Warren Buffett – Part I

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Nov 01 2006
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Donald and Mildred Othmer were hardly a remarkable couple. He was a professor of chemical engineering at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, with a small consulting business on the side. She was a former teacher who spent most of her time volunteering for New York civic and arts organizations. They had no children.

But when Donald and Mildred Othmer died — he in 1995, she in 1998 — it turned out they were quite remarkable indeed. Polytechnic University, which once faced bankruptcy, unexpectedly found itself heir to $175 million. Planned Parenthood received $65 million. All told, the couple bequeathed $340 million to several perennially cash-strapped Brooklyn institutions.

Few who knew the Othmers had any idea of their enormous wealth, which totaled some $750 million. But the couple’s hometown — Omaha, Neb. — offered a clue. Omaha, as any investor knows, is the headquarters of Warren Buffett, the greatest stock market investor of modern times. He also happened to have been an old friend of the Othmers. After investing $25,000 each in a Buffett-led investment partnership in the early 1960s, in 1970 the couple received thousands of shares of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Buffett’s insurance and investment holding company, at $42 a share. By the time Donald Othmer died in 1995, the stock had soared to $30,000 a share. Too bad for Brooklyn he didn’t live a few years longer — Berkshire Hathaway currently trades at an astonishing $105,475.00 a share (price as of closing 31-Oct-2006).

The Othmers were proof of one of the investment world’s oft-repeated legends: Had you put $10,000 into Berkshire Hathaway when Buffett bought control of it in 1965, you’d have more than $50 million today, compared to the just under $500,000 you’d have if you’d invested in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.

I used to love comics alot when I was young (not that I’m terribly old now), maybe because a picture indeed tells a thousand words. Somehow I noticed those school-mates who didn’t do well in their studies (please don’t ask them to memorize history facts or perform arithmetics) have excellent memory when you asked them the story-lines of a particular comic book. It proofs picture in forms of comic books serve to plant into our memory-cells very well.

I’ve read (or rather look through) this latest book of Oracle of Omaha – the only cartoon-strip biography of Warren Buffett which provides an excellent introduction to the man and his momentous achievements. I enjoyed this book so much that I’ve read it twice on the same day I bought it. People who get sleepy after a couple of pages reading should try this comic-book.

Who is Warren Buffett ?
Warren Edward Buffett was born on August 30, 1930 to his father Howard, a stockbroker-turned-Congressman. The only boy, he was the second of three children, and displayed an amazing aptitude for both money and business at a very early age. Acquaintances recount his uncanny ability to calculate columns of numbers off the top of his head – a feat Warren still amazes business colleagues with today.

At only six years old, Buffett purchased 6-packs of Coca Cola from his grandfather’s grocery store for twenty five cents and resold each of the bottles for a nickel, pocketing a five cent profit. While other children his age were playing hopscotch and jacks, Warren was making money. Five years later, Buffett took his step into the world of high finance. At eleven years old, he purchased three shares of Cities Service Preferred at $38 per share for both himself and his older sister, Doris. Shortly after buying the stock, it fell to just over $27 per share. A frightened but resilient Warren held his shares until they rebounded to $40. He promptly sold them – a mistake he would soon come to regret. Cities Service shot up to $200. The experience taught him one of the basic lessons of investing : patience is a virtue.

Warren Buffett’s Education
In 1947, a seventeen year old Warren Buffett graduated from High School. It was never his intention to go to college; he had already made $5,000 delivering newspapers (this is equal to $42,610.81 in 2000). His father had other plans, and urged his son to attend the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. Buffett stayed two years, complaining that he knew more than his professors. When Howard was defeated in the 1948 Congressional race, Warren returned home to Omaha and transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Working full-time, he managed to graduate in only three years.

Warren Buffett approached graduate studies with the same resistance he displayed a few years earlier. He was finally persuaded to apply to Harvard Business School, which, in the worst admission decision in history, rejected him as “too young”. Slighted, Warren applied to Columbia where famed investors Ben Graham and David Dodd taught – an experience that would forever change his life

Ben Graham – Buffett’s Mentor
Ben Graham had become well known during the 1920’s. At a time when the rest of the world was approaching the investment arena as a giant game of roulette, he searched for stocks that were so inexpensive they were almost completely devoid of risk. One of his best known calls was the Northern Pipe Line, an oil transportation company managed by the Rockefellers. The stock was trading at $65 a share, but after studying the balance sheet, Graham realized that the company had bond holdings worth $95 for every share. The value investor tried to convince management to sell the portfolio, but they refused. Shortly thereafter, he waged a proxy war and secured a spot on the Board of Directors. The company sold its bonds and paid a dividend in the amount of $70 per share.

When he was 40 years old, Ben Graham published Security Analysis, one of the greatest works ever penned on the stock market. At the
time, it was risky; investing in equities had become a joke (the Dow Jones had fallen from 381.17 to 41.22 over the course of three to four short years following the crash of 1929). It was around this time that Graham came up with the principle of “intrinsic” business value – a measure of a business’s true worth that was completely and totally independent of the stock price. Using intrinsic value, investors could decide what a company was worth and make investment decisions accordingly. His subsequent book,
The Intelligent Investor, which Warren celebrates as “the greatest book on investing ever written”, introduced the world to Mr. Market – the best investment analogy in history.

Through his simple yet profound investment principles, Ben Graham became an idyllic figure to the twenty-one year old Warren Buffett. Reading an old edition of Who’s Who, Warren discovered his mentor was the Chairman of a small, unknown insurance company named GEICO. He hopped a train to Washington D.C. one Saturday morning to find the headquarters. When he got there, the doors were locked. Not to be stopped, Buffett relentlessly pounded on the door until a janitor came to open it for him. He asked if there was anyone in the building. As luck (or fate) would have it, there was. It turns out that there was a man still working on the sixth floor. Warren was escorted up to meet him and immediately began asking him questions about the company and its business practices; a conversation that stretched on for four hours. The man was none other than Lorimer Davidson, the Financial Vice President. The experience would be something that stayed with Buffett for the rest of his life. He eventually acquired the entire GEICO company through his corporation, Berkshire Hathaway.

Related Resources : Warren Buffett Part 2

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