The best buys have been when the numbers almost tell you not to. Because then you feel so strongly about the product. And not just the fact you are getting a used cigar butt cheap. Then it is compelling. I owned a windmill company at one time. Windmills are cigar butts, believe me. I bought it very cheap, I bought it at a third of working capital. And we made money out of it, but there is no repetitive money to be made on it. There is a one-time profit in something like that. And it is just not the thing to be doing. I went through that phase. I bought streetcar companies and all kinds of things. In terms of the qualitative, I probably understand the qualitative the moment I get the phone call. Almost every business we have bought has taken five or ten minutes in terms of analysis. We bought two businesses this year.
General Re is a $18 billion deal. I have never been to their home office. I hope it is there. (Laughter) “There could be a few guys there saying what numbers should we send Buffett this month?” I could see them going once a month and saying we have $20 billion in the bank instead of $18 billion. I have never been there.
Before I bought Executive Jet, which is fractional ownership of jets, before I bought it, I had never been there. I bought my family a quarter interest in the program three years earlier. And I have seen the service and it seems to develop well. And I got the numbers. But if you don’t know enough to know about the business instantly, you won’t know enough in a month or in two months. You have to have sort of the background of understanding and knowing what you do or don’t understand. That is the key. It is defining your circle of competence.
Everybody has got a different circle of competence. The important thing is not how big the circle is, the important thing is the size of the circle; the important thing is staying inside the circle. And if that circle only has 30 companies in it out of 1000s on the big board, as long as you know which 30 they are, you will be OK. And you should know those businesses well enough so you don’t need to read lots of work. Now I did a lot of work in the earlier years just getting familiar with businesses and the way I would do that is use what Phil Fisher would call, the “Scuttlebutt Approach.” I would go out and talk to customers, suppliers, and maybe ex-employees in some cases. Everybody. Everytime I was interested in an industry, say it was coal, I would go around and see every coal company. I would ask every CEO, “If you could only buy stock in one coal company that was not your own, which one would it be and why? You piece those things together, you learn about the business after awhile.
Funny, you get very similar answers as long as you ask about competitors. If you had a silver bullet and you could put it through the head of one competitor, which competitor and why? You will find who the best guy is in the industry. So there are a lot of things you can learn about a business. I have done that in the past on the business I felt I could understand so I don’t have to do that anymore. The nice thing about investing is that you don’t have to learn anything new. You can do it if you want to, but if you learn Wrigley’s chewing gum forty years ago, you still understand Wrigley’s chewing gum. There are not a lot of great insights to get of the sort as you go along. So you do get a database in your head.
I had a guy, Frank Rooney, who ran Melville for many years; his father-in-law died and had owned H.H. Brown, a shoe company. And he put it up with Goldman Sachs. But he was playing golf with a friend of mine here in Florida and he mentioned it to this friend, so my friend said “Why don’t you call Warren?” He called me after the match and in five minutes I basically had a deal.
But I knew Frank, and I knew the business. I sort of knew the basic economics of the shoe business, so I could buy it. Quantitatively, I have to decide what the price is. But, you know, that is either yes or no. I don’t fool a lot around with negotiations. If they name a price that makes sense to me, I buy it. If they don’t, I was happy the day before, so I will be happy the day after without owning it.
Source: Lecture at the University of Florida Business School
Time: October 15th 1998