for Kindle Fire, Apple, Android, Nook, Kobo, PC, Mac, BlackBerry ...

New to eBooks.com?

Learn more

The Snowball

Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

The Snowball by Alice Schroeder
Add to cart
US$ 13.99
(If any tax is payable it will be calculated and shown at checkout.)
“The mandatory book to read in these treacherous times of financial crisis.…A thoughtful and intimate biography of the globe’s wisest investor.” –Forbes

“Will mesmerize anyone interested in who Mr. Buffett is or how he got that way.” The Snowball tells a fascinating story.”–New York Times

“If the replication of any great achievement first requires knowledge of how it was done, then The Snowball, the most detailed glimpse inside Warren Buffett and his world that we likely will ever get, should become a Bible for capitalists.” —Washington Post

Anyone who has been watching events unfold in recent months–which would be everyone–can now appreciate the wisdom of Buffett....The most authoritative portrait of one of the most important American investors of our time.”–Los Angeles Times

“Even people who don't care a whit about business will be intrigued by this portrait… Schroeder, a former insurance-industry analyst, spent years interviewing Buffett, and the result is a side of the Oracle of Omaha that has rarely been seen.” —Time Magazine

"Schroeder... has a meat-and-potatoes style that matches the homespun wisdom of her subject...Now more than ever, Buffett's emphasis on fundamentals seems like genius. It's the perfect moment for a great book on an immensely inspiring capitalist."—People, four stars

“Schroeder…is well equipped to elucidate Buffett’s deals…[and] Buffett’s life abounds with good stories.”—New Yorker

“You will learn a lot about one of the nation's most compelling and important men from reading The Snowball.” —Boston Globe

“In The Snowball, novice biographer Alice Schroeder gives us one of the most detailed, candid life stories ever published…It is almost impossible to stop reading.” —Christian Science Monitor

“A penetrating and personal look at the Oracle of Omaha…An astute, and at times riveting, read–especially now.”—BusinessWeek

“Everyone knows that in a deep and liquid capital market like that of the US, it is just about impossible to beat the stock market averages over anything more than the short term. But Buffett has been ahead of the curve for most of the past 50 years, making him one of the world’s richest people. Alice Schroeder’s massive authorized biography, The Snowball, provides some clues about how he’s done it.” —Financial Times

“In this startlingly frank account of Buffett’s life, Schroeder, a former managing director at Morgan Stanley–and hand picked by Buffett to be his biographer–strips away the mystery that has long cloaked the word’s richest man to reveal a life and fortune erected around lucid and inspired business vision and unimaginable personal complexity.” —Publishers Weekly

“This massive–and highly readable–text (produced with Buffett’s full cooperation) is an unvarnished and well-paced biography that is essential for all public and academic business collections.” —Library Journal

“For students of the Oracle of Omaha, or even those looking for a little reassurance during the crisis, Schroeder's book is a fascinating study of America's most successful investor.” —New York Post

“… Alice Schroeder’s accumulation of detail, her vivid, artless descriptions of people and places, and the resulting narrative fluidity make this a compelling book. It has the bouncing vitality of an early Sinclair Lewis novel…”—Times Literary Supplement

“If you've looked at your 401(k) statement and started to fear that everyone in financial markets is either greedy, predatory or incompetent, do yourself a favor. Take $35 out of the mattress and buy a copy of Alice Schroeder's The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. At a time like this, it's a real comfort: Buffet is living proof there's at least one wholly rational person managing money…an excellent and highly enjoyable look at the business titan.” —Houston Chronicle

“Ms. Schroeder does a good job of pulling…volunteered disclosures out of Mr. Buffett but her real contribution is her own investment expertise which enables her to make the convoluted financing schemes over the last 50 years understandable to lay readers and truly instructive to the business information junkie.” —Washington Times

“This is a fast-paced, precisely drawn profile of a man who, despite his high visibility in the financial world, isn’t someone we’ve known much about… We do now.” —Kansas City Star

