I recently re-read Roger Lowenstein's biography, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist (first published in 1995 and now re-issued with a new Afterword), and then read this more recent one by Alice Schroeder. Both are first-rate. Which to select if reading only one? That depends on how much you wish to know about Buffett's personal life, including his relations with various family members, and how curious you are about his personal hang-ups, peculiarities, eccentricities, fetishes, etc. If you can do without any of that, Roger Lowenstein's biography is the one to read. I also highly recommend the recently published Second Edition of The Essays of Warren Buffet: Lessons for Corporate America, with content selected, arranged, and introduced by Lawrence Cunningham.
The heft of Schroeder's biography may discourage some people from obtaining a copy. To them I presume to suggest that they not be deterred by that factor. Schroeder has a lively, often entertaining writing style that drives the narrative through just about every period and (yes) interlude of Warren Buffett's life and career thus far. There is much more information provided than most readers either need or desire. However, she had unprecedented access not only to Buffett but to just about everyone else with whom he is (or once was) associated as well as to previously inaccessible research resources. It is possible but highly unlikely that anyone else will write a more comprehensive biography than Schroeder has, at least for the next several years, if not decades. Also, her opinion of Buffett seems to me to be balanced and circumspect. No doubt he wishes that certain details about his life and career were not included. However, there has been no indication from him or those authorized to represent him that any of the material in this biography (however unflattering) is either inaccurate or unfair. Both halos and warts are included.
Others have shared their reasons for holding this book in high regard. Here are two of mine. First, although I had already read various Buffett's chairman's letters that first appeared in a series of Berkshire Hathaway's annual reports, I did not understand (nor could I have understood) the context for observations he shared, especially his comments about especially important 12-month periods throughout BRK's history. Schroeder provides the context or frame-of-reference I needed but previously lacked. For example, whereas in previous letters, Buffett merely offered brief updates on how each BRK company was doing, in 1978 he began to share his thoughts about major business topics such as performance measurement for management and why short-term earnings were a poor criterion for investment decisions. With the help of Carol Loomis, especially since 1977, his chairman's letters "had grown more personal and entertaining by the year; they amounted to crash courses in business, written in clear language that ranged from biblical quotations to references to Alice in Wonderland, and princesses kissing toads." As Schroeder explains, these gradual but significant changes of subject and tone reflect changes in Buffett's personal life as he became more reflective about business principles and more appreciative of personal relationships. His children were growing up and departing the "nest" in Omaha. His wife Susie decided to relocate to San Francisco. Meanwhile, his personal net worth continued to increase substantially. His national and then international recognition also increased. The "Oracle of Omaha" had finally become sufficiently confident of himself to reveal to others "a sense of him as a man."
I also appreciate how carefully Schroeder develops several separate but related themes that help her reader to manage the wealth of information she provides. The biography's title suggests one of these themes: the "snowball" effect that compounded interest can have. From childhood when he began to sell packs of gum (but not single sticks) and bottles of soda, and a money changer was his favorite toy, Buffett was fascinated by the way that numbers "exploded as they grew at a constant rate over time was how a small sum could be turned into a fortune. He could picture the numbers compounding as vividly as the way a snowball grew when he rolled it across the lawn. Warren began to think about it a different way. Compounding married the present to the future. If a dollar today was going to be worth ten some years from now, then in his mind the two were the same." Early in life, Buffett avoided making any purchases unless they were almost certain to generate compound interest. This theme is central to understanding Buffett's investment principles and to his own leadership of BRK. It also helps to explain why he could become physically ill when an investment cost others the funds they had entrusted to his care. Other themes include his determination to simplify his life to the extent he could (e.g. eating hamburgers and wearing threadbare sweaters, minimizing participation in family activities) so that he could concentrate almost entirely on business matters; his dependence on a series of women, beginning with his mother and two sisters (especially Doris) that continued with his first wife Susie (and their daughter "Susie Jr.") and then companion Astrid Menks whom he married in 2006; and his passion for helping others to understand the business principles to which he has been committed since childhood.
