As Buffett's fortune rose, so did his fame - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, December 8, 2013 at 1:30 am / Updated at 1:16 am
As Buffett's fortune rose, so did his fame
Steve Jordon's "The Oracle & Omaha"
This is an excerpt from Steve Jordon's “The Oracle & Omaha,” a look at how Warren Buffett and his hometown share a history and a future. The book costs $29.95 and is available at bookstores. It also can be ordered at OWHstore.com or by calling 402-444-1014.
Dec. 1: Buffett's return to Omaha from New York.
Today: Omaha discovers it is home to a budding financial genius.
Dec. 15: Why Buffett stays on the sidelines in civic matters.

Warren Buffett quietly operated his hugely profitable investment partnerships for nearly a decade. Some of his partners had whispered about his knack for making big gains, but most of their friends nodded politely and kept their wallets in their pockets.

But then a World-Herald reporter caught wind of what the young investor was doing and wrote the first Buffett profile story in 1966.

Many Omahans knew the Buffett name from Warren's staunchly conservative father, Howard, along with his grandfather and uncle, Ernest and Fred, the upstanding grocers. A handful of people had taken his investment classes at Omaha University, and word had gotten around in the established stockbroker community about Buffett's unusual practices.

But The World-Herald story blew Buffett's cover, and before long Warren became THE Buffett in Omaha.

World-Herald reporter Robert Dorr was covering Omaha business in 1966 when he began to hear some interesting chatter about a young local investor.

“I would hear people talking about Warren Buffett around town and in the newsroom,” Dorr said. “The finances were all private, but they were saying he had started this investment company and was getting fabulous returns. This was what people were talking about at cocktail parties.” ...

Dorr told Buffett he wanted to do a story about him and his Buffett Partnership Ltd., an investment vehicle formed from the original partnerships.

“I don't want anything done,” Buffett told Dorr. “There's no benefit whatsoever. It would only attract public attention.”

Finding sources to talk about the 35-year-old money manager was the next step for Dorr, and he found three among Buffett's friends and investment partners: John Cleary, who ran an Omaha business in which Buffett was an investor and a board member; Charles Heider, head of an Omaha brokerage firm; and advertising man Dick Holland.

Heider and Holland, Dorr said, “opened up completely on what Warren's investing partnership was.” They gave Dorr, among other documents, copies of Buffett's letters to his partners. ...

What really caught Dorr's eye were the report's numbers. “He was reporting gains at 25 percent a year on average,” recalled Dorr with a note of incredulity in his voice. “It suddenly hit me. The talk around town was not exaggerated.”

Dorr typed his story and, before turning it in to his editor, went back to Buffett's office at Kiewit Plaza. Buffett took the manuscript, sat back and began to read, “One of the most successful investment businesses in the United States is operated in Omaha by a young man who bought his first stock at age 11.” He fixed a few facts here and there and, even though he said he still didn't want the story to run, began talking, filling in some biographical facts and other details.

For example, when he taught at Omaha University, he said, his appearance didn't inspire confidence. “I was skinnier then and looked like I could get into a basketball game as a high school student.”

Dorr could tell that Buffett, despite his initial reluctance about a story, liked reporters and newspapers, and he agreed to a photo session. A few days later, World-Herald photographer Yano Melingagio showed up with a Speed-Graphic camera, shooting 4-by-5-inch negatives not only of the publicity-shy Buffett but also his two staffers, bond manager Bill Scott and administrator John Harding.

Dorr added Buffett's in-person comments and new information to the story, sprinkling the quotes into a final version. The story was headlined, “Investor at 11, Warren Buffett Controls $45 Million Fund at 35.” ...

Being in Omaha helped keep Buffett's name away from the attention of financial reporters, who were concentrated in New York City. Few newspapers had daily business sections, leaving the subject matter mostly to Fortune, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and a few specialty publications not seen by the general public.

Fortune magazine's Carol Loomis first mentioned Buffett in a 1969 article about a money manager named Alfred Winslow Jones and in a 1970 article about the latest difficulties of hedge fund managers.

Buffett, of course, had not slowed, in spite of winding down the partnership, and had become less reluctant to be interviewed.

More national news outlets and their readers began to recognize Buffett and Omaha after George Jerome Waldo Goodman included Buffett in his 1972 book “Supermoney.”

Buffett's recognition continued to blossom as his fortune grew. ...

For sisters Roberta and Doris, it was quite a change from the days when their brother was content selling Cokes, hiding nickels and dropping pennies into his coin changer. The richest kid in the family was on his way to No. 1 in the nation.

“I remember I was flying across the country one time, and Forbes magazine had just come out,” Roberta said. “I remember looking out the window and thinking, 'What, he's the richest man in this whole country that I'm flying over? He's gotten really big when I wasn't noticing.' ”

Contact the writer: Steve Jordon

steve.jordon@owh.com    |   402-444-1080    |  

Steve covers banking, insurance, the economy and other topics, including Berkshire Hathaway, Mutual of Omaha and other businesses.

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