Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Buffett goes to Wharton

In a presentation he made to students at the Wharton School earlier this month and a subsequent interview with Fortune, Warren Buffett shared his thoughts on everything from the economy to the credit crisis and the Bear Stearns bailout.

In this Web exclusive, we present further excerpts from his talk with the students, in which the megabillionaire offers his insights on judging managers, buying businesses, what metrics - if any - he relies upon, and why he views his job as similar to painting the Sistine Chapel.

Q: You said before that one of the things you look for in businesses you're buying is good managers who are honest, capable, and hard-working. To me, that's a hard judgment to make if you haven't known him for long on a personal level. How do you go about figuring that out about somebody, and how long does it take you to make that evaluation?

WB: Well, almost always, we're buying businesses where the managers come with it, so I do have a record [I can judge]. If I had to pick out the five people in this group here who would be the best managers, I wouldn't know how to do it. I mean, you all have great IQs, you have great academic records. You've all shown the energy to get into school and push hard and all that. So you'd have all these attractive qualities.

Can I pick out the five best? I don't think I can do it. What I can do, when I've seen somebody run a business for 20 years, is decide whether they're going to keep behaving in the future as they have in the past, if I keep the conditions that caused them to behave that way in the past. So when I buy a business - it's the biggest question I ask myself if I decide it's a good business - is "Do they love the money, or do they love the business?" Now, if they love the business, we can do business. If they love the money, we can't.

Now, let's say they love the business, as our managers do. They sell me a business for a billion dollars and can hardly wait to get to work in the morning.

In that situation, I'm the only guy that can mess it up. I can take that out of them. I can't put it into them. But I say to myself, "Why do I go to work in the morning?" I've got enough money. I've got Social Security now, even. [Laughter] I'll make it, you know? The kids won't get much, but that's their problem. So I say, "Why do I go to work in the morning?"

Well, there are two reasons. I love painting my own painting. I come down to the office, I get on my back, and I start painting. And I think I'm in the Sistine Chapel. It's my painting. Now, if somebody says, "Use more red paint instead of blue. Paint a seascape instead of a landscape," I would hand them the brush in five seconds and I'd say-I'd say a few other things, too - but I'd say, "Do your own painting. I'll go paint what I want to paint." I get to do my own painting. And then I get applause - if I deserve it. And I like that. I like having the painting admired, and I like to get to paint my own painting. That's so much more important to me than getting my golf score down three strokes or beating somebody at shuffleboard or something. I mean, it is the ultimate pleasure.

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