The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

A detailed, candid exploration of "the oracle of Omaha."

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At the age of 78, Warren Buffett is one of the wealthiest self-made tycoons in the history of the world. For a long time, a lot of people have found him fascinating, usually focusing not only on his accumulation of money through an astonishing array of businesses, but also on his home base of Omaha, Neb., and his apparently folksy lifestyle.

Now, in The Snowball, novice biographer Alice Schroeder gives us one of the most detailed, candid life stories ever published. Schroeder shifts from her career as Wall Street analyst and certified public accountant to alternately puff up and tear down Buffett – with his exuberant cooperation.

In chronicling Buffett’s business deals, family ties, and extramarital relationships, Schroeder has probably done a complete job of recounting Buffet’s successes. It is more difficult to imagine that she has been as thorough with Buffett’s dark side.

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At times, it seems Buffett uses a cult of personality to disguise what he is really doing to increase his bank accounts and feed his vanity. (The vanity is obvious, despite the folksiness.)

Still, it is equally difficult to imagine that a future biographer of Buffett will achieve a higher ranking on the candor scale. Much of what Schroeder writes she never would have learned without Buffett’s cooperation. Buffett told her that when she heard conflicting accounts, to publish the least flattering. Schroeder follows his advice at least occasionally.

Throughout this book, Schroeder alternates between hero worship and critical judgment – often on the same page. Overall, however, her book must be judged a success because the stories are so rich. Despite its shortcomings, it is almost impossible to stop reading.

Schroeder devotes much of her massive book to explaining Buffet’s family, including a shrill, crabby mother and a father who seemed to hate everybody unlike himself (parlaying that into a US congressional seat from Omaha as what can only be termed a Neanderthal Republican).

Hundreds of extended anecdotes follow. Among the highlights:

•The origin of the book’s seemingly cryptic title. At age 9, already obsessed with earning money, Warren Buffett is playing in the yard with his younger sister, catching snowflakes.

“He starts to pack them into a ball,” Schroeder writes. “As the snowball grows bigger, he places it on the ground. Slowly it begins to roll. He gives it a push, and it picks up more snow. He pushes the snowball across the lawn, piling snow on snow. Soon he reaches the edge of the yard. After a moment of hesitation, he heads off, rolling the snowball through the neighborhood. And from there, Warren continues onward, casting his eye on a whole world full of snow.”

•The extremely detailed account of Buffett’s childhood and adolescence shows a geeky kid who fitted in better with brainy adults than with those his own age.

He wanted to fit in, though, and while a college student finally screwed up the nerve to court his sister’s friend Susie Thompson. When Susie seemed indifferent to Warren as a paramour, he devised a strategy to win over her father instead. It worked.

They married and had three children. Until Susie’s death in 2004, Warren remained so dependent on her that Schroeder gives her nearly equal billing.

•As the Buffett children matured, Susie never lost her affection for Warren. She did, however, lose her patience with his needy and distracted ways. Finally, she moved to San Francisco.

Before she left, Susie asked Astrid Menks, a young Omaha chef, to oversee his diet. Warren was a notoriously picky eater who refused to try new sorts of cuisine, often preferring hamburgers and fries. Eventually, Astrid became Warren’s other “wife.” They became legally married after Susie’s death.

According to Schroeder’s research, Susie and Astrid got along well, accepting their distinct roles.

•Buffett forged intense semipublic relationships with numerous other accomplished women, most famously Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. As a result, Graham provided entrée for Buffett into the previously foreign worlds of media management and high society.

•Buffett’s business relationships with men could be equally intense. Schroeder, mentions hundreds, but two stand out. One is Charles Munger, an Omaha native who became a Los Angeles lawyer. The two met while Buffett was still in his 20s; they became lifelong confidants and business partners.

The other arrived much later: Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire nearly three decades Buffett’s junior. The men became business and philanthropic soul mates almost immediately.

Trying to summarize Buffett is ultimately hopeless.

Schroeder makes the attempt, however, and I will give her the final words: “His life was fascinating, his business accomplishments important, the principles through which he had succeeded worthy of study. So far as could be determined, everyone who knew him personally liked the man. His kaleidoscope personality perpetually revealed new facets, yet remained faithful at its core to his Inner Scorecard. The one thing he would always be the best at was being himself.”

Steve Weinberg is author of “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.”

Warren Buffett’s three main principles (as learned from Columbia University professor Ben Graham):

•A stock is the right to own a little piece of a business. A stock is worth a certain fraction of what you would pay for the whole business.
•Use a margin of safety.  Investing is built on estimates and uncertainty.  A wide margin of safety ensures that the effects of good decisions are not wiped out by errors.  The way to advance, above all, is by not retreating.
•Mr. Market is your servant, not your master.... Mr. Market ... offers to buy and sell stocks every day, often at prices that don’t make sense. Mr. Market’s moods should not influence your view of price. However, from time to time, he does offer the chance to buy low and sell high.

– From ‘The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life’ by Alice Schroeder

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