“This massive—and highly readable—text (produced with Buffett’s full cooperation) is an unvarnished and well-paced biography that is essential for all public and academic business collections.”—LibraryJournal.com

"Top-notch biographies demand thorough research and crisp, finely honed writing. Schroeder exhibits both.... It's hard to imagine a more complete account of Buffett's life had he written it himself."—Buffalo News

“Riveting and encyclopedic.... The overall power of the story carries “The Snowball” forward. There is much to be learned from it.”—wsj.com

“[A] monumental biography ... Schroeder got the best access yet of any Buffett biographer ... she deals out marvelously funny and poignant stories about Buffett and the conglomerate he runs, Berkshire Hathaway.”—Forbes.com
Random House Publishing Group; September 2008
ISBN 9780553905496
Download in secure EPUB
Title: The Snowball
Author: Alice Schroeder
 
Buy, download and read The Snowball (eBook) by Alice Schroeder today!
Excerpt
Chapter One

The Less Flattering Version


Omaha, June 2003

Warren Buffett rocks back in his chair, long legs crossed at the knee behind his father Howard’s plain wooden desk. His expensive Zegna suit jacket bunches around his shoulders like an untailored version bought off the rack. The jacket stays on all day, every day, no matter how casually the other fifteen employees at Berkshire Hathaway headquarters are dressed. His predictable white shirt sits low on the neck, its undersize collar bulging away from his tie, looking left over from his days as a young businessman, as if he had forgotten to check his neck size for the last forty years.

His hands lace behind his head through strands of whitening hair. One particularly large and messy finger-combed chunk takes off over his skull like a ski jump, lofting upward at the knoll of his right ear. His shaggy right eyebrow wanders toward it above the tortoiseshell glasses. At various times this eyebrow gives him a skeptical, knowing, or beguiling look. Right now he wears a subtle smile, which lends the wayward eyebrow a captivating air. Nonetheless, his pale-blue eyes are focused and intent.

He sits surrounded by icons and mementos of fifty years. In the hallways outside his office, Nebraska Cornhuskers football photographs, his paycheck from an appearance on a soap opera, the offer letter (never accepted) to buy a hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management, and Coca-Cola memorabilia everywhere. On the coffee table inside the office, a classic Coca-Cola bottle. A baseball glove encased in Lucite. Over the sofa, a certificate that he completed Dale Carnegie’s public-speaking course in January 1952. The Wells Fargo stagecoach, westbound atop a bookcase. A Pulitzer Prize, won in 1973 by the Sun Newspapers of Omaha, which his investment partnership owned. Scattered about the room are books and newspapers. Photographs of his family and friends cover the credenza and a side table, and sit under the hutch beside his desk in place of a computer. A large portrait of his father hangs above Buffett’s head on the wall behind his desk. It faces every visitor who enters the room.

Although a late-spring Omaha morning beckons outside the windows, the brown wooden shutters are closed to block the view. The television beaming toward his desk is tuned to CNBC. The sound is muted, but the crawl at the bottom of the screen feeds him news all day long. Over the years, to his pleasure, the news has often been about him.

Only a few people, however, actually know him well. I have been acquainted with him for six years, originally as a financial analyst covering Berkshire Hathaway stock. Over time our relationship has turned friendly, and now I will get to know him better still. We are sitting in Warren’s office because he is not going to write a book. The unruly eyebrows punctuate his words as he says repeatedly, “You’ll do a better job than I would, Alice. I’m glad you’re writing this book, not me.” Why he would say that is something that will eventually become clear. In the meantime, we start with the matter closest to his heart.

“Where did it come from, Warren? Caring so much about making money?”

His eyes go distant for a few seconds, thoughts traveling inward: flip flip flip through the mental files. Warren begins to tell his story: “Balzac said that behind every great fortune lies a crime. [1] That’s not true at Berkshire.”

