DFN: This is a transcript of a TV interview that appeared over 15 pages.
Warren Buffett And Bill Gates Explain How To Make $100 Billion…
Henry Blodget|Nov. 15, 2009, 10:04 AM
Why did you buy Burlington Northern?
BUFFETT: You know, when I was six, I wanted a railroad set and my dad didn’t get it. [APPLAUSE]
You think about it. The railroads are tied to the future prosperity of this country. You can’t move a railroad to China or India or anyplace else. We start out with the premise, and I can’t think of a more sound premise, that there will be more people in this country, 10, 20, 30 years from now. They will be moving more and more goods back and forth to each other. And you have the most environmentally friendly and the most cost-efficient way of doing that on the railroads. The Burlington Northern last year moved — on average it moved a ton of freight, 470 miles on one gallon of diesel. That is far, far more efficient than what takes place over the highways. You have the situation where overall they use 1/3 less fuel, they put far fewer pollutants into the atmosphere than trucks will. One train will supplant 280 trucks are so on the road. So the rails are in tune with the future. I like the West. I like the 30-some-thousand miles of roadway that Burlington has. And, you know, if this country has a poor future, the rails have a poor future.
I’m willing to bet a lot of money, 34 billion to be specific — [LAUGHTER] — on the fact that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now, there will be more and more goods being moved by rail and better for the country and it will be better for the shareholders of the Burlington Northern.
What keeps you up at night?
BUFFETT: I try to live my life so nothing keeps me up at night.
I don’t like to sound, you know, like a mortician during an epidemic or anything, but last fall was really quite exciting for me. [LAUGHTER] I don’t wish it on anybody, but there were things being offered. There are opportunities for us to do things that didn’t exist a year or two earlier. So I really don’t — I don’t want to be in a position where I am leveraged or something of the sort that does keep me up at night. I did not worry about the ultimate survival of our economic system. We were messed up. Wasn’t any question about that. But the plants haven’t gone away. The cornfields haven’t gone away. The talent of the American people hasn’t gone away. The innovativeness of the next Bill Gates hasn’t gone away. This country was going to do fine. I knew that. We just had to get things straightened out. And we’re well on the way to having that happen…
[I]f you had a wonderful farm and you knew the next 50 years there would be five droughts but there would be 45 good years, I mean, you would not become paralyzed thinking about the five drought years. You would recognize that you’ve got a system that works very well over time, and that’s our American economic system.
GATES: The financial system, fortunately, good leadership has a lot of self-correction built into it. I think there are a few things that could surprise us that are negative. You know, big terrorist event sometime in the next 20 years, that would be a big negative. And a pandemic, which we’re actually having in terms of the rate of spread of a new flu, one right now. And fortunately, its actual impact is very modest, way less than any such thing. So you have to keep your eye out for a few outliers like that. Those are the two that I would point to. But overwhelmingly, the rest of the system, you know, there is self-correction built into it. The long-term thing that I don’t lose sleep over but I worry about is that we do have our education system, particularly the K through 12 part, not improving as much as we should. And it’s an important system for opportunity, it’s an important system for the economic strength of the country, and since it hasn’t improved that much, that’s a bit scary and needs a lot more attention.
What’s the market going to do?
BUFFETT: What’s going to happen tomorrow, huh? [APPLAUSE] Let me give you an illustration. I bought my first stock in 1942. I was 11. I had been dillydallying up until then. I got serious. [LAUGHTER] What do you think the best year for the market has been since 1942? Best calendar year from 1942 to the present time. Well, there’s no reason for you to know the answer. The answer is 1954. In 1954, the Dow … dividends was up 50%. Now if you look at 1954, we were in a recession a good bit of that time. The recession started in July of ’53. Unemployment peaked in September of ’54. So until November of ’54 you hadn’t seen an uptick in the employment figure. And the unemployment figure more than doubled during that period. It was the best year there was for the market.
