Last Updated: May 2, 2008: 9:41 AM EDT
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Buffett goes to Wharton

Why Warren Buffett views his job as similar to painting the Sistine Chapel.

By Nicholas Varchaver, senior editor

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Warren Buffett

(Fortune) -- 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.

Now, if that turns me on, why won't it turn on these people who have built their own businesses? They have spent their life creating a wonderful painting. Now, for one reason or another, maybe tax reasons, maybe sibling reasons, who knows what, they need to sell it, they need to monetize it.

They come to me, and they know that at Berkshire they're going to keep the brush, they're going to keep doing the painting, and I have to look at them and decide whether they are people that really care about their painting or care about the money. [One giveaway is] if they auction the business. We've never bought a business at an auction. Never. Anybody that wants to auction off their family or auction off the creation of a lifetime, that's not what we want.

I tell people you've got two choices. You've spent a lifetime building this business. Or maybe your father built the business and you carried it on. Maybe your grandfather. You've given up vacations sometimes. You worked on weekends and all these things to create this really incredible painting that you're bringing to me. Now, if they want to auction it, they're not for me.

I tell them they have two choices. They can sell it to us, and it'll be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We'll have a wing for their painting. People will come and admire it, which they do. And they will say, "That's one hell of a painter." And you get to keep painting. Or you can take this marvelous painting and you can sell it to a porn shop. [Laughter] And he'll take the thing and he'll make the boobs a little bigger, something like that. And put it in the window. And a guy will come over in a raincoat a few years later, and he'll buy it, post it in his window, and it'll become a piece of meat, basically. We get the ones who care about having in it the Metropolitan Museum.

I got a fax almost three years ago on a Wednesday from a fellow I'd never met about a company I'd never heard of. This fellow named Peter Liegl ran Forest River over in Elkhart, Indiana. He sent me a couple pages, and said, "This is the sort of thing it looks like you're generally interested in."

I called him up that day. I said, "Pete, send me the last few audits. FedEx it, and I'll call you tomorrow afternoon." Never met him, never heard of the company. (It's a recreational vehicle company.) So I got in on Thursday morning, and I called him that afternoon. I said, "Pete, here's what I'll do. And if it works for you, fine." I'd never met the guy, but I could still tell by just the way he presented it and his thinking on it. And he said, "Fine. I'll come over next week with my wife and daughter, who own the stock."

And they came over late in the afternoon. I said to him, "Pete, what kind of salary would you like"; this is a company that did a billion seven last year. That's not the way they teach you to do it in business school, but I don't want anybody working for me that has a compensation system they're unhappy with. These people don't need me. They've got all the money they need. I'm going to [invest] hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars [in their businesses]. And he said, "I don't know." And I said, "Well, just tell me because I want you to be happy. You have to run this thing." "Well," he took a little while, "Well," he said, "I looked at the proxy statement, you make $100,000. I wouldn't want to make more than you do." So that became his salary.

Then I said, "You should get paid for exceeding the figures [on which I'm basing the decision to buy the company]. So," I said, "I want you to have a percentage interest in future earnings above this level," which we worked out. But he offered $100,000 and I offered the percentage above that. He has run the business magnificently since then. I've never been to Elkhart, Indiana. I've never seen this place. I hope it's there. [Laughter] Pete may have some 11-year-old kid in there that says, "What figure shall we send Warren?" [Laughter] The guy has done a remarkable job.

If I told Pete whether he should build a new plant, whether he should bring out a new model, whether he should change dealer firms, he'd tell me to take a hike. You know, why shouldn't he tell me to take a hike? He doesn't need the job. As long as that thing is a lot of fun for him, he's going to keep running it. And he'll run it for a long time.

[I get offered all] kinds of deals from LBO operators. I would just love to bet against the projections of every one that they give me. They hand me these books, which I don't even want to look at, but they hand me the books, and of course they always just project like that [points upward like a graph that only increases]. I would just love to make a career out of betting against the figures presented in those books, but I don't get a chance to do that. If you ever get a chance to short investment banker books, that would be a great activity.

Q: When you purchase a subsidiary, you've mentioned that you allow them to reinvest capital if they're able to go above a certain hurdle rate. So I was wondering how you decide what the cost of capital should be on a risk-adjusted basis.

WB: Well, we don't think about cost of capital or risk-adjusted. I mean, we don't want to take any risk, and we don't. That doesn't mean we don't do things that are wrong and all that, but we are not doing anything that risks real losses.

You know, GEICO spends 800 million on advertising. I may spend $200 million that's wrong this year at GEICO or something. But I recognize the things that I can't further refine. What we do with capital is we just look for the best thing we can do at any given time. I mean, in the end, we're going to retain everything.

We don't want to do anything that doesn't create more than a dollar's worth of value for every dollar expended. And we'll do the best we can. And as I said earlier [regarding stock holdings], we would have sold the thing to do something that offered even better opportunity. We won't do that with businesses at Berkshire. That's a pledge I make to people. If they sell me the business, it's going to stay in the Metropolitan Museum forever. I may make a mistake.

If it's going to permanently lose money, I reserve the right to sell it, and if it has labor problems, I reserve the right to sell it. That's in the back of the annual report every year. They've been there for 20-plus years, those principles. But we believe in them. We follow through on them. So we won't dump a business that way. But about 200 million a week comes in to me every week. I like it, too. [Laughter] And it's my job to figure out how to allocate that.

The smaller capital expenditures, or even fairly large ones at the subsidiaries, they just do them themselves. They don't need me, because if some guy comes in to me and talks about something in the yarn plant or something in Georgia, what the hell do I know about it? I mean, they can always present it in a way that makes it look good. If I say the internal rate of return we demand is 15.83, it'll be 15.84. I mean, you just can bet on it. I've never seen a project that doesn't meet your hurdle rate, you know, if they really want to do it. We don't go through those charades. And it saves my time, saves their time.

If we get into bigger deals, then I get involved. Buying businesses of any size and things of that sort. But we just look for the most intelligent thing. And our cutoff point is where we don't think we're creating more than a dollar of value for every dollar we lay out. Marketable securities, to some extent we just look for the things we think have the best expectancy, but we're not buying - there isn't one security that I've got in the portfolio that I look at as-in terms of risky - in the sense of permanent capital loss. They can go down 50%.

Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA, Fortune 500) stock itself has gone down 50% three times since I bought the first stock in at 7 3/8. In 1974 it got cut in half. In 1987 it got cut in half. In 1998, 2000 or so it got cut in half. So that doesn't make any difference. I mean, I just don't worry about it. I worry about permanent loss of capital. I worry about making the right businesses. I worry about keeping the managers happy. Everything else pretty much takes care of itself. To top of page

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