He leaps out of his chair to bring home the thought, crossing the room in a couple of strides. Landing on a mustardy-gold brocade armchair, he leans forward, more like a teenager bragging about his first romance than a seventy-two-year-old financier. How to interpret the story, who else to interview, what to write: The book is up to me. He talks at length about human nature and memory’s frailty, then says, “Whenever my version is different from somebody else’s, Alice, use the less flattering version.”

Among the many lessons, some of the best come simply from observing him. Here is the first: Humility disarms.

In the end, there won’t be too many reasons to choose the less flattering version–but when I do, human nature, not memory’s frailty, is usually why. One of those occasions happened at Sun Valley in 1999.



Chapter Two

Sun Valley

Idaho, July 1999

Warren Buffett stepped out of his car and pulled his suitcase from the trunk. He walked through the chain-link gate onto the airport’s tarmac, where a gleaming white Gulfstream IV jet–the size of a regional commercial airliner and the largest private aircraft in the world in 1999–waited for him and his family. One of the pilots grabbed the suitcase from him to stow in the cargo hold. Every new pilot who flew with Buffett was shocked to see him carrying his own luggage from a car he drove himself. Now, as he climbed the boarding stairs, he said hello to the flight attendant–somebody new–and headed to a seat next to a window, which he would not glance out of at any time during the flight. His mood was buoyant; he had been anticipating this trip for weeks.

His son Peter and daughter-in-law Jennifer, his daughter Susan and her boyfriend, and two of his grandchildren all settled into their own café au lait leather club chairs set around the forty-five-foot-long cabin. They swiveled their seats away from the curved wall panels to give themselves more space as the flight attendant brought drinks from the galley, which was stocked with the family’s favorite snacks and beverages. A pile of magazines lay nearby on the sofa: Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Fortune, Yachting, the Robb Report, the Atlantic Monthly, the Economist, Vogue, Yoga Journal. She brought Buffett an armload of newspapers instead, along with a basket of potato chips and a Cherry Coke that matched his red Nebraska sweater. He complimented her, chatted for a few minutes to ease her nervousness at flying for the first time with her boss, and told her that she could let the copilot know that they were ready to take off. Then he buried his head in a newspaper as the plane rolled down the runway and ascended to forty thousand feet. For the next two hours, six people hummed around him, watching videos, talking, and making phone calls, while the flight attendant set out linens and bud vases filled with orchids on the bird’s-eye maple dining tables before returning to the galley to prepare lunch. Buffett never moved. He sat reading, hidden behind his newspapers, as if he were alone in his study at home.

They were flying in a $30 million airborne palace called a “fractional” jet. As many as eight owners shared it, but it served as part of a fleet, so all the owners could fly at once if they wished. The pilots in the cockpit, the crew that maintained it, the schedulers who got it to the gate on six hours’ notice, and the flight attendant who served their lunch all worked for NetJets, which belonged to Warren Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway.

Sometime later, the G-IV crossed the Snake River Plain and approached the Sawtooth Mountains, a vast Cretaceous upheaval of dark and ancient granite mounds baking in the summer sun. It sailed through the bright clear air into the Wood River Valley, descending to eight thousand feet, where it started to buck on the mountain wave of turbulence thrown into the sky by the brown foothills beneath. Buffett read on, unperturbed, as the plane rocked and his family jerked about in their seats. Brush dotted higher altitudes of a second ridge of hills and rows of pines began their march up the ridges between ravines on the leeward side. The family grinned with anticipation. As the aircraft descended through the narrowing slot between the rising mountain peaks ahead, the midday sun cast the plane’s lengthening shadow over the old mining town of Hailey, Idaho.

A few seconds later, the wheels touched down on the Friedman Memorial Airport runway. By the time the Buffetts had bounded down the stairs onto the tarmac, squinting in the July sunshine, two SUVs had driven through the gate and pulled up alongside the jet, driven by men and women from Hertz. They all wore the company’s gold-and-black shirts. Instead of Hertz, however, the logo said “Allen & Co.”

