Warren Buffett (profiled by Evan Davis on BBC2 last Monday) was the world’s richest man until his chum Bill Gates knocked him off the perch. Even so, he remains the world’s most successful investor. Previously known as ‘the sage of Omaha’, he is now revered as the ‘oracle of Omaha’, so good is his investment record.
But prodigious wealth, and a fondness for bridge, are where the similarities between the two end. Gates, the über-nerd, controls a vast and glossy empire from Microsoft’s sculpted headquarters outside Seattle. Buffett, the hayseed from the heart of the mid-west, makes his decisions from Berkshire Hathaway’s scruffy office in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.
Buffett doesn’t buy fashionable companies, only those that are well managed. He has never bought a technology stock because he doesn’t understand the business. He owns a modest suburban house and drives a second-hand car. His company website looks like a first-year design project, while the Berkshire Hathaway AGM has all the sophistication of a country fayre, where 30,000 adoring shareholders come to eat ice cream, drink cherry coke and sit at the feet of their guru.
For all the homespun veneer, Buffett in his own way is probably just as much of a nerd as Gates – undoubtedly brilliant, probably a little autistic, certainly obsessive-compulsive. But there’s one thing he has mastered, which is plain speaking. In 1998, such is his standing in the investment world, he was invited to write a preface to the US Security and Exchange Commission’s Plain English Handbook. He concluded with this ‘one unoriginal but useful tip’:
‘Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform. No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with “Dear Doris and Bertie.”’
For that alone he gets my vote. If you have a moment, look at Warren Buffett’s Letters to Berkshire Shareholders, especially the letter for 2008 when the recession started to bite. There is nothing else like them.