Book Review: Warren Buffett on Business

In the Fall of 2005, I was at the Annual Meeting of the Casualty Actuarial Society in exotic Baltimore, Maryland.  The Keynote address was by Roger Lowenstein who did a talk on two topics.  Warren Buffett the great investor, and the looming problems from the demographic crisis.

At the end of what was arguably a good talk, he asked for questions.  No one raised their hands.  After a pause, he asked for questions again, and I raised my hand.  I commented that he should have given his talk to the Life actuaries — they are the ones concerned about longevity and health costs, and if he really wanted to do a favor for casualty actuaries, don’t talk about Buffett the investor — talk about Buffett the P&C insurance CEO.

He commented that he was asked to speak about the topic by the CAS.  I like Lowenstein, so if you are reading this Roger, my apologies for making the comment.

Warren Buffett on Business is one step closer to the book I would like to see — I would like to see a book on Buffett as an insurance CEO.  Buffett is a great insurance CEO, and deserves a lot of credit in that capacity.  (Warren, I doubt you are reading this, but if you would like me to write that book, please e-mail me.)

But Berkshire Hathaway is an insurance/industrial hybrid, unique among companies.  Warren Buffett on Business ignores Buffett the investor to take up issues that are just as significant: Buffett the business owner and manager.

The words in the book are Buffett’s.  The man who organized the book took Buffett’s words over the last 25-30 years, and organized them into categories regarding management issues.  The topics include:

  • Berky acts like a partnership even though it is a corporation.
  • Corporate Culture and Governance
  • Competent Managers and Honest Communication
  • GEICO and Gen Re acquisitions (personally I think Buffett got hosed moving to terminate financial contracts  at Gen Re rapidly.  There is a rule of thumb that says negotiations on illiquid contracts should be undertaken slowly, unless the other side is panicking.)
  • Assessing and Managing Risk
  • Compensating Management
  • Time Management
  • Crisis Management
  • Acquisitions — Buffett gets to own a wide number of unique corporations, because the one selling out wants the culture preserved, and if the price is right Buffett will do that.
  • Ethics in Business
  • And more…

Both in the chapters and in the appendices, the words of Buffett shine forth as a way to manage corporations for the best long term results, even if things don’t work so well in the short run.

Quibbles

Much as I like the words of Buffett, I prefer a second voice adding analysis.  Let the words of Buffett star, but let someone else add color and history, because Buffett’s own words are not complete enough.

Also, an analysis of how Buffett managed the insurance lines of his enterprise would be welcome.  Even for those looking exclusively at investment issues, the insurance enterprises offered Buffett the balance sheet he needed to buy assets that could take a while to work out.

Who would benefit from this book: Any manager of any company would benefit from this book.  Buffett lovers, if you have read the last 25-30 years of annual reports from Buffett, and notable things he has said outside of that, you likely do not need this, unless you have specific questions on management that you want answered by Buffett, and you can’t remember what he said in the past.

For most of the rest of us, this will still be a valuable book.  If you want to buy this book, you can buy it here: Warren Buffett on Business: Principles from the Sage of Omaha

Full Disclosure:  I review books because I love reading books, and want to introduce others to the good books that I read, and steer them away from bad or marginal books.  Those that want to support me can enter Amazon through my site and buy stuff there.  Don’t buy what you don’t need for my sake.  I am doing fine.  But if you have a need, and Amazon meets that need, your costs are not increased if you enter Amazon through my site, and I get a commission.  Win-win.