There is one other theme of special interest and importance to me: over the years, how Buffett has interacted with various associates, notably with Jerome Newman and Benjamin Graham, Sandy Gottesman, Charlie Munger, Bill Ruane, Katherine Graham, and Bill Gates. By all accounts, Buffett is a superb business associate once he agrees to become involved. He cares deeply about each relationship, does whatever may be necessary to protect and defend the best interests of his associates, and is extraordinarily generous with material rewards as well as recognition. Here is an especially revealing excerpt from Cunningham's Introduction to The Essays of Warren Buffett: "The CEOs at Berkshire's operating companies enjoy a unique position in corporate America. They are given a simple set of commands: to run the business as if (1) they are its sole owner, (2) it is the only asset they hold, and (3) they can never sell or merge it for one hundred years." These three "commands" are wholly consistent with what Lawrence explains earlier in the same Introduction: "The central theme uniting Buffett's lucid essays is that the principles of fundamental business analysis, first formulated by his teachers Ben Graham and David Dodd, should guide investment practice. Linked to that theme are management principles that define the proper role of corporate managers as the stewards of investment capital and the proper role of shareholders as the suppliers and owners of capital. Radiating from these main themes are practical and sensible lessons on the entire range of important business issues, from accounting to mergers to valuation." Those who shared Buffett's same core values of honesty and integrity, and who are also committed to the same basic principles, cherish their relationship with him.
To me, Alice Schroeder's rigorous and eloquent analysis of this theme of mutually productive and beneficial collaboration is her single greatest achievement among many in this definitive biography of one of the most important and yet least understood business leaders in recent years. Bravo!
on January 29, 2015
If you want some technical tips on how to be the next Warren Buffet, go grab a copy of Ben Graham's Security Analysis from 1934. But if you want a look at the man Warren Buffett, you have come to the right place. Want to know what kind of family man Buffet is? Want to know how a billionaire treats his children? Or how a young millionaire budgets money to his homemaker wife? Fascinating stuff.
You can also learn about his early career and how he got started, as well as his father the politician and the impact that had.
To many of us Warren Buffet is a billionaire investor who knows the ins and outs of Wall Street way better than most of us. Being a financial celebrity, you would expect to find his whole life online. That though isn’t the case with Warren. Little was known about his personal life until Alice Schroeder wrote this book- The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life. Reading through the book you will realize that you don’t have to be successful after everyone else has failed. Warren, commonly known as the “Oracle of Omaha” is a financial investor who also doubles up as a mentor. For only $13.84, you will get to meet Warren in this 832 pages book. He will endow you with timeless financial wisdom and proper business ethics that aren’t taught in school.
His practical approach to life will motivate you to kick start your own. The pity party story that one may tend to propagate as reason as to why they aren’t succeeding will diffuse after reading this book. Warren worked to be where he is currently and was never born with a silver spoon. He is a practical inspiration. As you read along, you will learn that no man is an island and that having a strong support system will go a long way in ensuring you succeed. For example, his associate Charles Munger has been his associate since 1959. It doesn’t have to be the perfect system but rather a unit you can count on.
The book is full of insights and it is by reading it that one will be able to grasp and even apply some of the insights in his/her life. Unlike some autobiographies that are boring to tears, this one is different. There are hilarious snippets after every other chapter and with no time you will complete reading the autobiography and even probably re-read it. It will feel just like the first time you opened the book to read. Alice has also included notes to help you understand the book better.
The title of the book is a metaphor that depicts the ever growing wealth of Warren. The book is lengthy and has a lot of details some of which one may not find necessary but the conversational writing that Alice has employed in penning this book will keep you glued to the book. This is a must read book that walks you through the life of a legend.
The title of this book refers to Buffett's likening life to a snowball - "the important thing is to find wet snow and a really long hill." Buffett certainly has had that effect with money.
"The Snowball" begins with a Buffett presentation to an elite 1999 group at Sun Valley, suggesting in a humorous manner that the ".com" frenzy was no more than a bubble. Then, its on to learning why his associate Charles Munger (an inseparable partner since 1959) is both the opposite and highly similar to Buffett.
