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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 17 November 2008
I recently re-read Roger Lowenstein's biography, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist (first published in 1995 and now re-issued with a new Afterword), and then read this more recent one by Alice Schroeder. Both are first-rate. Which to select if reading only one? That depends on how much you wish to know about Buffett's personal life, including his relations with various family members, and how curious you are about his personal hang-ups, peculiarities, eccentricities, fetishes, etc. If you can do without any of that, Roger Lowenstein's biography is the one to read. I also highly recommend the recently published Second Edition of The Essays of Warren Buffet: Lessons for Corporate America, with content selected, arranged, and introduced by Lawrence Cunningham.

The heft of Schroeder's biography may discourage some people from obtaining a copy. To them I presume to suggest that they not be deterred by that factor. Schroeder has a lively, often entertaining writing style that drives the narrative through just about every period and (yes) interlude of Warren Buffett's life and career thus far. There is much more information provided than most readers either need or desire. However, she had unprecedented access not only to Buffett but to just about everyone else with whom he is (or once was) associated as well as to previously inaccessible research resources. It is possible but highly unlikely that anyone else will write a more comprehensive biography than Schroeder has, at least for the next several years, if not decades. Also, her opinion of Buffett seems to me to be balanced and circumspect. No doubt he wishes that certain details about his life and career were not included. However, there has been no indication from him or those authorized to represent him that any of the material in this biography (however unflattering) is either inaccurate or unfair. Both halos and warts are included.

Others have shared their reasons for holding this book in high regard. Here are two of mine. First, although I had already read various Buffett's chairman's letters that first appeared in a series of Berkshire Hathaway's annual reports, I did not understand (nor could I have understood) the context for observations he shared, especially his comments about especially important 12-month periods throughout BRK's history. Schroeder provides the context or frame-of-reference I needed but previously lacked. For example, whereas in previous letters, Buffett merely offered brief updates on how each BRK company was doing, in 1978 he began to share his thoughts about major business topics such as performance measurement for management and why short-term earnings were a poor criterion for investment decisions. With the help of Carol Loomis, especially since 1977, his chairman's letters "had grown more personal and entertaining by the year; they amounted to crash courses in business, written in clear language that ranged from biblical quotations to references to Alice in Wonderland, and princesses kissing toads." As Schroeder explains, these gradual but significant changes of subject and tone reflect changes in Buffett's personal life as he became more reflective about business principles and more appreciative of personal relationships. His children were growing up and departing the "nest" in Omaha. His wife Susie decided to relocate to San Francisco. Meanwhile, his personal net worth continued to increase substantially. His national and then international recognition also increased. The "Oracle of Omaha" had finally become sufficiently confident of himself to reveal to others "a sense of him as a man."

I also appreciate how carefully Schroeder develops several separate but related themes that help her reader to manage the wealth of information she provides. The biography's title suggests one of these themes: the "snowball" effect that compounded interest can have. From childhood when he began to sell packs of gum (but not single sticks) and bottles of soda, and a money changer was his favorite toy, Buffett was fascinated by the way that numbers "exploded as they grew at a constant rate over time was how a small sum could be turned into a fortune. He could picture the numbers compounding as vividly as the way a snowball grew when he rolled it across the lawn. Warren began to think about it a different way. Compounding married the present to the future. If a dollar today was going to be worth ten some years from now, then in his mind the two were the same." Early in life, Buffett avoided making any purchases unless they were almost certain to generate compound interest. This theme is central to understanding Buffett's investment principles and to his own leadership of BRK. It also helps to explain why he could become physically ill when an investment cost others the funds they had entrusted to his care. Other themes include his determination to simplify his life to the extent he could (e.g. eating hamburgers and wearing threadbare sweaters, minimizing participation in family activities) so that he could concentrate almost entirely on business matters; his dependence on a series of women, beginning with his mother and two sisters (especially Doris) that continued with his first wife Susie (and their daughter "Susie Jr.") and then companion Astrid Menks whom he married in 2006; and his passion for helping others to understand the business principles to which he has been committed since childhood.

