Monday, February 9, 2009

Some Snowy Reading

I checked out "The Snowball" from the library last week. Not having seen a copy of the book before, I figured it would take me a week to 10 days of committed reading to get through. Maybe not. This Warren Buffet biography is 800 pages of detail about the life experiences and thoughtful musings of the Oracle. I will definitely have to renew the book to get through.

However, I found a few excerpts from the book at the Financial Times website, In lieu of reading all eight hundred pages, these selections do well to give a flavor for the man and his world.

Part 1

Part 2: (here's a selection from this selection)

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates met for the first time over the Fourth of July holiday in 1991, when Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post, and her editorial page editor and friend Meg Greenfield had dragged Buffett to Greenfield’s house on Bainbridge Island for a long holiday weekend. To Buffett, a weekend on an island a half-hour ferry ride from Seattle that could be escaped only by boat, seaplane, or hitching a ride over the bridge by car was an “anything for Kay” event. Greenfield had also recruited him for an all-day visit at the nearby four-house compound on the Hood Canal that Bill Gates had built for his family. Gates, 25 years Buffett’s junior, was appealing to Buffett mainly because he was known to be brilliant and because the two of them were neck-and-neck in the Forbes rich-list. But computers looked like Brussels sprouts to Buffett; no, he did not want to try them this once. Greenfield, however, had assured him that he would like Gates’s parents, Bill Sr and Mary, and that other interesting people would be there. With some reluctance, Buffett had agreed to go.

On the morning of Friday, July 5, Buffett pulled on a cardigan and arranged his wayward hair into a neat, gray comb-over. Greenfield crammed five of them into her little car for the 90-minute drive to the Gates compound. “While we’re driving down there, I said, ‘What the hell are we going to spend all day doing with these people? How long do we have to stay to be polite?’ ”

Gates had similar feelings. “I had a constant dialogue with my mom,” he says, “which was, ‘Why don’t you come to the family dinner?’ ‘No, Mom, I’m too busy, I’m working.’ So she told me Katharine Graham was coming, and Warren Buffett.” He was interested in meeting Graham, now a 74-year-old legend who had softened into an older but still patrician figure, like a witty version of Queen Elizabeth, but, “I told my mom, ‘I don’t know about a guy who just invests money and picks stocks. I don’t have many good questions for him; that’s not my thing, Mom.’ But she insisted.” Gates flew in on a helicopter so he could make a quick getaway. When a tiny car pulled up, he was surprised to see a group of famous people – Greenfield and her guests – pop out like a gang of circus clowns.

Graham was taken over to meet Gates, who looked like a recent college graduate, in a red sweatshirt over a golf shirt, his collar turned up in a little saucer around his neck. While Gates was arranging for Graham to take a seaplane ride, Buffett was introduced to Bill Gates Sr and his wife, Mary. Then Bill Gates III, known as Trey, was brought round to meet Buffett.

Observers kept a weather eye on this introduction. Gates was well-known for unleashing his impatience on things that didn’t interest him. Buffett no longer walked off to read a book when he was bored but had a way of disentangling himself quickly from conversations he wanted to exit.

Buffett skipped the small talk; he immediately asked Gates whether IBM was going to do well in the future and whether it was a competitor of Microsoft. Computer companies seemed to come and go, and why was that? Gates started explaining. He told Buffett to buy two stocks, Intel and Microsoft. Then he asked Buffett about the economics of newspapers, and Buffett told him that they had got worse, because of other media. Within minutes the two were immersed in conversation.

“We talked and talked and talked and talked and paid no attention to anybody else. I started asking him a whole bunch of questions about his business, not expecting to understand any of it. He’s a great teacher, and we couldn’t stop talking.” They were starting to attract attention. “We were sort of ignoring all these important people, and Bill’s father finally said, gently, that he’d prefer that we join in a little more.

“Bill started trying to convince me to get a computer. I said I don’t know what it’s going to do for me. I don’t care how my stock portfolio is doing every five minutes. And I can do my income taxes in my head. Gates said he would pick out the best-looking gal at Microsoft and send her to teach me how to use the computer. He would make it totally painless and pleasant. I told him, ‘You’ve made me an offer I almost can’t refuse, but I will refuse it.’ ”

At sunset the helicopter had to leave. Gates did not go with it.

“Then at dinner, Bill Gates Sr posed the question to the table: What factor did people feel was the most important in getting to where they’d gotten in life? And I said, ‘Focus.’ And Bill said the same thing.”

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