Warren Buffett, we learn comes from a heritage of very thrifty small business owners. His parents initially struggled through the Great Depression, carried initially by grandfather's letting the food bill run at his grocery store, then by the success of his newly opened stock brokerage that focused on conservative investments. Unfortunately, his mother was somewhat unbalanced, directing frequent tirades at Warren and his sister, creating a lifelong need for the approval of women. Calculating the comparative life spans of religious song writers while in church led Warren towards religious skepticism at an early age.
Armed with his father's nostrums and examples, his early business experiences (selling gum, pop, magazines, refurbished golf balls, delivering papers) and stock investment (sold too early, losing most of his potential profit), learning that he didn't like physical work (helping his father and grandfather), an early meeting with the head of Goldman Sachs (Buffett just pumped $5 billion into the firm), and knowledge from Benjamin Graham at Columbia Business School (Harvard turned him down), he went on to become the richest man in the world (had $5,000 by the time he finished high school - equivalent to $53,000 today) in a series of interesting stories within "The Snowball."
Buffett learned a number of important lessons en route to becoming the richest man in the world. 1)Commitments are so sacred that they should be rare; allies are important; grandstanding rarely gets anything done. 2)Customer loyalty is valuable (bought a gas station across from one with established clientele - never did well). 3)GEICO had a sustainable competitive model - lowest costs, protected by limiting clientele to government workers (more likely to be responsible), ability to invest funds prior to use. 4)Looking at management, ability to maintain sales growth (Charlie Munger) are important in addition to financial data emphasis (Benjamin Graham). (This was an important change because the number of statistical bargains had shrunk to virtually nil and tended to be small companies which did not work when large sums of money were involved.) 5)Public often overreacted - eg. American Express hit by Kennedy Assassination + DeAngelis soybean scandal at same time = good opportunity. 6)Diversification was not a good thing, as long as investment analysis had a high probability of correctness and low probability of drastic change. 7)Corollary of #6 was ruling out investing in complex technology or human problems (eg. strike, layoffs, plant closings).
on October 24, 2008
This review is to balance off the many positive reviews in Amazon:
(and to apply an expression from Berkshire Hathaway's brilliant Vice Chairman, Charlie Munger:
"Invert, always invert".)
point #1 on Alice Schroeder's Buffett biography:
When someone asked "what factor did people feel was the most important in getting to where they`d gotten in life" (sic), both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates answered: "focus" (p. 623)
Unfortunately, focus is missing in Schroeder's wordy, rambling 960 page biography. A quarter to a third of the content could have been pruned. This book could have used a few more months of rewriting, with more disciplined editing. Schroeder's book was at least five years in the making, yet With the world financial maelstrom upon us now, one wonders its September 2008 release is merely opportunistic publishing.
point #2: To use a Buffett expression: Schroeder is beyond her "circle of competence" . Schroeder has a finance background. When reading this book, We see can tell she does not have any past experience on writing an extensive in-depth personal biography.
In contrast, I would recommend you also read the Buffett biography written by Roger Lowenstein. Although published in 1995, it has a professional writer`s mark of clarity. Regrettably, Buffett gave Lowenstein a chilly reception after its publication. Lowenstein may have unfortunately become shut out from accessing Buffett for a subsequent revision.
In summary, Schroeder`s biography is worth reading, but you should expect to exert much patience and persistence when plowing through it. You will find nuggets in there, if you mentally block out certain sections and read between the lines.
on December 20, 2009
Alice Schroeder, Buffett's authorized biographer, does a stellar job of revealing the man without exposing him. She covers him in detail, faults and all, without sacrificing her deep respect for him. She captures the tycoon's life from before he was born up to mid-2008, when he found himself shuffling, much to his own surprise, through stacks of undervalued bonds. Things change around Buffett, but his themes--picking extraordinary values, teaching, utter absorption in his work, and paradoxical variety of character traits--remain the same.
Like Buffett himself, the book doesn't entertain slouches. Schroeder does a fine job of idiot-proofing some of the more elaborate concepts in the book, such as derivatives, but the 800-odd page tome is rather large to swallow in a byte-sized world.