So it’s a terrible mistake to look at what’s going on in the economy today and then decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on it. You should decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on how much you’re getting for your money, long-term value you’re getting for your money at any given time. And next week doesn’t make any difference because next week, next week is going to be a week further away. And the important thing is to have the right long-term outlook, evaluate the businesses you are buying. And then a terrible market or a terrible economy is your friend. I don’t care, in making a purchase of the Burlington Northern, I don’t care whether next week, or next month or even next year there is a big revival in car loadings or any of that sort of thing. A period like this gives me a chance to do things. It’s silly to wait. I wrote an article. If you wait until you see the robin, spring will be over.
BUFFETT: Well, I was — it prepared me very well, not the whole degree, but specific professors prepared me very well for what I wanted to go into. I knew I was interested in investing, like I say, from the time I was six or seven years of age. So I was lucky that I found what turned me on early on.
And I had these two marvelous professors here at Columbia that just being around — I had read all the stuff they had written. So it wasn’t I was acquiring lots of incremental knowledge but I was getting inspired. They were terrific for me. They treated me like a son. They would take me out to dinner. Ben Graham did the same thing for me. So it gave me confidence in myself. It just propelled me into a field I already love with a terrific tailwind from these professors that believed in me. [APPLAUSE] But let me add one point because — to the MBA situation. Right now, I would pay $100,000 for 10% of the future earnings of any of you. So anybody that wants to see me after this is over — [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] If that’s true, you are a million-dollar asset right now, right, if 10% of you is worth 100,000? You could improve — many of you, and I certainly could have when I got out, just in terms of learning communication skills. You know, it’s not something that is taught. I actually went to a Dale Carnegie course later on in terms of public speaking. But if you improve your value 50% by having better communication skills, that’s another $500,000 in terms of capital value. See me after the class and I’ll pay you 150-thousand. [APPLAUSE]
BECKY: Warren, you bring up your time here. I don’t know if you can see the monitors back here, but we did take a look at your yearbook and steal your picture from 1951 year.
QUICK: I think we have a picture in the back. There you are. [APPLAUSE]
BUFFETT: I don’t think I’d pay $100,000 for 10% of that guy. [LAUGHTER]
How big a role did luck play in your success?
GATES: Well, I was lucky in many ways. I was lucky to be born with certain skills. I was lucky to have parents that created an environment where they shared what they were working on and let me buy as many books as I wanted to. And I was lucky in terms of the timing.
The invention of the microprocessor was something profound. And it turned out only if you were kind of young and looking at that could you appreciate what it meant. And then I had been obsessed with writing software. It turned out that was the key missing thing that would allow the microprocessor to have this incredible impact.
So in timing and skill set, in some of the people I was lucky enough to meet, you know, meeting Warren and talking to him, learning from him, it is unusual to have so much luck in one life, I think. But it’s been a major factor in what I have been able to do.
What do you two (Buffett and Gates) most admire about each other?
BUFFETT [To Gates]: My athletic ability. Say that. [APPLAUSE]
Well, I would say what I really most admire about Bill is the view he has about what he should do with the wealth he’s accumulated. I mean, as he said, he was very lucky. He was born in the right country, at the right time, with the right wiring and all of that sort of thing. In the end, he knows he’s a beneficiary of a terrific society, and not everybody gets the long straws like he and I did. So he is — and he has this view that every human life worldwide is the equivalent of every other human life, and he’s backing it up not only with money, but backing it up with his time. And his wife, Melinda, is backing it up with her time. And they are really going to spend, you know, the last half of their lives or so using both money, talent, energy, imagination, all improving the lives of 6.5 billion people around the world. That’s what I admire the most. [APPLAUSE]
GATES: With Warren, there are a lot of things you could pick, you know, his integrity as an example for the world. His sense of humor. But I think I’d pick his desire to teach, his desire to teach things that are complex and put them in a simple form so that people can understand and get the benefit of all his experience, all his models of how the world works. He loves to teach. And he does it meeting with students. He does it in his annual newsletter. He does it when he’s talking to me on the phone. It’s a real gift that I admire incredibly. [APPLAUSE]
What should we do if we don’t know what we want to do with our lives?
