“I owe my existence to the University of Nebraska” says Warren Buffett (BSBA 1950). Buffett is the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, an insurance, manufacturing and investment conglomerate that is one of the most-respected businesses in the world. Buffett is generally regarded as the most successful investor in modern history.
His mother, Leila Stahl, of West Point (Nebraska), had helped around her family’s newspaper, the Cuming County Democrat, before college, so it was natural for her to walk into the Daily Nebraskan offices and ask for a writing job there when she came to Lincoln for college. She interviewed with Howard Buffett, then-editor of the paper, and was quickly hired. But that was only the beginning; Howard and Leila fell in love and were soon married, and college graduates.
To the young NU alumnae, Warren was born in 1930, their second child. He showed business acumen early; his enterprises were both usual for their time (paper boy, stocker for his uncle's grocery store), and unusual for their success … by the time he finished high school, young Warren had already amassed enough in his investments to buy a 40-acre farm outside of Omaha.
Following his then-Congressman father’s influence, Warren enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, but chose, after two years, to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Here, his restless entrepreneurial bug showed itself again. As one example, Buffett placed ads in the Daily Nebraskan offering a bounty on shagged golf balls, which he would then box and re-sell at a relative bargain price. His acquisition process, it turned out, was not able to reliably supply his retail business, so the resourceful Nebraska student found a supplier of barely-used balls out of Chicago, buying for $3.50 a dozen and selling at $6, pocketing a tidy profit and still supplying the market with used golf balls at around half the retail price of new. “They were classy balls,” said Buffett.
At Nebraska, he studied economics and enrolled in a course taught by Ray Dein, a professor of accounting who, according to Buffett, “was the best you’ll ever see.” “Accounting,” he explained, “is the language of business … it made me proficient at something that was absolutely vital to the rest of my life.”
In another interview, Buffett recalled “The teachers at the University [of Nebraska] turned me on. There wasn't a class that disappointed me. I was close to my professors, who actually taught the classes; at my previous undergraduate college, graduate students taught the classes.”
Less schooled in writing than accounting, Buffett profited by his genes ... both of his parents were college journalists and gifted with a pen or typewriter, and his talent for expressing his ideas with deftness and wit is part of that inheritance. He flexes those muscles most notably in his annual Letter to Shareholders, on Berkshire Hathaway letterhead. The letters have been described in the business press as "the investment world’s equivalent of a Harry Potter book release." Remarkable for their clarity, humor and common sense, each of them, since the 1977 edition, is viewable on BH's website. Berkshire's shareholder letters are released on the eve of the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting, held each spring in Omaha. The event has long been characterized by the same business press as "Woodstock for Capitalists," presided over by its "Oracle of Omaha," Buffett.
In 2010, Buffett and Bill Gates founded the Giving Pledge, a global effort to involve the world's wealthiest citizens in the charitable redistribution of the majority of their resources. So far, nearly 250 fortunes, Buffett's included, have been pledged through the effort.
One might think, in looking back on a life of such singular, extraordinary success, that self-congratulation might be in order. But for Buffett, ever the optimist, the best days for our state, our nation, and the world lie ahead. In a message to Nebraska graduates in 2020, Buffett looked forward, as if to pass the torch: “There is nobody I would rather be than a young person graduating from the University of Nebraska today.”
Then, as now … There is No Place Like Nebraska.
More Reading on Warren Buffett
The SNOWBALL: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder