a home run. Many have credited Buffett with having a natural gift for timing that cannot be replicated, whereas Graham's method is friendlier to the average investor.

Buffett Fun Facts

Buffett only began making large-scale charitable donations at age 75.

Buffett has made some interesting observations about income taxes. Specifically, he's questioned why his effective capital gains tax rate of around 20% is a lower income tax rate than that of his secretary – or for that matter, than that paid by most middle-class hourly or salaried workers. As one of the two or three richest men in the world, having long ago established a mass of wealth that virtually no amount of future taxation can seriously dent, Mr. Buffett offers his opinion from a state of relative financial security that is pretty much without parallel. Even if, for example, every future dollar Warren Buffett earns is taxed at the rate of 99%, it is doubtful that it would affect his standard of living.

Buffett has described The Intelligent Investor as the best book on investing that he has ever read, with Security Analysis a close second. Other favorite reading matter includes:

  • Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits by Philip A. Fisher, which advises potential investors to not only examine a company's financial statements but to evaluate its management. Fisher focuses on investing in innovative companies, and Buffett has long held him in high regard.
  • The Outsiders by William N. Thorndike profiles eight CEOs and their blueprints for success. Among the profiled is Thomas Murphy, friend to Warren Buffett and director for Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett has praised Murphy, calling him "overall the best business manager I've ever met."
  • Stress Test by former Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy F. Geithner, chronicles the financial crisis of 2008-9 from a gritty, first-person perspective. Buffett has called it a must-read for managers, a textbook for how to stay level under unimaginable pressure.
  • Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street by John Brooks is a collection of articles published in The New Yorker in the 1960s. Each tackles famous failures in the business world, depicting them as cautionary tales. Buffett lent his copy of it to Bill Gates, who reportedly has yet to return it.

The Bottom Line

Warren Buffett’s investments haven't always been successful, but they were well-thought-out and followed value principles. By keeping an eye out for new opportunities and sticking to a consistent strategy, Buffett and the textile company he acquired long ago are considered by many to be one of the most successful investing stories of all time. But you don't have to be a genius "to invest successfully over a lifetime," the man himself claims. "What's needed is a sound intellectual framework for making decisions and the ability to keep emotions from corroding that framework."