The author's style is graceful and respectful. It is alternately informative and intimate. At times, it appears as though Buffett himself wrote parts; during other chapters, Schroeder the journalist comes out, favoring facts over poetry. The stylistic fluctuations are minor, however, and they work well.
If there are flaws in the book, they have to do more with the details than the overall story. For example, the author mentions Carnegizing quite a few times before finally explaining it to the reader on page 500. It would have helped to clarify that earlier. Also, Schroeder's fine attention to detail sometimes borders on irrelevant, until you progress and realize that even the more obscure tidbits--Buffett's first wife Susie's childhood illnesses come to mind--do either provide depth to characters or bear on their future development. That's a sign of good editing, something that endures throughout the book.
The book hooks readers with an intimate portrait of Buffett in his office, then a description of Herbert Allen's exclusive high-roller event in Sun Valley, Idaho, which introduces readers not only to the caliber of Buffett's peers, but gives a glimpse into a world rarely uncovered by outsiders. After that, the book flows more or less in chronological order, from a biography of Warren's parents all the way through to mid-2008.
Schroeder doesn't teach you how to invest, but she does give readers a sweeping tour of American financial history through Mr. Buffett's life, facilitating a sharper understanding of the US investing landscape before this past year's dramatic fallout.
Warren Buffet was something of a child investing prodigy who has spent his lifetime building on his substantial natural skills. At the age of 10, he knew more about investing than the average American. He was a seasoned businessman and property owner by the age of 15. He can do his income taxes in his head.
Buffett's childhood ventures into finance, which included forays to the racetrack and his father's brokerage firm, offer an opportunity to see finance from a bright child's eyes, then from a brilliant young man's--Buffett's time at Columbia with Benjamin Graham, his forays into Wall Street, and his eventual migration away from that "abhorrent culture"--then from an ever-maturing tycoon's perspective. The aggregate result is a pleasing and insightful storyline of the discipline (finance) through the man (Buffett).
Snowball's glimpses into the world of financial moving and shaking offer pleasing insights for anyone interested in finance in general. Schroeder weaves in an array of classic quotes, including:
Debt is no good
Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful
Uncertainty is a friend of the buyer of long-term values
You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus
In addition, Schroeder's coverage of certain significant events in American financial history offer pleasing insights to students of the overall discipline. Her play-by-play of the 1991-92 Solomon Brothers Crisis especially stands out.
Warren Buffett is brilliant, passionate, hardworking, persistent, and notoriously absorbed in his craft. Was he always like that? Snowball, in a word, says yes. But Buffett wasn't only born, he was also made, shaped by a dysfunctional mother and regimented, idealistic father, a childhood exposed to politics, markets, and voluntary parsimony, and a natural shyness that drew him not towards people, but numbers, order, and control.
Schroeder explores Buffett's key character traits while respectfully highlighting his paradoxes as well. Buffett's investment style is coldly rational, but Buffett the teacher is folksy and accessible. He won't eat anything "a three-year-old doesn't eat," but doesn't hesitate to feast at elite socialite dinners. The man's complexity ensures that readers can recognize, but not pigeonhole him. The truth is that all of his characteristics, no matter how much at odds they are with one another, are the real Warren Buffett.
Insight into America
Another facet adding value to the book is its coverage of modern American financial history. From the Depression to World War II to Vietnam to the shaky post-9/11 decade, Snowball touches upon eras in intermediate but informative depth. This makes it accessible to readers of all generations.
The book offers pleasing insights related to America's business elite. Warren Buffett, over the course of his life, was either intimately or remotely connected to a number of business tycoons, including the Annenberg family, furniture
dynamo Rose Blumkin, Washington Post chief Kay Graham, and Bill Gates and his family. Snowball maintains focus on its subject while looping in fascinating details about family members, friends, and peripheral characters.
Even if you're not a Buffett connoisseur or even fan, Snowball is the tome to pick up for 2008. No business book has been more far-reaching, revealing, and comprehensive. This thick, entertaining masterpiece will doubtless add value to your memory banks.