The grandchildren bounced on their heels as the pilots unloaded the luggage, tennis rackets, and Buffett’s red-and-white Coca-Cola golf bag into the SUVs. Then he and the others shook hands with the pilots, said good-bye to the flight attendant, and climbed into the SUVs. Bypassing Sun Valley Aviation– a pocket-size trailer at the runway’s southern end–they swung through the chain-link gate onto the road that led to the peaks beyond. About two minutes had elapsed since the plane’s wheels first touched the runway.

Right on schedule, eight minutes later, another jet followed theirs, headed to its own runway parking spot.

Throughout the golden afternoon, jet after jet cruised into Idaho from the south and east or swung around the peaks from the west and descended into Hailey: workhorse Cessna Citations; glamorous, close-quartered Learjets; speedy Hawkers; luxurious Falcons; but mostly the awe-inspiring G-IVs. As the afternoon waned, dozens of huge, gleaming white aircraft lined the runway like a shop window full of tycoons’ toys.

The Buffetts followed the trail blazed by earlier SUVs a few miles onward from the airport to the tiny town of Ketchum on the edge of the Sawtooth National Forest, near the turnoff to the Elkhorn Pass. A few miles later, they rounded Dollar Mountain, where a green oasis appeared, nestled among the brown slopes. Here amid the lacy pines and shimmering aspens lay Sun Valley, the mountains’ most fabled resort, where Ernest Hemingway began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls, where Olympic skiers and skaters had long made their second home.

The tide of families they were joining this Tuesday afternoon all had some connection to Allen & Co., a boutique investment bank that specialized in the media and communications industries. Allen & Co. had put together some of the biggest mergers in Hollywood, and for more than a decade had been hosting an annual series of discussions and seminars mingled with outdoor recreation at Sun Valley for its clients and friends. Herbert Allen, the firm’s CEO, invited only people he liked, or those with whom he was at least willing to do business.

Thus the conference was always filled with faces both famous and rich: Hollywood producers and stars like Candice Bergen, Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and Sydney Pollack; entertainment moguls like Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, Robert Iger, and Michael Eisner; socially pedigreed journalists like Tom Brokaw, Diane Sawyer, and Charlie Rose; and technology titans like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Andy Grove. A pack of reporters lay in wait for them every year outside the Sun Valley Lodge.

The reporters had traveled a day earlier to the Newark, New Jersey, airport or some similar embarkation point to board a commercial flight to Salt Lake City, then raced to Concourse E’s bullpen to sit amid a crush of people waiting for flights to places like Casper, Wyoming, and Sioux City, Iowa, until it was time to cram themselves into a prop plane for the one-hour bronco ride to Sun Valley. On arrival their plane was directed to the opposite end of the airport next to the tennis-court-size terminal, where they witnessed a crew of tanned young Allen & Co. employees dressed in pastel “SV99” polo shirts and white shorts welcoming the handful of Allen & Co. guests who were arriving early on commercial flights. These were instantly recognizable among the other passengers: men in Western boots and Paul Stuart shirts with jeans, women wearing goatskin-suede jackets and marble-size turquoise beads. The Allen staff had memorized the newcomers’ faces from photographs supplied in advance. They hugged people they had gotten to know in years past as if they were old friends, whisked away all the guests’ bags, and led their charges off to the SUVs lined up steps away in the parking lot.

