The Essays of Warren Buffett: A book review by Bob Morris

The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, Second Edition Warren E. Buffett with Lawrence A. Cunningham
The Cunningham Group (2008)

Note: Cunningham is a contributor as well as editor of the essays that Buffet wrote over the years, many of them included in Berkshire Hathaway’s annual reports as “Berkshire Hathaway Chairman’s Letter.” For those who really are serious about gaining a wider and deeper understanding of business, this is a “must read.”

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An Essential Source for Business Wisdom

Over the years, I have read several of the essays that Warren Buffett included in Berkshire Hathaway’s annual reports. After reading two biographies of him (Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life and Roger Lowenstein’s Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist), I purchased a copy of this volume and began to work my way through the contents selected, arranged, and introduced by Lawrence A. Cunningham. I began with Cunningham’s Introduction (all by itself, worth much more than the cost of the book) in which he reviews what he considers to be key points about Buffett and his leadership of Berkshire Hathaway.

For example, “The CEOs of Berkshire’s various operating companies enjoy a unique position in corporate America. They are given a simple set of commands: to run their 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 a hundred years.” With regard to investment thinking, “one must guard against what Buffett calls the `institutional imperative.’ It is a pervasive force in which institutional dynamics produce resistance to change, absorption of available corporate funds, and reflexive approval of suboptimal CEO strategies by subordinates. Contrary to what is often taught in business and law schools, this powerful force often interferes with rational business decision-making. The ultimate result of the institutional imperative is a follow-the-pack mentality producing industry imitators, rather than industry leaders – what Buffett calls a lemming-like approach to business.”

Cunningham organizes the essays within seven sections between Buffett’s Prologue (Pages 27-28) and his Epilogue (Pages 273-282):

I Corporate Governance
II Corporate Finance and Investing
III Alternatives to Common Stock
IV Common Stock
V Mergers and Acquisitions
VI Accounting and Valuation
VII Accounting Policy and Tax Matters

As Buffett explains in his Prologue, members of Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder group receive communications directly “from the fellow you are paying to run the business. Your Chairman has a firm belief that owners are entitled to hear directly from the CEO as to what is going on and how he evaluates the business, currently and prospectively. You should demand that in a private company; you should expect no less in a public company. A once-a-year report of stewardship should not be turned over to a staff specialist or public relations consultant who is unlikely to be in a position to talk frankly on a manager-to-owner basis.”

Those who share my own keen interest in Warren Buffett’s leadership and management principles will learn a great deal from a careful reading of these essays. They are quite literally “from the horse’s mouth.” The substantial value-added benefits include the fact that Buffett thinks and writes so clearly, duly acknowledges bad decisions and personal regrets (yes, there were several), explains what he learned from them, and meanwhile reveals a playful (albeit dry) sense of humor. He also includes a number of personal observations about America, especially about its culture and economy, at various times throughout the last 25-30 years. The two aforementioned biographies indicate that throughout his life, Buffett thoroughly enjoyed each and every opportunity to increase others’ understanding of sound business principles that include but are by no means limited to investments.

Readers who are not among Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders will especially appreciate the fact that, in each of these essays, Buffett establishes and then sustains a direct and personal rapport. The tone is conversational and, better yet, inclusive. He never talks down to his reader. He never “dumbs down” the material. Inevitably and appropriately, he cites Berkshire Hathaway situations when illustrating certain key points but, really, most of the material in this book will have wide and deep general interest to executives as well as to shareholders who otherwise have no association with either Buffett or his company. I highly recommend this book without hesitation or qualification.


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