Lesson 1: On Sticky Business: Sticky Business is good business and it’s not glue we’re talking about here.
Question: Could you tell us one or two opportunities that you’re excited about for journal technologies? And also, in the next year, what are one or two hurdles or threats?
Answer: The one that I’m most excited about, in Daily Journal technologies, was getting the contract from the Los Angeles courts. It’s one of the biggest court systems on earth and that was, as far as I was concerned, a crucial milestone. And you can stop and think about it. If we succeed in saturating California, with a huge success, it may well spread elsewhere. And we bought this little nothing of a software company…and it turns out that they’re really good at all this service to all of these clients that need to have the service.
We’ve crossed over into a new business. And the new business is interesting because it’s a big market. It’s a big market. And I think if you ever get entrenched in it, it will be a very sticky business. Which has occurred to us as we suffered all of this agony. At least we were suffering agony in an attempt to get into a position from which we’d be hard to dislodge.
And the main threat or hurdle is that we want to be the most important player in this new niche, which is a big, big, niche. And of course we’re concerned about that. I don’t regard that battle as won. I regard it as going well, but not won. In fact I’d even say going very well, but not won.
Lesson 2: On IBM: How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? The Answer My Friend Is Blowing in The Wind.
Question: In investing, you talk about how you want to stay in your circle of competence. A few years ago, Warren Buffett decided to buy IBM. And he’s still very optimistic. But some people say that he went out of his circle of competence. What is your comment about this investment, and what do you think of its future?
Answer: Well IBM was a lot like us, they had a traditional business that was very large and it was very sticky. And of course, the world changed, and a lot of what flourished in the new world, they were not the leader. Up came Oracle and Microsoft and all kinds of other people who were formerly not so large. And of course they didn’t do well in personal computers even though they well started it.
IBM is a position that is lot like us where they have an old business from which cash continues to flow, but they want a new product that’s a hit. Now the product that they’ve chosen to back is this…I call it an “automated checklist”. Well an automated checklist is a very good idea and it may be particularly useful in things like medicine, but is it the kind of super market that may replace a lot of what made IBM great? And I would say the jury is out on that. I don’t really have an opinion. In other words, I’m neither a believer or a disbeliever, I regard it as a mystery. It could happen and it could not happen as far as I’m concerned. I do think that the old business of IBM is very sticky and will die slowly.
It’s not a cinch. The truth of the matter is that at Berkshire’s size, where we have to make great big bets and hold them for long periods, that’s a tough game and we have to make bets that are not the kind of shooting fish in a barrel kind of bets that we use to make. And that’s one of them.
So…the answer my friend is blowing in the wind. It may work in a mediocre way, it may work big, I just don’t know.
Lesson 3: On Changing Children and Grandchildren: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Clarence Darrow said, “Master of my fate? Hell, I don’t even pull an oar!”
Question: What advice do you give to your grandchildren?
Answer: Well regarding the grandchildren, I was not able to change my children very much. My situation reminds me what Clarence Darrow said when he read the great poem that ended, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Clarence Darrow said, “Master of my fate? Hell, I don’t even pull an oar!” That’s the way I feel about changing the children. And regarding the grandchildren, thank God they’re somebody else’s problem. (Big laughter) I served my time.
Lesson 4: In Investment, One Good Story is Can Be Enough To Last A Lifetime
Question: Do you have a favorite investment story?
Answer: Well, investment stories from my younger days…I’ll tell a story I’ve never told before. Years ago, 1962, my friend Al Marshall came to me and said, “I want your help in bidding for some oil royalties.” They were being put up by auction. I soon realized that under the peculiar rules of an idiot civilization, the only people who were going to bid for these oil royalties were oil royalty brokers who were scroungy, dishonorable, cheap bunch of bastards. I realized that none of them would ever bid a fair price. So I said, “We just need to bid high enough to get some of these royalties. You can’t possibly fail in an auction where they excluded everybody but kind of shady, difficult, cheap bastards.” So we bid for those oil royalties and we financed the thing with a down payment. We each put up a thousand dollars, and for many, many, years, the Mungers were getting $100,000 a year, 50 years later. More than 50 years later. Out of a thousand dollar investment. The problem with that story is that it only happened once. (Laughter) That’s true with most good investment stories. You don’t get very many. It isn’t like that kind of opportunity comes along every day. The trick in life is when you get the one, or two, or three that your fair allotment for a life is that you’ve got to do something about it. So that’s my story from my youthful days.
Lesson 5: Luck, Patience and Bold Action: It was luck that we had caught the bottom tick. It wasn’t luck that we had the money on hand when other people didn’t and were willing to deploy it when other people were running for cover.
Question: How is the current energy environment compared to the early 80’s when you were running Wesco are there any notable similarities or differences this time around?
Answer: Well of course we owned Wesco for a long time. What’s interesting about both Blue Chimp Stamps, which controlled Wesco, and Wesco is that they eventually were some of the most successful investments in the history of mankind. What’s interest about those outcomes is that it was only 5 or 6 transactions that carried all the freight. Really heavy freight. Now that is really interesting when you stop and think about it. You try and do a zillion little acquisitions…it’s hard. But by just doing a few things over a long period of time and having them work out well, those little nothing companies… They were all doomed. The trading stamp business. The savings and loan association. The savings and loans are pretty long gone. And yet they worked out fairly well. There again, just a few good decisions over a long period of time.
Some great investment success once said, “You make your money by the waiting.” Now that doesn’t mean sitting around for the next depression, you can’t do that, but a fair amount of patience is required in some of these good investment records. Patience followed by pretty aggressive conduct when the time comes. Imagine sitting there, were having all of this money rolling in with the foreclosure boom, and then deploying it in like one day. At the bottom tick for some of those stocks. Now that was luck. And it was luck that we had caught the bottom tick. It wasn’t luck that we had the money on hand when other people didn’t and were willing to deploy it when other people were running for cover.
Lesson 6: What’s A Good Model Then May Not Be A Good Model Now
Question: What other business models did Berkshire Hathaway try/consider, but ultimately did not pursue?
Answer: Well we were always optimistic. We wanted to buy the best thing that was conveniently available and that we could understand. In the early days, we thought we had a special advantage as investors in our little securities, so we tended to look carefully at float businesses. Nowadays of course, we’ve got enormous float and it hasn’t been that much use to us. Such is the nature of life. We made so much money on those float businesses that it was obscene in the early days. And it’s not a tragedy that now our float businesses don’t get much advantage about the float. Berkshire’s cash which is large is not getting much of a return. In Europe, the rates are negative. Japan the rates are negative.