The reporters went to the rental-car desk, then drove to the Lodge, by now acutely conscious of their lowly status. For the next few days, many areas of Sun Valley would be marked as “private,” blocked from prying eyes by closed doors, omnipresent security, hanging flower baskets, and large potted plants. The reporters would lurk around the fringes, excluded from the interesting things going on inside, noses pressed against the bushes. [1] Ever since Disney’s Michael Eisner and Capital Cities/ABC’s Tom Murphy had dreamed up a deal to merge their companies at Sun Valley ’95 (the way the conference was often referred to–as if it had engulfed the entire resort, which, in a way, it had), the press coverage had grown until it took on the artificially giddy atmosphere of a business version of Cannes. The mergers that splintered off from Sun Valley, however, were only occasional calves from an iceberg. Sun Valley was about more than making deals, though the deals garnered most of the press. Every year the rumors sizzled that this company or that was working on a deal at the mysterious conclave in the Idaho mountains. Thus, as the SUVs rolled one by one into the porte cochere, the reporters peered through the front windows to see who was inside. When someone newsworthy arrived, they chased their prey into the lodge, brandishing cameras and microphones.

The press quickly recognized Warren Buffett as he stepped out of his SUV. “The DNA of the conference had him built into it,” said his friend Don Keough, chairman of Allen & Co. [2] Most of the press people liked Buffett, who went out of his way not to be disliked by anyone. He also intrigued them. His public image was that of a simple man, and he seemed genuine. Yet he lived a complicated life. He owned five homes but occupied only two of them. Somehow he had wound up having, in effect, two wives. He spoke in homely aphorisms with a kindly twinkle in his eye and had a notably loyal group of friends, yet along the way he had earned a reputation as a tough, even icy dealmaker. He seemed to shun publicity yet managed to attract more of it than almost any other businessman on earth. [3] He jetted around the country in a G-IV, often attended celebrity events, and had many famous friends, yet said that he preferred Omaha, hamburgers, and thrift. He spoke of his success as being based on a few simple investing ideas and tap-dancing to work with enthusiasm every day, but if that was so, why had nobody else been able to replicate it?

Buffett, as always, gave the photographers a willing wave and a grandfatherly smile as he walked by. They captured him on film, then began peering at the next car.

The Buffetts drove around to their French-country-style condominium, one of the coveted Wildflower group next to the pool and tennis courts, where Herbert Allen housed his VIPs. Inside, the usual loot awaited them: a pile of Allen & Co. SV99 logo jackets, baseball caps, zip fleeces, polo shirts–every year a different color–and a zippered notebook. Despite his fortune of more than $30 billion–enough to buy a thousand of those G-IVs parked out at the airport–Buffett liked few things more than getting a free golf shirt from a friend. He took the time to look carefully through this year’s swag. Of even more interest to him, however, was the personal note that Herbert Allen sent to each guest–and the perfectly organized conference notebook that explained what Sun Valley had in store for him this year.

Timed to the second, organized to the hilt, crisp as Herbert Allen’s French cuffs, Buffett’s schedule was laid out hour by hour, day by day. The notebook spelled out the conference speakers and topics–until now a closely guarded secret–and the luncheons and dinners that he would attend. Unlike the other guests, Buffett knew much of this in advance, but he still wanted to see what the notebook had to say.

Herbert Allen, the so-called “Lord of Sun Valley” and the conference’s quiet choreographer, set the tone of casual luxury that pervaded the event. People always cited him for high principles, brilliance, good advice, and generosity. “You’d like to die with the respect of somebody like Herbert Allen,” a guest gushed. Afraid of being disinvited to the conference, those who voiced any criticism rarely went beyond vague hints that Herbert was “unusual,” restless, impatient, and possessed of an oversize personality. Standing in the shadow of his tall, wiry frame, one had to strain to keep up with the words that crackled forth like machine-gun fire. He barked questions, then cut off respondents mid-sentence, lest they waste a second of his time. He specialized in saying the unsayable. “Ultimately Wall Street will be eliminated,” he once told a reporter, although he ran a Wall Street bank. He referred to his competitors as “hot-dog vendors." [4]

Allen kept his firm small, and his bankers staked their own money on their deals. This unconventional approach made the firm a partner rather than a mere servant to its clients, who were the elite of Hollywood and the media world. Thus, when he played host, his guests felt privileged, rather than like captives pitched by salesmen at every turn. Allen & Co. arranged a detailed social agenda every year built around each guest’s personal network of relationships– which the firm understood–and the new people that Allen’s majordomos felt each should meet. Unspoken hierarchies dictated the distances of the guests’ condominiums from the Inn (where meetings were held), which meals the guests were invited to attend, and with whom they would be seated.

