March 21, 2013

Signing books is no tap dance: It’s a race to the finish

By Steve Jordon
World-Herald Staff Writer

Warren Buffett almost beat Condoleezza Rice’s record.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. CEO Buffett last week went to Omaha’s Mainfreight warehouse to autograph 500 copies of “Tap Dancing to Work,” the compilation of Fortune magazine articles by Carol Loomis.

The signed books will go on sale at the annual Berkshire shareholders meeting May 4 at the CenturyLink Center, where the Bookworm will operate a temporary bookstore in the convention hall.

Bookworm staffers and Cargo Zone President Terry McMullen stationed Buffett in front of the stacks of books, pointing out that former Secretary of State Rice had signed 500 of her books in one hour flat during a visit to Omaha.

Ever competitive, Buffett bore down, figuring that he could beat someone who had an 11-letter first name. But eventually he realized he had a problem: “My middle initial is going to kill me,” Warren E. Buffett lamented.

Alas, he signed the 500th book at one hour, two minutes.

New board member’s ideas on investing

Berkshire’s latest director-to-be, Meryl Witmer, talked about her investing ideas during Barron’s 2011 “art of successful investing” conference. She is general partner of New York’s Eagle Capital Partners.

In a video, she said, “If I can get a dividend-paying stock that has a great likelihood of huge increases in the dividend, I’m pretty happy.” We’re assuming she also would be happy investing with a certain Omaha-based, non-dividend-paying stock.

When it comes to choosing companies to invest in, she said, “Capital allocation ability for a CEO is probably our No. 1 criterion.” That sounds more like it.

Witmer is a University of Virginia graduate and a member of Barron’s “roundtable” of experts who comment on finance. She is active in the Student/Sponsor Program, which provides scholarships for inner-city children, and the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y.

Bloomberg reported last May that she was the only woman presenter at a conference held by the Ira Sohn Foundation to discuss raising money for pediatric cancer and other childhood illnesses.

Her 14-year-old son introduced her and told the gathering that when he was 8, he started vomiting. “Mom figured out on Google that I was either pregnant or had a brain tumor,” he said. “Too bad I wasn’t pregnant.” He was treated for cancer and is now healthy.

‘Bear’ plans some tough questions

Buffett quickly invited Douglas A. Kass, 64, to be his “bear” questioner for the annual shareholders meeting, only three days after announcing he wanted a person “negative on Berkshire” to take part in the meeting’s Q-and-A session to “spice things up.”

The Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said Kass, from nearby Palm Beach, promised “hardball questions. They’ll be very solid, thoughtful questions that maybe haven’t been raised before.”

Kass also told CNBC, “It’s really cool, and I’m anxiously looking forward to Charlie Munger to call me a damned fool,” referring to Berkshire’s vice chairman.

As news of his role at the meeting broke, Kass extended his contract through 2015, termed a long-term commitment, as a contributor to RealMoney Pro, a part of the financial website

He will post commentary and trading ideas 12 times a day and take part in real-time discussions.

The verbal exchanges at the meeting should be interesting. By contrast, Buffett’s long-term commitment began in 1965 and he had only a few good investment ideas last year.

Good news for newspapers

Jessica Irvine wrote in the Business Spectator of Australia that Buffett’s comments about newspapers in his annual shareholders letter were welcome. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age had launched their compact versions, prompting “more than a little nostalgia and fear for the future.”

“And so how nice to hear from the world’s most successful investor, Warren Buffett, that there’s life in the old girl yet,” Irvine wrote.

She and other commentators focused on Buffett’s willingness to spend $344 million since December 2011 to buy newspapers and his belief that small metro dailies can succeed in communities where people want to know what’s going on and well-trained journalists produce high-quality news.

“We know that time is scarce, and you want your news up-to-date, readable and pre-sorted for you. In today’s fast-paced world, this role of curator has never been more important,” Irvine wrote, adding:

“The sincere hope of journalists is that newspaper revenues will reach some new equilibrium point, able to support quality and informed journalism in this country.”

In a U.S. newspaper editorial, the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald called Buffett “a jewel in the crown of journalism.”

“Like so many sectors of the economy, the Great Recession took its toll on the newspaper industry,” the editorial said. “But we agree with Buffett that newspapers serving ‘the special informational needs’ of their community remain ‘indispensable’ and can be profitable.

“The Sun Herald continues to offer readers an unmatched menu of news seven days a week, both in print and online, and does so profitably. We believe that will continue well into the future.”

Speaking of buying newspapers, USA Today founder Al Neuharth said in a recent book that he and Buffett were staying at the Park Lane Hotel in New York in 1990 when Buffett asked for his support in buying USA Today from Gannett Co.

“Our long afternoon ended with me telling him that I could not do that because I hoped Gannett would own and improve USA Today forever,” Neuharth wrote.

Mention gives book a big boost

Buffett’s mention of “Investing Between the Lines” by Laura Rittenhouse in his letter to Berkshire shareholders boosted the book’s ranking from six digits to three, making it the leader among “leadership and management” books and in the Top 10 for stock and finance books.

“This is huge,” said Rittenhouse, who has long drawn conclusions about business leadership and integrity from the way CEOs communicate. “With this exposure, our measures of organizational trustworthiness will gain more acceptance and be broadly adopted by executives, boards of directors and investors.”

The book points out that analyzing the words of executives, as well as accounting figures, is essential in evaluating investment potential.

Not hurt by horse meat scandal

Even though British supermarket chain Tesco announced recently that its frozen bolognese contained horse meat, Berkshire’s investment in the company is in good shape, Geoff Foster wrote for the London Daily Mail.

“He is now sitting pretty and enjoying a big return on his investment,” Foster wrote. “Tesco remains a growth company by culture,” and top executive Philip Clarke plans a big push into the online market.

‘Dentist,’ ‘whales’: Buffett adds words

Among those reading Buffett’s latest letter was David Yanofsky of, who used a computer program to figure that Buffett used 188 words that he hasn’t used in 35 previous letters.

Some of the new “words” are actually numbers, and some might be thrown off by semicolons or other punctuation. But most are genuine “hapaxes,” a term that applies to words used only once in a language or once in an author’s works.

Shakespeare was known for one-time-only uses of some words, not that Buffett is on the same literary plane. But here are some words that Yanofsky said appeared this year for the first time in Buffett’s letter-writing career:

Boggles, shelving, persistency, recession-resistant, renewables, fruition, deplete, non-real, reverted, insignia, chest, offshore, stressful, fret, immediacy, oft-stated, coattails, cringe, out-shout, misfire, subconscious, whales, sell-off, cash-out, dentist, homemade, speedster, marathon and sundown.

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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