As senior editor-at-large for Fortune, Carol Loomis has seen Warren Buffett's rise from a rare vantage point. In “Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012,” Loomis collects Fortune's coverage of the influential business magnate's singular worldview. Here's an excerpt.
Because I have long been the chief writer about Warren Buffett at Fortune, which for decades has covered him more closely than any other business publication, I have often been asked whether I’m not going to branch out and write a Buffett biography. I have always said no, sure beyond a doubt that a writer who is a good friend of the subject does not make a good biographer. And I have indeed been a close friend of Warren’s for more than forty years, a shareholder in his company, Berkshire Hathaway, for almost that long, and the pro bono editor of his annual letter to shareholders for thirty-five. All of those facts can be accommodated in my Fortune articles about Buffett, simply by my informing the reader that they exist. But they are not a firm base for a wide-ranging personal and professional biography, in which there should be considerable distance between writer and subject. Its absence in this case settled the question.
But then it dawned on me that the scores of Buffett articles we have published in Fortune are in themselves a business biography—and a perfect one for a book. Here you have it: Tap Dancing to Work, the description that Buffett has long applied to his love for running Berkshire. This book is a collection, arranged chronologically for the most part, of all our big articles about Warren (plus some shorter, lighter ones like “Are Jimmy and Warren Buffett Related?”). For each of the big stories I’ve written an introduction or commentary—about forty of them in total. These paragraphs explain, for example, what’s particularly important about the story, what Warren forecast that did or didn’t come true, what he thinks today about the story’s main point. Overall, the book’s material covers a large chunk of history—forty-six years—an important span of time not only for Buffett but for the U.S. economy in which he has so successfully operated. (“Hmm, forty-six years,” Buffett would be inclined to say. “That’s a long time—almost one-fifth of the years the U.S. has existed.”)
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The articles and excerpts in this book were for the most part written by me and about forty other Fortune journalists (including three, John Huey, Rik Kirkland, and Andy Serwer, who rose to managing editor, with John subsequently moving still higher to the post of Time Inc.’s editor-in-chief). But the authors also include Buffett himself, who wrote two important stories expressly for us and inserted think-piece sections into his annual letters that we lifted out and made into stories. Also represented is that well-known business writer Bill Gates.
In content as well as authors, this book is enormously diverse. We had the good sense along the way not to repeat ourselves too much, and when we did, I normally edited out the repetition. Actually, not repeating ourselves was pretty easy, because Warren kept doing new things.
When you finish this book, you will have seen the arc of Warren’s business life. The first story in which we ever mentioned him was in 1966. He got one sentence then in an investing piece I wrote about another man (Alfred Winslow Jones) and in which I misspelled Buffett—giving it only one t. I will try, however weakly, to pardon myself for that by saying that outside Omaha (where a few investors knew Warren well because he was making them rich) he was in 1966 pretty much unknown. Jump to the early 1980s, and he hadn’t gained much ground. When Fortune hired freelancer Andrew Tobias in 1983 to write a piece about Buffett’s shareholder letters (see page 34), Tobias had never heard of this fellow. That means, alas, that Tobias had missed the big story about inflation that Warren wrote for us in 1977 (see page 9) and about which he still gets mail.
The middle part of the book, starting with my 1988 profile, “The Inside Story of Warren Buffett,” describes his adding a second profession, business management, to his old one of investor—and next, of course, he made Berkshire Hathaway a huge force in corporate America. Few people recognize the insignificance from which that company has come. In 1965, when Warren took it over, Berkshire was a New England textile manufacturer far too small to have made the Fortune 500 list. For 2011, in contrast, it was No. 7 on the 500. That rank is for revenues, which is the 500’s primary criterion. In market value, a higher accomplishment in Buffett’s thinking, Berkshire was No. 9.
And all that has happened in one man’s lifetime, which of course is not over.
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The final years covered by the book complete the arc, so to speak, by taking Warren beyond investing and business to philanthropy. This step did not require him to invent a philosophy. He has never believed in large inheritances (see page 54) and almost all of his money has always been slated to go to philanthropy. But he had always assumed that his wife, Susie—two years younger—would outlive him and be the one who gave away his money. Susie then died of a stroke in 2004, and the philanthropy yoke settled back, none too lightly, on Warren. Thus came his announcement in 2006 that he would start to give away his money immediately, and his 2010 move, with Bill and Melinda Gates, to create the Giving Pledge. Fortune broke the news in each instance, in cover stories that appear toward the end of this book.
You can take the man out of investing, but you cannot take investing out of this man, for sure. The final story in this book, adapted from Warren’s letter in the 2011 annual report, explains the three types of investments and the one he prefers. There won’t be any great surprise in his choice, but a new dose of Buffett investment advice as you finish the book can’t be all bad.
For me, compiling this book has been a trek through my own career at Fortune (1954–still happening) and through endless warnings as well to put two t’s on Buffett. More significantly, it has been an extended and rewarding reminder of Buffett’s investment and business genius, creativeness, and—not the least of these—consistency of thought.
A friend of well-known writer William Buckley made a statement about him that I will adapt here. Fortune and I were lucky to be standing alongside Warren Buffett as he was becoming Warren Buffett.
Excerpted from "Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on practically everything, 1966-2012" collected and expanded by Carol Loomis. Copyright © 2012 Time Inc. Reprinted by permission of Portfolio, a division of the Penguin Group.
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