Buffett’s friend Tom Murphy referred to this kind of event as “elephantbumping.” “Anytime a bunch of big shots get together,” says Buffett, “you can get people to come, because it reassures them if they’re at an elephant-bumping that they’re an elephant too." [5]

Sun Valley was always very reassuring, because unlike most elephant bumps, one could not buy one’s way in. The result was a sort of faux democracy of the elite. Part of the thrill of coming was to see who was not invited, and, more thrilling still, who was disinvited. Yet within their stratum, people did develop genuine relationships. Allen & Co. fostered conviviality through lavish entertainment, beginning on the first evening, when the guests donned Western gear, climbed into old-fashioned horse-drawn wagons, and followed cowboys up a winding trail past a natural stone spire onto Trail Creek Cabin meadow. There, Herbert Allen or one of his two sons greeted the guests as the sun began to set. Cowboys entertained the children with rope tricks near a large white tent bedecked with urns of scarlet petunias and blue sage, while the Sun Valley old guard reunited and welcomed new guests as they stood side by side in line, plate in hand, for a buffet of steaks and salmon. The Buffetts usually ended the evening sitting with friends around the bonfire beneath the star-dappled western sky.

The frolicking continued on Wednesday afternoon with an optional and very mild white-water paddle down the Salmon River. On this trip relationships blossomed, for Allen & Co. orchestrated who sat where on the bus to the embarkation point as well as on the rafts. The river guides steered through the mountain valley in silence, lest they interrupt conversations and disturb budding alliances. Spotters hired from the local population and ambulances lined the route in case someone tumbled into the freezing water. The guests were handed warm towels as soon as they put down their paddles and stepped out of the rafts, then served plates of barbecue.

Those not rafting could be found fly-fishing, horseback riding, shooting trap and skeet, mountain biking, playing bridge, learning to knit, studying nature photography, playing Frisbee with the ubiquitous canine conference guests, ice-skating on the outdoor rink, playing tennis on perfect clay courts, lounging at the pool, or golfing on immaculate greens, where they rode in carts stuffed full of Allen & Co. sunscreen, snacks, and bug spray. [6] All the entertainment flowed quietly, seamlessly, whatever was needed appearing unasked, supplied by a seemingly inexhaustible staff of almost-invisible yet ever-present Allenites in SV99 polo shirts.

It was the babysitters, however, a hundred-some good-looking, mostly blond, deeply tanned teenagers in these same polo shirts and matching Allen & Co. backpacks, who were Herbert Allen’s secret weapon. As the parents and grandparents played, the sitters saw to it that each Joshua and Brittany was accompanied by his or her own playmate for whatever activity they chose–a tennis clinic, soccer, bicycling, kickball, a wagon ride, a horse show, ice-skating, relay races, rafting, fishing, an art project, or pizza and ice cream. Each babysitter was personally selected to ensure that every child always had such a wonderful time that they would beg to come back year after year–while at the same time delighting their parents with occasional glimpses of the very, very attractive young person who was allowing them to spend days of guilt-free time with other adults.

Buffett had always been one of the most appreciative of Allen’s beneficiaries. He loved Sun Valley as a family vacation, for left to his own devices at a mountain resort with his grandchildren, he would have been at a complete loss for what to do. He had no interest in outdoor activities other than golf. He never went skeet shooting or mountain biking, thought of water as “a prison of sorts,” and would rather go around handcuffed than ride on a raft. Instead, he slipped comfortably into the center of the elephant herd. He played a little golf and bridge, including a standing golf game with Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, for a dollar bet, and a bridge game with Meredith Brokaw, and otherwise spent his time socializing with people like Playboy CEO Christie Hefner and computer hardware CEO Michael Dell.