There is one other theme of special interest and importance to me: over the years, how Buffett has interacted with various associates, notably with Jerome Newman and Benjamin Graham, Sandy Gottesman, Charlie Munger, Bill Ruane, Katherine Graham, and Bill Gates. By all accounts, Buffett is a superb business associate once he agrees to become involved. He cares deeply about each relationship, does whatever may be necessary to protect and defend the best interests of his associates, and is extraordinarily generous with material rewards as well as recognition. Here is an especially revealing excerpt from Cunningham's Introduction to The Essays of Warren Buffett: "The CEOs at Berkshire's operating companies enjoy a unique position in corporate America. They are given a simple set of commands: to run the business as if (1) they are its sole owner, (2) it is the only asset they hold, and (3) they can never sell or merge it for one hundred years." These three "commands" are wholly consistent with what Lawrence explains earlier in the same Introduction: "The central theme uniting Buffett's lucid essays is that the principles of fundamental business analysis, first formulated by his teachers Ben Graham and David Dodd, should guide investment practice. Linked to that theme are management principles that define the proper role of corporate managers as the stewards of investment capital and the proper role of shareholders as the suppliers and owners of capital. Radiating from these main themes are practical and sensible lessons on the entire range of important business issues, from accounting to mergers to valuation." Those who shared Buffett's same core values of honesty and integrity, and who are also committed to the same basic principles, cherish their relationship with him.

To me, Alice Schroeder's rigorous and eloquent analysis of this theme of mutually productive and beneficial collaboration is her single greatest achievement among many in this definitive biography of one of the most important and yet least understood business leaders in recent years. Bravo!
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on 23 April 2012
Warren Buffett is the American investment colossus. His name moves markets. At 81, he's taking some of the biggest positions of his career. His taxation pronouncements are cited by the President. The April 2012 announcement that he had stage one prostate cancer was news worldwide. No doubt, then, that Alice Schroeder's 800 page book tackles a subject of real importance. Indeed, such is the continued pace of events, Schroeder should consider a third edition of this book, following hard on her 2010 Lehman revisions: whether it's Tesco or on the stump, Warren Buffett is making the news more now than any at other time in his sixty year career.

This is an authorised biography and an authoritative one. It is difficult to see any other Buffet biography superseding this book or not relying on it; the privileged access that Shroeder has had is obvious on every page.

It avoids the usual problems of authorised biographies for the most part: it isn't too saccharine, nor is it a hagiography. Buffett seems to have encouraged a warts and all portrayal. There's a genuine effort to do this, but I sense that Buffett has escaped a truly disinterested appraisal. Schroeder is too polite to ever be anything other than respectful. At times, she seems in awe of her subject. There's enough balance overall, though, to give the book credibility.

Politeness and respectfulness allow the book its only turgid moments: long passages dealing with Buffett's family life. These become tiresome. Certainly, there's an unconventional aspect to Buffett's domestic arrangements. These give some insight into his singular personality and deserve scrutiny, but we get seven decades of familial minutiae and psychobabble. What is even more trying during these long domestic interludes is that Buffett is not in them; if he's about, he's buried in reports. One cannot know the details of tens of thousands of companies and be at the heart of family life. Buffett needs someone to be there, but his concentration is such that he's not always sure who it is. We are often left for page after page, then, with nice but unexceptional people and their relationship with a man absent even when he's there.

The accounts of family life may pall but the business life is enthralling. Schroeder writes with all the style of a business journalist but that doesn't harm the book. Buffett is all business, all the time; it's the insights into his investment success, in a period when American wealth grew 6 times in real terms, that really get the pages turning.

The Buffett story cannot be separated from that of the country in which he has always believed. In some Mad Men epsisode, Don and Roger are talking about Pete Campbell, the chippy executive. One notes that Campbell's family sold out in the '29 crash and took a bath. "They didn't believe in America," He concludes. It's a telling phrase. To do business in America, to invest in America, was to believe in America. To quote Calvin Coolidge more fully than is usual: "After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world." Warren Buffett was born into an America where momentarily this seemed no longer to be true. The fear that Franklin Roosevelt spoke of gripped America's economy and so the world's. In the worst of it, Warren Buffett's father lost his stockbroking job. Like many an American before and since, he dusted himself off and started on his own as...a stockbroker. To do that in the teeth of America's greatest peacetime test, to build a successful stockbroking business in `thirties Nebraska, was admirable. It also had an effect on his son.

