In March 2011, on his maiden and only India trip so far, legendary investor Warren Buffett was fatigued to have to answer questions about the great depression and the Lehman crisis. Much of what he had wanted to say was already out in the public domain. Journalists just wouldn’t get past the economics.
So when I got some time with him, I started with discussing his wallet and his golf. That made him get up and talk. I said to him, “Mr Buffett, I would like to know what lies inside your wallet.” He smiled back, pulled it out with a little bit of an old man’s struggle. The world’s most successful investor carries an old, worn out black leather wallet, mildly tattering at the edges. It has a picture of his family, just a couple of credit cards and almost no money.
But in there hidden are some intangibles. And among these are golf lessons. All these were reasons enough to smile for the cameras with Buffett’s wallet and his lessons.
Buffett isn’t great at golf. He doesn’t want to be. Probably still shoots in late 90s with a handicap of about 20. He always wanted to be a stockbroker. A brilliant one at that. He plays golf for leisure and conversation.
Among his golf buddies is fellow philanthropist Bill Gates and the two have been spotted playing a game or two at the Augusta National, the holy grail of courses of which Buffett is a member.
Author David Rynecki would later write of the two, that they are just happy having a good time.
“They are the best in their respective professions and yet don’t try to take that to golf…They simply don’t care if they look foolish hitting a little white ball along tightly mowed grass.”
That can be said as a great lesson from greats. CEOs push themselves to be superb at everything. In the boardroom and outside it. And perhaps get great at none.
It’s not like Buffett picked up his game late in life. A photo recently tweeted by an ESPN journalist shows Buffett in his teens in his high school book. It describes him as a sportsman on the school’s golf team. That this game was dear to him was further established when he started making a living. After selling popcorn at the age of ten and later newspapers, Buffett collected and re-sold golf balls. He would collect them from golf courses he’d visit and then make a buck by selling them for a profit.
The book Snowball, a biography Buffett cooperated with, says Buffett peddled used but shined up golf balls for “six bucks a dozen”. He made a nearly 50% profit on these. Buffett instituted a supplier, who he guessed also got them out of golf course ponds and made a good business out of it just as well.
Buffett’s stories are just as strange as the businesses he adopted. But one thing always stood out -- he remained focused, if not humble, in doing just about any business, no matter how silly or nondescript, that would make him money.
Some of the world’s best-known businessmen have had a history of golf beginnings. Just like Buffett. At the age of 14, Charles Schwab got a job as a caddie at a golf course. Another great investor Peter Lynch chose to caddie over selling newspapers, calling it more lucrative. No doubt a large number of business whizzes learnt a trick or two on the course.
Former Chairman and CEO of GE, Jack Welch, isn’t the world’s best corporate golfer for no reason. DLF’s KP Singh picked up the game in the army and later scripted history when he and Welch planned the BPO-real estate boom in Gurgaon led by the multinational firm.
Buffett’s a great investor and a great philanthropist.
But the wealth of his experience lies in the fact he believed in the idea of ‘keep on moving’ – from business to another.
He kept his relationships, his discipline and his friends – all of those little learnings that he collected from an early golfing experience.
Shaili Chopra is an award-winning business journalist and founder of www.golfingindian.com