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With ‘Becoming Warren Buffett,’ We Discover the Man Behind the Fortune
January 30, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Warren Buffett is the kind of guy who gives the super-rich a good name.

That’s probably America’s dominant perception of a man worth about $63 billion, and it’s certainly the conclusion to which we’re directed in Becoming Warren Buffett, a new HBO documentary that premieres at 10 p.m. ET Monday.

Buffett comes across as a truly self-made man. He didn’t get a million dollars in seed money from his father to form his first company. He formed it himself, from money he’d saved up delivering the Omaha Herald and selling Coca-Cola door to door.

His allowance, he remembers, was a nickel a week. In a nice touch, Becoming Warren Buffett shows us a nickel with a buffalo on it, which is what nickels looked like until 1938, when Warren was 8.

Still a better look than the Jefferson nickel.

Buffett recalls, in the several interviews that form the foundation of this documentary, being a mild rebel in his youth. He would sometimes slack off in school, he says, and he recalls trying unsuccessfully to become a player with the ladies.

He has to admit, though, that he always remained focused. He loved numbers and statistics, and early on realized the potential of mathematical compounding.

That penny you earned from selling that copy of the Omaha Herald may seem modest by itself. But combine it with other pennies, invest it to earn interest and if you just have a little patience, soon that penny will become dimes and dollars.

While Buffett doesn’t use the term himself, he plays the long game. He explains that when he invests, he looks for companies with a long-term growth strategy and the patience to let it work.

His own holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, is run on the same principle. Don’t look to buy today and sell tomorrow for a quick profit. Plan to hold onto it for years, and gradually you will make more and more money.

It’s called “value investing,” and it’s a concept Buffett says he learned from one of his professors at Columbia Business School, Ben Graham.

It sounds so simple when we see how it played out for Buffett, that it seems like everyone should just do it and settle back to live the good life.

Obviously, there’s a little more to his success than that.  

What Becoming Warren Buffett does not explore at any length are the specific plays he has made to turn Berkshire Hathaway into one of the richest companies in the world.

There were mergers, acquisitions, sales, deals, and other moves that required Buffett to maneuver in the heart of a hardball game. He clearly knew how to play rough when necessary.

But that’s for some other documentary. This one, which also includes interviews with Buffett’s three sons and his late first wife Susie (left, with Warren), concentrates on portraying one of the world’s richest men as an ordinary guy.

He says the most valuable training he ever got was the Dale Carnegie self-confidence course. He sang his daughter to sleep with “Over the Rainbow.” He drives himself to work and stops at McDonald’s to pick up breakfast – an egg and sausage biscuit.

He consorts with presidents, world leaders, and the other richest people in the world. We hardly see any of that. We see him shaking hands with stockholders.

We are reminded that from 1977 until her death in 2004, Susie Buffett lived apart from Warren, while he kept company with the woman who would become his second wife. His children emphasize the fact that when Susie died, of cancer, he was so devastated he could hardly get out of bed.

We see him talking about how he will eventually give 99% of his money to charity. Toward that end, the documentary reports, he’s already given away more than $24 billion, mostly through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to causes like hunger relief, disease control, and disarmament.

This is, in short, a narrative that could be played someday at Buffett’s memorial service. And that’s fine. Any time a successful man seems to have come by his success honestly and doesn’t seem to have forgotten how the rest of the world lives, that’s an image of value.

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