Malcolm Gladwell would recognise the outlier's outlier in Warren Buffett. His character, his background, and his environment have made him the Mozart of capital accumulation. We must remember Malcolm Gladwell's thoughts on why some people's success is freakish, an outlier: they were shaped to be the right people to do exactly the right things at exactly the right time. Alice Shroeder's "The Snowball: Warren Buffett And The Business Of Life" isn't just about Warren Buffett, it is also about the life blood of America's world changing power in the twentieth century: business. Warren Buffett knows business and, specifically, American business. When a ratings agency downgraded U.S. debt in 2011, Warren Buffett was perplexed. He stated that America's wasn't a AAA economy, it was a AAAA economy. His words were reported across the globe because of their $40 billion authority: a fortune earned from the economy in which he still believed. It's Buffett's belief in American business that Schroeder captures in this book. Allied to encyclopaedic understanding and great skill, Buffett has accumulated an immense fortune and great fame. Alice Schroeder portrays this unique man with a detail her subject would recognise and approve of.
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on 16 November 2008
Understanding Buffett has become a modern Holy Grail, the pot of gold at the end of a seventy eight year rainbow. How does he do it? How can ordinary people even come close? Having met him first in 2001, Alice Schroeder was first allowed in to the inner sanctum, then granted unfettered access to the man himself "You'll do a better job than I would, Alice. I'm glad you're writing this book, not me". He adds "Whenever my version is different from somebody else's, use the less flattering version".

Five years, 960 pages, 62 chapters, 90 pages of notes, 32 pages of photos, 23 pages of index later, Schroeder has brought us The Snowball, Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. Berkshire Hathaway put on over $50 billion of market capitalisation whilst she was writing it. That's over $50 million for each page. No wonder Buffett was happy to entrust the book to Schroeder. Writing books doesn't usually add value that fast.

Schroeder demonstrates that, after all this detailed research, much from the man himself and other primary sources, there is no silver bullet. This may disappoint critiques of other works on Buffett who seemed to be seeking one and were rather hoping that the official biography would, at last, provide it. Rather, what emerges is a combination of old fashioned focus, discipline, common sense, the ability to get with people, to push them just beyond their comfort zone but keep them onside, to drive hard bargains but still remain popular, to calculate business risks and probabilities with consummate ease, accuracy and success, and to continue to seek great businesses at affordable prices. A complex approach from a deeply complex, old-fashioned yet fully at ease in the moment, extremely well-connected and quite remarkable man who has defied the odds and, in the process, conclusively disproved and outlived the Efficient Markets Hypothesis.

Having read The Snowball, the Shareholder Letters and a number of other books on Buffett, the author of this review is still left wondering how he really managed it. There is plenty of inspiration in The Snowball for would-be investors. Many mistakes are also profiled - and the lessons to be learned from them. The book was worth the wait, but don't expect it to reveal all the answers. Otherwise we would all be billionaires.
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on 9 October 2008
The book starts well although it reads a bit like a hagiography written by Arthur Hailey. That is ok by me I like Arthur Hailey and have always regarded Buffett as a saint. I laughed out loud several times during the first 50 pages.

After this it gets a bit heavier going. There are many insights and many surprises. I had not realised that Berkshire Hathaway lost money from the start and wound up having the textile mill shut down. I had not reliased that Buffett was first a director of Salomon brothers and then became chairman appointed to clean up the mess which he seems to have done with great honour distinction and dignity. I liked the account of the arbitration with the former director Gutfreund who seems to have had it coming. His views on how derivatives spawn risk rather than remove it are very current today. Also his views on the Efficient Market Hypothesis have always been my own and not current orthodoxy.

A trifle over-written but very moving at the death of this friend Kay Graham and at the death of his wife Susie. Remarkable for the close friendship he enjoys with Bill and Melinda Gates and his partner Charlie Munger.
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on 28 May 2011
I've never chosen or bought a stock in my life. Ok I read the Ft but only when they give it away on airplanes and I read the lifestyle section. I know nothing about Buffett other than the fact that he is one of the very rich. I didn't even buy this book,i'd started to read it over someone's shoulder on a train and got hooked on the voice.

Once I got my own copy, I look forward to coming home to read more pages. Reading between the lines, I learn heaps about American 'folksiness', their history, home life, economic development, in the way that american movies fail to deliver, what real people can identify with and I love the fact that the account is told by a superbly intelligent person who doesn't attempt to fit a great story into some literary/ psychological strait jacket like the idiots who think they know better.

