Alice Schroeder on How Buffett Values a Business and Invests

On November 20, 2008, Alice Schrooder, author of “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life”, spoke at the Value Investing Conference at the Darden School of Business. She gave some fascinating insights into how Buffett invests that are not in the book. I hope you find them useful.

  1. Much of Buffett’s success has come from training himself to practice good habits. His first and most important habit is to work hard. He dug up SEC documents long before they were online. He went to the state insurance commission to dig up facts. He was visiting companies long before he was known and persisting in the face of rejection.
  2. He was always thinking what more he could do to get an edge on the other guy.
  3. Schroeder rejects those who argue that working harder will not give you an edge today because so much is available online.
  4. Buffett is a “learning machine”. This learning has been cumulative over his entire life covering thousands of businesses and many different industries. This storehouse of knowledge allows Buffett to make decisions quickly.
  5. Schroeder uses a case study on Mid-Continent Tab Card Company in which Buffett invested privately to illustrate how Buffett invests.
  6. In the 1950’s, IBM was forced to divest itself of the computer tab card business as part of an anti-trust settlement with the Justice Department. The computer tab card business was IBM’s most profitable business with profit margins of 50%.
  7. Buffett was approached by some friends to invest in Mid-Continent Tab Card Company which was a start-up setup to compete in the tab card business. Buffett declined because of the real risk that the start-up could fail.
  8. This illustrates a fundamental principle of how Buffett invests: first focus on what you can loose and then, and only then, think about return. Once Buffett concluded he could lose money, he quit thinking and said “no”. This is his first filter.
  9. Schroder argues that most investors do just the opposite: they first focus on the upside and then give passing thought to risk.
  10. Later, after the start-up was successfully established and competing, Buffett was again approached to invest capital to grow the business. The company needed money to purchase additional machines to make the tab cards. The business now had 40% profit margins and was making enough that a new machine could pay for itself in a year.
  11. Schroeder points out that already in 1959, long before Buffett had established himself as an expert stock picker, people were coming to him with special deals, just like they do now with Goldman Sachs and GE. The reason is that having started so young in business he already had both capital and business knowledge/acumen.
  12. Unlike most investors, Buffett did not create a model of the business. In fact, based on going through pretty much all of Buffett’s files, Schroder never saw that Buffett had created a model of a business.
  13. Instead, Buffett thought like a horse handicapper. He isolated the one or two factors upon which the success of Mid American hinged. In this case, sales growth and cost advantage.
  14. He then laid out the quarterly data for these factors for all of Mid Continent’s factories and those of its competitors, as best he could determine it, on sheets of a legal pad and intently studied the data.
  15. He established his hurdle of a 15% return and asked himself if he could get it based on the company’s 36% profit margins and 70% growth. It was a simple yes or no decision and he determined that he could get the 15% return so he invested.
  16. According to Schroder, 15% is what Buffett wants from day 1 on an investment and then for it to compound from there.
  17. This is how Buffett does a discounted cash flow. There are no discounted cash flow models. Buffett simply looks at detailed long-term historical data and determines, based on the price he has to pay, if he can get at least a 15% return. (This is why Charlie Munger has said he has never seen Buffett do a discounted cash flow model.)
  18. There was a big margin of safety in the numbers of Mid Continent.
  19. Buffett invested $60,000 of personal money or about 20% of his net worth. It was an easy decision for him. No projections – only historical data.
  20. He held the investment for 18 years and put another $1 million into the business over time. The investment earned 33% over the 18 years.
  21. It was a vivid example of a Phil Fisher investment at a Ben Graham price.
  22. Buffett is very risk averse and follows Firestone’s Law of forecasting: “Chicken Little only has to be right once.” This is why Berkshire Hathaway is not dealing with a lot of the problems other companies are dealing with because he avoids the risk of catastrophe.
  23. He is very realistic and never tries to talk himself out of a decision if he sees that it has cat risk.
  24. Buffett said he thought the market was attractive in the fall of 2008 because it was at 70%-80% of GDP. This gave him a margin of safety based on historical data. He is handicapping. He doesn’t care if it goes up or down in the short term. Buying at these levels stacks the odds in his favor over time.
  25. Buffett has never advocated the concept of dollar cost averaging because it involves buying the market at regular intervals – regardless of how overvalued the market may be. This is something Buffett would never support.

Here is a link to the video:


8 thoughts on “Alice Schroeder on How Buffett Values a Business and Invests

  1. Anonymous

    "He established his hurdle of a 15% return and asked himself if he could get it based on the company's 36% profit margins and 70% growth. It was a simple yes or no decisionand he determined that he could get 15% return so he invested."

    This seems so vague to me. Can anyone provide anymore detail as to how exactly he decided he could get his 15% return on those numbers?

  2. Gregory Speicher

    Schroeder did not lay out precisely how Buffett got to the 15% hurdle. Presumably, the earnings yield on his investment was there from the start or he felt very confident that the earnings would easily grow to this level based on the trajectory and competitive position of the business.

  3. Pingback: Waiting for Buffett’s Fat Pitch – Have You Defined Your Strike Zone? | GregSpeicher

  4. Pingback: Alice Schroeder on How Buffett Values a Business and Invests « Value Book

  5. Dividend Growth Investor

    Thanks for the great article. If the information from Alice Schroder was correct, it seems like the company was valued at $375,000 ( based on 16% for $60K investment)

    If margins were 36% on $1 million in sales, this translates into a profit of roughly $360K/year. In addition, this enterprise was growing at roughly 70%/year.

    Is it me, or did he get the stock at steal price at less than 1 times earnings?

    And by the way, in 1959, Buffett could not have afforded to put $1 million in the enterprise ( while it being 20% of his net worth). Any additional comments?

  6. Rob Urban

    I believe he is looking at “owner earnings”, as if he owned the entire business. Owner earnings is (net income + depreciation + amortization – capex). If he can buy the business and earn 15% in “owner earnings” starting immediately and be confident this will continue, the company has little debt (low risk), has a competitive advantage that is durable, and there is a likelihood the “owner earnings” will increase in the future, this makes for a low risk investment.

  7. Suny Mou

    Any one knows when Buffet said about this 15% rule and what interest rate and inflation was at the time. Maybe he was targeting an Excess return above 10 years real bond rate at the time. Given interest rate has gone down, his target rate must be lower by now. Look at Berkshire’s ROE these days, clearly it’s not 15% any more.


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