A LAST NAME, a Midwest upbringing and a penchant for giving away money aren’t the only things Warren and Doris Buffett have in common.
That was the thought that came to my mind after reading Michael Zitz’s new biography of Doris Buffett, “Giving It All Away,” and then spending a couple of hours talking to the “Sunshine Lady” at her Fredericksburg home this week.
Though Warren Buffett–whom I’ve never met or spoken to, but have read about extensively–has pledged his billions to charity, he focuses most of his efforts on making money. His sister Doris puts more energy into giving it away.
The ways they go about these endeavors are strikingly similar, however.
Both Buffetts lead comfortable lives, but they haven’t spent even close to as much money on themselves as they could have. That’s because both have thought about the compounding effect that money can have.
Doris is a big believer in “paying it forward”–investing in people who can help themselves and, in turn, others. Meanwhile, a young Warren declined to spend money that he knew he could compound exponentially through his investing acumen.
They’re both big believers in investing only in what they understand–whether it be philanthropic projects or companies. Neither employs an army of advisers, but rather forms his or her own independent judgment using a common-sense approach.
Both Buffetts also believe in finding good people and empowering them. Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation has hired talented women who are given authority to make decisions themselves on charity recipients. Warren Buffett is famous for buying companies with proven management teams that will remain in place, and then not meddling with their operations.
Both Buffetts clearly enjoy what they’re doing. Warren frequently says that at age 79 he “tap-dances” to work, a phrase that Doris also used during our interview this week in regard to the work she’s doing.
Despite their accomplishments, both are self-effacing. When asked if the new book might be inspiring to others, Doris said, “I’ve never thought of my life as an inspiration.” Warren frequently talks about the mistakes he’s made and pokes fun at himself. This is perhaps one of the reasons why neither believes in donating money just to get his or her name on a building.
Yet get them talking about others–for Doris the people she’s helped and those who have assisted, for Warren the managers who run Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries–and the conversation will last for some time.
Just as they’re both relatively frugal personally, each also deplores wasting money through his or her work. The Sunshine Lady Foundation has a small overhead in order to save money that can help others. Meanwhile Berkshire Hathaway, despite being one of the largest companies in the world, employs only about 20 people at its Omaha, Neb., headquarters, and Buffett pays himself just $100,000 a year to be CEO and chairman of the board.
Warren Buffett writes in the foreword to the new book that both he and Doris, as well as their sister Bertie, were “educated by a wonderful man, our father, Howard Buffett.” He believes their father “started Doris on this path,” and he has frequently cited Howard Buffett as among his heroes.
Whether the commonalities that the Buffetts share are due to their father or some other influence, it’s quite clear that they’ve learned many of the same lessons.
Staff reporter Bill Freehling writes this weekly column on business, personal finance and investing. He can be reached at 540/374-5405 or
Copyright 2010 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.