GATES: Well, finding the thing that you are passionate about and that you are good at can sometimes take a period of years. I think Warren and I were lucky we kind of ran into it. I wasn’t even sure it was software. I was kind of obsessed with it but then it wasn’t clear it could be a career. When that happened, it was great. I think most other people get into their 20s and have to try out some different experiences. And some things will expose you to a lot of different businesses, a lot of different work opportunities. And I think you can make your first few jobs optimized for getting that exposure. And then when you want it, see the thing that you want to be fanatical about and just jump on to that.
BECKY: All right.
BUFFETT: First of all, I’d say marry the right person. [LAUGHTER] And I’m serious about that. [APPLAUSE] It will make more difference in your life. It will change your aspiration, all kind of things. It’s enormously important who you marry. Beyond that, I would say that do what you would do if you were in my position, where the money means nothing to you. At 79, … I work every day. And it’s what I want to do more than anything else in the world. The closer you can come to that early on in your life, you know the more fun you’re going to have in life and really the better you’re going to do. So don’t be driven where you think the last dollar is presently or anything of that sort. And then also go to work, if possible, for an organization or an individual that you admire. I mean I offered to go to work for Ben Graham because there was nobody I admired more in the business than him. I didn’t care what he paid me.
When he finally did hire me in 1954, I moved from Omaha to New York and I didn’t know what I was getting paid until I got my first paycheck. But I knew I wanted to work for Ben Graham. And I knew I would jump out of bed every morning and be excited about what I would do and I would go home at night smarter than I was in the morning. Go to work at a job that turns you on and a person that turns you on and institution. [APPLAUSE]
How can we find good investments?
BUFFETT: I just advise looking at as many things as possible and you will find some bargains. And when you find them, you have to act.
It doesn’t — it hasn’t changed at all since I was here in 1950, 1951. And it won’t change the rest of my life.
You start turning pages. When I got out of school, I turned every page in Moody’s 10,000-some pages twice, looking for companies. And you have to find them yourself. The world isn’t going to tell you about great deals. You have to find them yourself. And that takes a fair amount of time. So if you are not going to do that, if you are just going to be a passive investor, then I just advise an index fund more consistently over a long period of time.
The one thing I will tell you is the worst investment you can have is cash. Everybody is talking about cash being king and all that sort of thing. Most of you don’t look like you are overburdened with cash anyway. [LAUGHTER] Cash is going to become worth less over time. But good businesses are going to become worth more over time. And you don’t want to pay too much for them so you have to have some discipline about what you pay. But the thing to do is find a good business and stick with it.
BECKY: Does that mean you think we are through the roughest times? You had always kept the cash word around, too.
BUFFETT: We always keep enough cash around so I feel very comfortable and don’t worry about sleeping at night. But it’s not because I like cash as an investment. Cash is a bad investment over time. But you always want to have enough so that nobody else can determine your future essentially.
The worst — the financial panic is behind us. The economic spillout which came to some extent from that financial panic is still with us. It will end. I don’t know if it will end tomorrow or next week or next month. Or maybe a year. But it won’t go on forever. And to sit around and try and pick the bottom, people were trying to do that last March and the bottom hadn’t come in unemployment and the bottom hadn’t come in business but the bottom had come in stocks. Don’t pass up something that’s attractive today because you think you will find something way more attractive tomorrow.
What is the most important character for a business leader to have?
GATES: Well, it’s surprising that the fundamentals of business are pretty straightforward, you know. You try to take more in income than you spend in cost. That’s a pretty straightforward subtraction. But it’s surprising in terms of projecting out into the years ahead that, you know, are we making the right investments, are we gaining on the competition, are we making it a little bit harder for people to replace what we’re doing? That kind of common sense, I guess you’ve got to develop it through experience. And I think it’s neat if you are young and you can see that in a small scale and be hands on with it because a lot of people who start with large businesses may have a hard time with it.