(Review by Drea Knufken)
on January 20, 2009
Very in depth material about Warren Buffett. Since we may very well be coming to an end of an era in the stock market, both the Greenspan book and this book are giving us a history lesson of the market and business world we have experienced. Since times have been very good in the market since 1982, and some would argue even before; there is a huge audience for this book at this time. Those who don't read it and are interested in investments will miss a great history lesson on what they have been investing in. Not to mention what could be in our future.
Much written here about Buffett is definitely true, eventhough very little is known about him, simply because the amount of detail could not be gotten without the cooperation of the whole Buffett family. You could say this book is like living the life of Warren and his family, because every detail is so laid out, you feel like you are there. In fact I found myself developing opinions, and wanted to tell this one or that one to act differently or compliment them on their life choices depending on their story, especially Warren and his wife Susie. But the most important story of the book is the story of Berkshire Hathaway, GEICO, Salomon Brothers, Long Term Capital Management, and labor strikes at the Buffalo and Washington Post papers, the annual meeting at Coca Cola. These stories show that what happened in the past is not all that different from what is happening today. I don't think I could do the book justice to try and bottom line it. All I can say is you just have to read the book and then you can decide for yourself. I thought I knew a lot, but soon found that even in this day and age, that the J.P. Morgan's and Warren Buffett are essential to the functioning of our economy. This is far from the idea I matured on, of a computer on every desktop, with the self reliance for everyone that would bring to us all. I came of age with that dream and am only a few years younger than Bill Gates. This book may well be best read by someone who is in their 20s and 30s, and hoping and dreaming of hitting it big in the business world and through their investments.
A real history lesson, don't miss it.
on October 20, 2008
Gandhi stated," My life is my message." Warren Buffet's life is his message.
This book is a combination of Business 101 and an biography of Buffet. At over 900 pages in length with copious footnotes and endnotes, references and cross references, this book is a page turner, but not an easy read. Like Buffet's life itself I would admonish the reader to not give up, it is worth finishing.
The book opens with a meeting of America's business elite in Sun Valley where Buffet warns in his indirect professorial fashion that the dot.com balloon is about to burst. No one listens, he is criticized. He does not care and he is right.$$$$ in his cash register.
The author Alice Schroeder a business major herself understands the intricacies of things like derivatives,selling short and credit defaults swaps and takes us through events in Buffet's life explaining these things along the way.
While Buffet is among the richest of the rich,he does not live the life of the superrich with mansions and yachts. Schroeder reveals him to us warts and all.The glory of Buffet is not his superhero status but his humanity which grows over his lifetime.
We learn of the deep scars etched into his psyche by his unbalanced vindictive mother and how his wife's unconditional love, helps him develop beyond briliance, "nerd"ness, and obscessive collector into full flower philanthropist and advisor to the political giants.
More than anything else it demonstrates that through trial and tribulations Buffet never relinquished his ethics, honor, honesty and integrity.The good guy can win.
Yet Buffet is far from perfect, ignoring his family to pursue his obscessions, often deeply selfabsorbed and wanting. This makes Buffet more intriguing not less. This book is an essential read for our times. Both to help us understand the world of finance more clearly and so we understand big winners win due to high standards and ethics.
The reason I gave it 4 stars instead of five is that in the rush to press there are obvious editing errors...not consequential but distracting and at times we are left awash in a sea of names and facts that are hard to connect. I also would have liked a few more "drama in real life moments" Buffet's exact words to his children or their exact words, etc.
This book should appeal to business people and nonbusiness people alike. There is much to learn from the professor about business and life.
I strongly recommend the CD version over the book version for 2 reasons: (1) The book version is 976 pages - packed with a lot of miscellaneous detail. (2) The CD version is abridged and the reader, Richard McGonagle, simply carries it. McGonagle does Buffett's voice just as well as the Oracle himself and is an all-around professional reader.
This CD set will hold your attention because the reader is so good, Buffett's life story is remarkable and there are possibly 100 or so discrete lessons about life, business, the markets and professional responsibility.
However instructional and entertaining, I did not find this book inspirational. The writing itself was mediocre. Yet the CD earns 4 stars because of the high quality of the reader and the amazing and instructive life of Buffett.