Often, however, he disappeared for long periods into his condo overlooking the golf course, where he read and watched business news in the living room seated next to an enormous stone fireplace. [7] He barely noticed the view of pine-covered Baldy, the mountain outside his window, or the bank of blossoms like a Persian palace rug: pastel lupines and sapphire delphiniums towering over poppies and Indian paintbrush, crisp blue salvia and veronica nestled among the stonecrop and hens-and-chicks. “The scenery is there, I guess,” he said. He came for the warm atmosphere Herbert Allen had created. [8] He liked being with his closest friends: Kay Graham and her son Don; Bill and Melinda Gates; Mickie and Don Keough; Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg; Andy Grove and his wife, Eva.

But above all, for Buffett, Sun Valley was about reuniting with his whole family during one of the rare times most of the family spent together. “He likes us all being in the same house,” says his daughter, Susie Buffett Jr. She lived in Omaha; her younger brother, Howie, and his wife, Devon–missing this year–lived in Decatur, Illinois; while their younger sibling, Peter, and his wife, Jennifer, lived in Milwaukee.

Buffett’s wife of forty-seven years, Susan, who lived apart from him, had flown in to meet them from her home in San Francisco. And Astrid Menks, his companion for more than twenty years, remained at their home in Omaha.

On Friday night, Warren donned a Hawaiian shirt and escorted his wife to the traditional Pool Party on the tennis courts next to their condo. Most of the guests knew and liked Susie. Always the star of the Pool Party, she sang old-fashioned standards by the light of tiki torches in front of the illuminated Olympic pool.

This year, as the cocktails and camaraderie flowed, the babble of a barely comprehensible new language–B2B, B2C, banner ads, bandwidth, broadband– competed with the sounds of Al Oehrle’s band. All week long a vague sense of unease had drifted through the lunches and dinners and cocktails like a silent fog amid the handshakes, kisses, and hugs. A new group of recently minted technology executives, filled with an unusual swagger, introduced themselves to people who had never heard of them a year before. [9] Some displayed a hubris that was at odds with Sun Valley’s usual atmosphere, where a determined informality reigned and Herbert Allen enforced a sort of unwritten rule against pomposity, on penalty of banishment.

The cloud of arrogance hung heaviest over the presentations that were the conference’s centerpiece. Heads of companies, high government officials, and other people of note gave talks unlike those they delivered anywhere else, because hardly a word of what was said was ever whispered beyond the flower boxes hanging by the doors of the Sun Valley Inn. Reporters were banned, and the celebrity journalists and the media barons who owned the television networks and newspapers sat in the audience but honored a code of silence. Thus freed to perform only for their peers, the speakers said important and often true things that could never be articulated in front of the press because they were too blunt, too nuanced, too alarming, too easily satirized, or too likely to be misinterpreted. The workaday journalists lurked outside, hoping for crumbs that were rarely thrown.

This year the new moguls of the Internet had been strutting, showing off their soaring expectations, trumpeting their latest mergers and looking to raise cash from the money managers sitting in the audience. The money people, who stewarded other people’s pensions and savings, together commanded so much wealth that it could hardly be comprehended: more than a trillion dollars. [10] With a trillion dollars in 1999, you could pay the income tax of every single individual in the United States. You could give a brand-new Bentley automobile to every household in more than nine states. [11] You could buy every single piece of real estate in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles–combined. Some of the companies making presentations needed that money, and they wanted this audience to give it to them.