So, you know, the basics are pretty straightforward. Learning how it works and doesn’t work in a variety of industries, by reading a lot, I think that’s something that comes with time and a business school is an intense period where you can get ahead of the game.
BUFFETT: I send one message out every year and a half or two years. They get one letter from me every couple of years. And basically it says, run this business like it’s the only business that your family can own for the next 100 years. You can’t sell it. But every year don’t measure it by the earnings in the quarter that year. Measure it by whether the moat around that business, what gives it competitive advantage over time has widened or narrowed. If you keep doing that for 100 years, it’s going to work out very well. Then I tell them basically if the reason for doing something is everybody else is doing it, it’s not good enough. If you have to use that as a reason, forget it. You don’t have a good reason for doing something. Never use that.
How are you two different from everyone else? What’s the secret to your success?
BUFFETT: It’s always interesting when Bill and I appear together, they don’t figure they can do what Bill does, but they know they can do what I do. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]
We did both have a passion. We were doing what we did because we loved it. We weren’t doing it to get rich. We probably felt if we did it well, we would get rich. But we’d have done it, you know, if somebody was slipping bread in under the door, you know, to keep us going. And so I think that passion for it is enormously important.
I was lucky enough to have a couple of great teachers, particularly one great teacher. I had a great teacher in life in my father. But I had another great teacher in terms of profession in terms of Ben Graham. I was lucky enough to get the right foundation very early on. And then basically I didn’t listen to anybody else. I just look in the mirror every morning and the mirror always agrees with me. And I go out and do what I believe I should be doing. And I’m not influenced by what other people think.
GATES: Well, we talked about some of the basics, having great people around you, reading a lot, thinking long-term. I also think, though, there become a few magic moments where you have to have confidence in yourself.
You know, Warren when he set off on his own, he could have gone and taken a job as an analyst somewhere. But he knew that he had the skill, that he was going to raise money and have his own partnership. When I dropped out of Harvard and said to my friends, ‘Come work for me,’ there was a certain kind of brass self-confidence in that.
You have a few moments like that where trusting yourself and saying yes, this can come together — you have to seize on those because not many come along.
Who were your most important mentors and what did you learn from them?
GATES: Well, I benefited from my dad and mom who set a great example. My dad was a lawyer and shared what he was doing at work. I have had some business partners that we have learned together, Steve Balmer in particular. And then I pick Warren as somebody I have learned an immense amount from, just hearing his stories of how he dealt with tough situations, how he thought long-term, how he models the world. If you get a chance to spend time with people like that, it’s great!
Bill, what do you think of Steve Jobs?
GATES: Well, he’s done a fantastic job. And Apple is in a bit of a different business where they make hardware and software together. But when Steve was coming back to Apple, which was actually through an acquisition of NeXT that he ran, Apple was in very tough shape. In fact, most likely, it wasn’t going to survive. And he brought in a team. He brought in inspiration about great products and design that’s made Apple back into being an incredible force in doing good things. And it’s, you know, great to have competitors like that. We write software for Apple, Microsoft does. They compete with Apple. But he, of all the leaders in the industry that I have worked with, he showed more inspiration and he saved the company.
Warren, you’ve said you sometimes make huge decisions in five minutes. How?
BUFFETT: Well, that’s 50 years of preparation and five (minutes) of decision making. [APPLAUSE]
BECKY: Can you just look at the spreadsheet? Can you look at an annual report and make a decision like that?
BUFFETT: Yeah. Sometimes I can. Just take Coca-Cola, for example. I sampled the product for 60 years and then I saw a couple of key ingredients, you know, that essentially tipped the scale in terms of buying it back in 1988. But the good big decisions, they don’t take any time at all. If they take time, you’re in trouble.
If America was a stock, would you buy it?
GATES: You bet.
BUFFETT: On margin. [LAUGHTER]