What is probably hidden by the weight of the 976 page tome but evident in the abridged CD version is how this book project was organized.
This authorized biography was meant to integrate and respond to all the public information about Warren Buffett. All the famous witticisms, the well-known deals and details about the man are presented in chronological order and without further revealing Buffett's thoughts on important matters.
Over and over we are told that reputation matters more to the man than money. Many stories demonstrate the profit potential of Buffett's name, or what some might call "brand." A headline associating Buffett with a company, for example, might cause that company's stock to instantly shoot up 24%. Berkshire Hathaway (where Buffett has been chairman and CEO for decades) has often traded at a premium to book value - called the "Buffett Premium" despite never having paid a dividend.
A central lesson is that a good reputation, requiring discipline and commitment, is tremendously valuable. Buffett was always cognizant of the effects his actions could have on his reputation. He would never sacrifice reputation for expediency or short-term gains.
The more I got to know about Buffett from this biography, the more convinced I felt that he authorized this project in order to protect and control his reputation. As I got to the last CD, I felt fairly certain that this work was meant to set the record straight on certain matters that were covered. But I also felt that he did not open up much to the author.
Buffett may have spent a lot of time providing miscellaneous details to the author, but I don't think she had access to his mind. For that, I believe the author relied on the same quotes, speeches and annual report letters as has every other author on the man. You just don't know how he feels about anything other than from a witty quote that was already published in other sources.
One thing remains a mystery to me. I could not figure out if Buffett's public figure is deliberately and carefully constructed. We know him as having simple tastes and being homespun. He kept his home in Omaha. But starting at a fairly early stage in his long career, all his friends and associates apparently are wealthy, famous or powerful.
Descriptions of Buffett's leisure time portray exclusive venues, transport by personal jet, and playing golf or bridge with the rich and powerful. He controls many seats on the Boards of major corporations and is a consummate insider.
Finally, while there were many excellent lessons built into this biography, I did not find the work inspirational. First, I could not imagine emulating Buffett because at every age of his life, he was so far ahead of everybody else in experience and understanding of business. Second, his family life seemed neglected to the extreme. Third, other than increasing his wealth, I don't know what motivated him. To be fair, he has committed a lot of money to worthy causes much later in life.
on May 5, 2010
SNOWBALL. Where do I begin? It is an 800+ page book. I thought there was a little too much detail & hence the "new edition" is "edited & condensed". I LIKED this book about Warren & I think after reading it one really gets a sense of who he is. It is not the easiest of reading but it really does cover Warren & what he is all about. After reading this you'll feel like his best friend & you'll want to turn
over all your investment money to him. I haven't read any Bernie Madoff books but I am CERTAIN you do not get the warm & fuzzy feeling for him like you DO for Warren. SNOWBALL explains how Warren created his life & did not accumulate wealth by LUCK. The book also details how he raised his family to embrace the values that are missing in so much of the world today. Buy this book & get to know Warren. Then buy some stock & attend the shareholder meeting. You won't regret any of it!
Warren Buffett is "everyman" as multibillionaire. Despite his vast wealth, he has always eschewed ostentation. He pays himself about $100,000 annually, which in today's U.S. economy places him in the upper-middle-class. He lives in the same simple Omaha, Nebraska, house that he bought in 1958 for $31,500. He prefers an old gray suit to expensive London tailoring. In Buffett's early days, when he was only a multimillionaire and not a multibillionaire, he walked around with holes in the soles of his shoes. To Buffett, wardrobe doesn't matter; what matters is making money. He is better at this pursuit than anyone else in the world. In 2008, Forbes magazine ranked him as the globe's richest man, with a net worth of $62.3 billion. Author Alice Schroeder does a masterful job of chronicling Buffett's improbable, inspiring life. As a former superstar research analyst, Schroeder uses her expert knowledge of finance and commerce to detail Buffett's investment philosophy and business activities. getAbstract praises Schroeder's remarkable skills as a researcher and writer. Her book is packed with fascinating details and trenchant observations about the "Oracle of Omaha." One of the best business biographies available, this book shows how the world's greatest investor amassed the world's greatest fortune, while staying true to his essential self.