Early in the week, Tom Brokaw’s panel, called “The Internet and Our Lives,” had drum-majored a procession of presentations about how the Internet would reshape the communications business. Priceline’s Jay Walker took the audience through a dizzying vision of the Internet that compared the information superhighway to the advent of the railroad in 1869. One after another, executives laid out the glittering prospects for their companies, filling the room with the intoxicating vapor of a future unlimited by storage space and geography, so slick and visionary that while some were convinced that a whole new world was unfolding, others were reminded of snake-oil salesmen. The folks who ran technology companies saw themselves as Promethean geniuses bringing fire to lesser mortals. Other businesses that grubbed in the ashes to make the dull necessities of life–auto parts, lawn furniture–were now of interest mostly for how much technology they could buy. Some Internet stocks traded at infinite multiples of their nonexistent earnings, while “real companies” that made real things had declined in value. As technology stocks overtook the “old economy,” the Dow Jones Industrial Average [32] had burst through the once-distant 10,000-point barrier only four months before, doubling in less than three and a half years.

Many of the recently enriched congregated between speeches at a cordoned-off dining terrace by the Duck Pond, where a pair of captive swans paddled around a pool. There, any guest–but not a reporter–could edge through the masses of people in khaki pants and cashmere cable sweaters to ask a question of Bill Gates or Andy Grove. Meanwhile, the journalists chased after the Internet moguls as they moved between the Inn and their condos, amplifying the atmosphere of inflated self-importance that permeated Sun Valley this year.

Some of the new Internet czars spent Friday afternoon lobbying Herbert Allen to get them into celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz’s Saturday afternoon shoot of the Media All-Star Team for Vanity Fair. They felt they had been invited to Sun Valley because they were the people of the moment, and they had trouble believing that Leibovitz had made her own choices about who to photograph. Why, for example, would she include Buffett? His role in media had come mostly secondhand–through board memberships, a large network of personal influence, and a history of media investments large and small. Besides, he was old media. They found it hard to believe that his face in a photograph still sold magazines.

These would-be all-stars felt slighted because they knew perfectly well that the balance in media had shifted toward the Internet. That was so even though Herbert Allen himself thought the “new paradigm” for valuing technology and media stocks–based on clicks and eyeballs and projections of far-off growth rather than a company’s ability to earn cold hard cash–was bunk. “New paradigm,” he sniffed. “It’s like new sex. There just isn’t any such thing." [12]


The next morning, Buffett, emblem of the old paradigm, rose early, for he would be the closing speaker of the year. Invariably, he turned down requests to speak at conferences sponsored by other companies, but when Herbert Allen asked him to speak at Sun Valley, he always said yes. [13] The Saturday morning closing talk was the keynote event of the conference, so instead of heading straight to the golf course or grabbing a fishing rod, almost everyone went to the breakfast buffet at the Sun Valley Inn, then settled into a seat. Today Buffett would be talking about the stock market.

In private, he had been critical of the gunslinging, promoter-driven market that had sent technology stocks galloping toward delirious heights all year. The stock of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, languished in their dust, and his rigid rule of not buying technology stocks seemed outmoded. But the criticism had no influence on how he invested, and to date, the only statement he had made in public was that he never made market predictions. So his decision to get up at the podium in Sun Valley and do just that was unprecedented. Perhaps it was the times. Buffett had a firm conviction and an overwhelming urge to preach. [14]

He had spent weeks preparing for this speech. He understood that the market was not just people trading stocks as though they were chips in a casino. The chips represented businesses. Buffett thought about the total value of the chips. What were they worth? Next he reviewed history, pulling from an exhaustive mental file. This was not the first time that world-changing new technologies had come along and shaken up the stock market. Business history was replete with new technologies–railroads, telegraph, telephone, automobiles, airplanes, television: all revolutionary ways to connect things faster–but how many had made investors rich? He was about to explain.

After the breakfast buffet, Clarke Keough walked to the podium. Buffett had known the Keough family for many years; they had been neighbors back in Omaha. It was through Clarke’s father, Don, that Buffett had made the connections that led him to Sun Valley. Don Keough, now chairman of Allen & Co. a
ISBNs
055390549X
9780553805093
9780553905496