The thousands of shareholders who attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, each spring go to see Warren Buffett, but they also are fascinated by the man who sits beside him on the stage and helps the Oracle of Omaha answer questions. They call it the Warren and Charlie Show. It usually goes this way: Buffett answers the question, giving it as much or as little time as he sees fit. At the end, he turns to his longtime partner Charles Munger and asks, "Charlie, do you have anything to add?" Charlie sits there looking as if he'd already been chiseled into Mount Rushmore, and gives a brusque reply. "Nothing to add." He and Buffett play their little jokes each year to an audience that enjoys going right along with them. The meeting does have a deeper element though. Buffett gives serious thought to the questions. And occaionally, something will come over Munger and he delivers a little lecture, based on his long life and abundant experience. When he does speak, Munger has the audience's undivided attention.
He has messages that he thinks are important: Deal ethically with others; face reality; learn from the mistakes of others, and so forth. He delivers those sermonettes with missionary zeal.
"Daddy is very conscious of the fact that he represents social values that are not all that common in the business world," said his first daughter Molly Munger.
Munger isn't as wealthy as Buffett, partly because his life is organized differently. He isn't the showman Buffett is, though he can be enormously entertaining. Thanks to these two factors, the Munger family has long enjoyed the privilege of being billionaires without the inconveniences of fame.
I told Munger about this book project when I saw him at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting in May 1997, and said I would attend the Wesco Financial Corporation meeting later the same month and hoped we could talk more about the project at that time. Munger didn't say much except that he didn't think the book would sell many copies. My husband, a friend, and I did attend the Wesco meeting and when it was over, Munger rose and in a loud voice asked, "Is Janet Lowe here?" The assembled audience of several hundred people craned their necks searching for the culprit, and a few who know me pointed in my direction. I timidly stood, "Yes, Mr. Munger." He rose from his chair and declared, "Follow me," and turned and marched out a back door. I waved goodbye to my husband and friend, not sure when I would see them again. Munger silently led the way up the elevator and to a private office where he told me that the Munger family didn't want a biography of him. They could see their cherished privacy slipping away. Being a fundamentally shy person who doesn't enjoy confrontation, I did not find this meeting easy. But I explained that I had signed a contract and would need to deliver the book, even if he did not cooperate. I said, however, that I believed the book would be much better if he did. "All right then," Munger barked. "You can start by reading these books." He handed over a long list of his favorites, including Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Later, Munger told me that he went through phases, at first opposing the book, then trying to minimize the damage, and in the end, working right beside me, trying to make the events of his life as understandable as possible. It clearly wasn't always easy for him, especially when I pressed for details about the death of his son and the misguided surgery that left Charlie blind in one eye.
Nevertheless, Munger sat for long interviews at his home in Santa Barbara, his office in Los Angeles, and twice at his sister's home in Omaha. The Mungers invited my husband and me to their vacation retreat in Northern Minnesota, where I spent several days interviewing family and neighbors, but also went hiking, boating, fishing, and hanging out with the Mungers.
I have been researching and writing this book for three years. Although some of the research builds on work done earlier on value investor Benjamin Graham and his star pupil Buffett, that material could only serve as background. Munger's photograph has appeared on the cover of Forbes and he has been profiled in a couple of newspapers, but there is very little written about him. More than 75 percent of the research in this book is original. I've done 44 interviews with 33 different persons. I attended eight Berkshire shareholder meetings and five Wesco Financial Corporation annual meetings, where Munger is alone on the stage and doesn't hold back anything. I worked with transcripts of about a half dozen speeches that Munger gave in various places, including one for his class reunion at Harvard Law School.
Although he became involved in the project, Charlie tried to resist the temptation to direct the book, other than to say often that he hoped it would emphasize the lessons he's learned during his 76 years of life. He would like others to benefit from his errors and successes. Indeed, the lessons of his life are not so much in the telling as in the living. The way he and his wife raised eight children through all kinds of adversityhow Munger constantly strove to maximize his talents and his financial situation, the responsibility he feels to be a connected, contributing citizenall that is something of a saga. While writing this book, I often burst out laughing, but there were times I winced in pain or felt sorrow. Life threw Charlie about everything it had.
While Munger is a one-of-a-kind, he also is typical of the fusion of West Coast culture with Midwestern values, which took place primarily in the first half of the twentieth century. If Buffett shows that it is possible to be an alpha male investor and live and work in Omaha, a city not known as a financial center, Munger shows that despite some commonly held assumptions, valuable, innovative financial, and cultural ideas can and do flow from west to east.
Munger often lectures on big ideas that can change your life, but in those speeches he does not give detailed instructions on what to do. He hands his listeners a map with which they can find the treasure of wisdom, and like any good treasure map, it's so simple that it is deceptive. You don't get the treasure until you figure out what the instructions mean and follow them to the end. (Continues...)