Perhaps because I wasn't looking for investment tips, I got a lot out of it. Also, thanks to the book, I got to grips with security analysis, because each chapter contain clear and simple explanations of the mechanics of investment as the reader follow Buffett's journey of discovery. I'm only a third of the way through, but I am already thinking about taking a punt on the stock market to put into practice some of the things I read about.

its not that different to a cookbook.
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on 31 March 2010
If you are not that interested in Buffett this is not the book for you. It is a very detailed analysis and insight into a self made man.
Will I learn enough to emulate the man -or do I want to ? Probably not! but it is a fascinating story into the psycology of such individuals. For example his aversion to spending money as once spent it cant be invested and benefit from the SNOWBALL effect -ie the benefit of compounding gains over a period of years.
Can you learn much? Well it does illustrate the importance of self discipline and sticking to your inner scorecard -I think this is the lesson I will take to heart - i.e is it better that everyone thinks you are the best lover in the world [ but are not] or that everyone thinks you are the worst lover [but are the best]. It encapsulates his philosophy to ignore the buzz of the ignorant because he is certain in himself that he has done a more thorough job of researching and analysis and knows better.
A classic example of this would be his ignoring the interent boom where others leapt on the bandwaggon and in some cases lost everything.Buffett ignored all those who implied he had "lost it" by not leaping into the bubble -he had the last laugh though!
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on 4 October 2008
How can the most comprehensive biography of the world's most remarkable allocator of capital be disappointing? Alice Schroeder has used her several years of access to Buffett to good, but not great effect.
This is a terrific human interest story, but how many purchasers will be buying the book for that reason?
For those of us spoiled by Buffett's ability to say all with few words, wading through Schroeder's work is frustrating. Ultimately, the return per word read matches the index of Buffett biographies, nothing more. For the book to live up to the man a greater return was required.
Everyone should understand Buffett, but start with the main feature: his own words and books that add value. This is the equivalent of the bonus disc: not as good as the feature, but with lots of background detail for enthusiasts.
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on 30 May 2009
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
I received this weighty tome for Christmas after putting it on my wish list on a whim. I wasn't sure that I would enjoy this book, especially after the first few pages which seemed overly descriptive, but this is an excellent read.
Although it is a lengthy read, it is not a difficult read and you do not need to be interested in investing to enjoy this book. The book contains more about his early life and upbringing, but this is as it should be as it shaped the man, and, many of the events in his later business life had become business as usual - how many company takeovers do you need to read about in detail?
The author has talked to many of his family and friends and gives a pretty good insight into the various strands of his life, one with more facets than I initially expected.
More than anything this book has left me liking Warren Buffet and his ethos.
This book is well written, interesting and definitely a good investment (excuse the pun).
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on 22 June 2009
The bottom line is, at 976 pages, you must really be obsessed with Buffet to put yourself through this.

I'm not saying the book isn't well researched or written but you have to ask yourself, what is the point of this book and why are you reading it?

Speaking for myself, although I assume many had a similar motivation, you might want to find out more about what goes on in Buffett's mind. How does he make such good investment decisions, maybe we can learn something from him. If that's where you are coming from then I recommend Security Analysis by Benjamin Graham with foreword by Buffet. That in conjunction with a book on his most famous quotes for entertainment value.

I'm typically the sort of person that reads a book from start to finish but this one I had to drop before the half-way point. If you're truly a Buffet fan then you'll appreciate the concept of opportunity cost. Instead of reading 976 pages of over elaborate descriptions one who met with whom, what they ate, what they drank, how they split the bill your time could be spent on more useful pursuits/books.
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on 8 May 2010
What is to be said about this book would already have been said by other reviewers, so I will just provide a succinct pros and cons.


-Extremely easy to read, flows very well.
-Chapters on Buffett's childhood were surprisingly funny
-Gives a very complete picture of Buffett's life behind the scenes. From what I can see, it is extremely well researched.
-A good moral story with lessons on morality. Allows you to ask yourself: "What would Buffett do here?"


-You may not finish if you aren't interested in Warren himself, whether you are interested in Business is largely irrelevant.

Finally, I would like to point out that if you are looking for a investment 101, this wouldn't be a buy. This is meant to be an accessible book. Remember this: Business without emotions, ethics and moral is a bad apple.
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