After you watch "Becoming Warren Buffett," the new HBO documentary on the world's most successful investor (premieres on HBO on Jan. 30 at 10 p.m. ET), you will want to elect him president, nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize and knit him a cardigan. Can it be that the secret to his success is just that he's a really nice guy who has earned people's trust from a lifetime of honest dealing and treating people respectfully? Where is the fun in that?
If you watch this show expecting that the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A) chairman and CEO will finally admit he has magic algorithms or that he gets hot investing tips at some secret billionaire's golf tournament and hunting party in St. Tropez, you will be disappointed. The man has taken a Dale Carnegie course, for crying out loud. (Related: What is Warren Buffett's annual salary at Berkshire Hathaway?)
Winning "The Ovarian Lottery":
Buffett claims that his success was sown from the seeds of a few historical accidents, beginning with his conception:
"I'm in my position as a matter of luck. When I was born in 1930, odds were 40 to 1 against me being born in the U.S.; I won the ovarian lottery on that day. On top of that I was male; that put the odds at 80 to 1 against being born a male in the U.S., and it was enormously important my whole life. To think that makes me superior as a human being, I can't follow that line of reasoning."
In addition, Buffett says, "The best gift I was ever given was having the father that I had." Howard Buffett was a sock salesman who went on to become a four-term Republican Congressman. Warren glowingly describes him as even-tempered and ethical: "He didn't care about money at all. He believed very much in having an inner scorecard." Buffett's boyhood sounds like the child-prodigy version of a Norman Rockwell painting: He filed his first tax return at age 13, for the $70 he earned from selling soda and gum door-to-door.
Perhaps the event that most profoundly impacted his future as an investor was that, in graduate school at Columbia, one of his professors was none other than Benjamin Graham, the founder of value investing. From Graham, Buffett learned his two rules of investing. Rule Number One: Don't lose money. Rule Number Two: Never Forget Rule Number One. (Related: 3 Differences Between Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffett)
Warren Buffett: InvestoTrivia Part 1
One Smoke Left
A colleague of Warren's interviewed for the documentary describes how the Berkshire Hathaway empire was built: Buffett's strategy is to "buy a company that was a discarded cigar, but had one smoke left in it. He wanted to buy in time to benefit from the one smoke." This certainly explains the early days of Berkshire Hathaway, which was an ailing textile company that Buffett purchased in 1962. But if it were that easy, everyone would have done it. There's clearly more to his investment strategy than that, but perhaps they're not as imagistic as a cigar butt.
What Warren Learned from Ted Williams
Baseball metaphors are an oft-used trope in investing stories and success stories in general, but no one means them more literally than Warren Buffett. He shows the camera a poster in his office of legendary Red Sox baseball player Ted Williams, along with a detailed diagram of strike zones. "The trick in investing," says Buffett in this documentary, "is to watch pitch after pitch go by until you have one that hits your sweet spot. And if someone says, "Swing, you bum!" you ignore 'em."
The Women and Children
The only parts of the documentary that are less than hagiographic are those that describe his relationships with the major women in his life. Apparently, his mother, Leila, was very capable. According to Warren's sister Bertie, who was interviewed for the documentary, their mother was "brilliant at math" and could do sums in her head faster than an adding machine. But her children describe her as quick to anger and not very warm. Says Warren Buffett: "She was very dutiful about taking care of the kids, but you didn't get the same feeling of love. It was there, but it didn't come out the same way as my dad."
Then there is the matter of Buffett's unconventional marriage. The documentary addresses this head-on, but without quite explaining why the arrangement was okay for all parties concerned. Buffett's face lights up every time he mentions his late first wife, Susan, to whom he was married from 1952 until her death in 2004. But clearly there was something wrong there, because she left the family in 1977 to live on her own in San Francisco. Several parties interviewed for the documentary hint that Susan felt neglected. The document includes old interview footage of her saying of her husband, "Physical proximity to Warren doesn't always mean he's with you." All the while, though, she remained Buffett's wife, talked to him incessantly and apparently encouraged a family friend, Astrid Menks, to "look in on" Buffett. For a quarter-century, Buffett basically had two wives: the legal wife, Susan, and his live-in companion, Astrid. And the three of them got along swimmingly, or so it is claimed. In 2006, two years after Susan's death, Buffett and Mencks were married. Conspicuously, Astrid was not interviewed for the documentary.
His three children, however, do appear: Susan, Howard and Peter. All of them seem well-adjusted and genuinely committed to their various charities. The most pressing unanswered question in the documentary, though – the great unsolved mystery – is how they feel about their father's decision to give all his money away to charity and leave almost nothing to them.
To give you a sense of the relaxed, down-home tone and ambience of the documentary, a good chunk of it is set in a high school classroom where the billionaire is giving life lessons to rapt teenagers. He makes it all sound so easy – good parents, good luck, and knowing when to take a swing. It's the sort of explanation that, despite being simple, is impossible to replicate in one's own life.