Warren and Charlie and the chocolate factoryAugust 22, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
For a feature about See's Candies, our reporter had the opportunity to sit down with business legends Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger in a single two-day period -- he won't soon forget it.
By Daniel Roberts, reporter
FORTUNE -- In response to a formal email about setting up a sit-down interview with Charlie Munger, his assistant simply wrote: "Charlie says to come over tomorrow at 8:30."
It wasn't what I had expected. And it was a bit early for me, being new to Los Angeles traffic and tired from the long previous day of touring the See's Candies plant in L.A. (it was a grueling task, but some intrepid writer had to do it.) Being told to simply show up at Munger's private home in Los Angeles on a Wednesday morning in May felt starkly casual compared to my meeting with Warren Buffett, which would be the next day and had been scheduled far in advance. I would be flying to Omaha for it that night.
I got up at seven on Wednesday, stuffed my bag, checked out of the hotel and hopped into my rental car, a white Mitsubishi Gallant with dysfunctional Hertz GPS unit. Traffic was bad, but I made it, pulling up outside Munger's address at 8:31. His house is big, but not a mansion; it looks like your standard upscale California home, complete with red roof and a wealth of palm trees around the driveway. When I walked up to the door, it opened, as if by magic. A butler (or waiter, or maybe both) led me into a small reading room where the 88-year-old Munger, a lawyer by trade and longtime colleague and investing partner of Buffett, was seated in an easy chair, using a large magnifying glass to read a hardcover book. The man is a voracious reader. ("Charlie has read about as much as anybody I know, Buffett later told me. "He's 88 now, and when he's 98, he'll remember everything he read. That's the difference; I read it, and I enjoy it, but I don't remember a damn thing.")
Charlie and I went to his dining room, where, with my recorder on, we began talking immediately about See's Candies, the brand he convinced Buffett to buy in 1972 for $25 million. The first thing immediately apparent about Munger is that in business and beyond, he knows everyone and remembers everything. At each turn he is able to recall specific and obscure anecdotes about buyouts and bankruptcies that relate in some way to the subject at hand. He talked about when Hershey's (HSY) first tried to expand into Canada. He waxed about Kodak ("People think the whole thing failed, but they forget that Kodak didn't really go broke, because Eastman Chemical did survive as a prosperous company and they spun that off") and about P&G ("Procter & Gamble, they just make a fortune on some of the body products. Some of these brands, I mean, if you can make something that actually improves the skin, wow. That's the last thing people will give up"). He may not possess the obvious, gleeful sense of humor of Buffett, but Munger has the ability to make you laugh even as he's discussing something completely dry and practical.
As the same man who had led me into the house served up breakfast (scrambled eggs, home fries, and delicious bacon), Munger talked about the strengths of See's over the years. In his estimation, it has made all the right decisions, both before Berkshire got there and since. "There are a lot of boxed chocolate companies; it's an old human desire," he said. "People like those little pieces." But See's worked hard, he said, to prevent cannibalizing its own stores, and has always had a cautious nature that helped it succeed in the long run. "And of course," he added, "We haven't basically touched it at all." He pointed out the significance of See's as a gift item. "Who wants to give a gift that announces 'I'm a cheap ... ' You know."
I did not want to look cheap to Buffett, my next stop, so in my bag I had packed a box of See's chocolate lollipops -- his favorite -- as well as a box of Cashew Brittle, a brand new See's product (a twist on peanut brittle). Both came from Johnnie Woods, who handles orders at See's; She suggested I take them to Omaha. I was perfectly happy to play delivery guy to the Oracle. I caught my flight from L.A. to Omaha late that afternoon and when I landed on that foggy, cool spring evening, I was surprised to find myself quite taken with Omaha. The "downtown" area -- though it's funny to call it that, coming from Manhattan -- is spread out, quiet, and pretty.
In the morning, I was wary of being late, so I took a very early cab to the Kiewit Building, which houses Berkshire Hathaway's offices on a high floor. Berkshire occupies an unassuming corner with metal lettering in the hallway like a law office. I had been surprised there was no Berkshire Hathaway sign anywhere on the outside of the building, but that, of course, is Buffett's style. (I must admit that as I touched down the night before, I half-expected to see a gargantuan Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) sign from the plane, like the old LeBron James "Witness" banner visible to everyone leaving the Cleveland airport. There isn't one. There is, however, a large poster in the Omaha airport of Buffett's University of Nebraska college yearbook photo with the quote: "My advice? Invest in yourself.") Buffett walked out to meet me and led me back to his corner office. It, too, is unassuming, modest in size but adorned, as is the hallway, with scores of framed photographs: Buffett with famous politicians, athletes, celebrities, and, my favorite as a Boston native, one of him throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park. (We eventually discussed Jordan's Furniture, a Massachusetts retailer created by two brothers who sold to Berkshire in 1999; the company sponsors a Fenway sign.) There is, by the way, no computer in his office.
As everyone knows, Buffett has an unusual voice, a bawdy sense of humor and an infectious laugh. When he talked about See's he got -- and took -- many chances to crack a joke, though for all I know he might find equal humor in a conversation about something as unsexy as Geico. When we talked about the See's L.A. plant, Buffett said that he's always loved the name of the "enrobing room" (where chocolate pieces get covered with more chocolate) because "it kind of sounds like a funeral parlor."
During our talk, I gleaned that more than any other Berkshire-owned company, See's has been close to Buffett's heart. He said as much: "It was sort of the first non-insurance company we bought, or non-financial type company, and so I used to spend a lot of time. I used to be able to tell you which store numbers were which stores. But that's because we didn't have any other companies. Now we have 70-something companies."
I found Buffett remarkably easy to sit back and chat with, perhaps easier than Munger, who was somewhat intimidating. But while their demeanors differ, their business acumen overlaps, and they often made the same points. Many of the comments Buffett made about See's were so similar to statements by Munger that it was eerie. Of course, it makes sense, since the two of them became one of the most successful investing duos of the last century.
And even though Buffett has a hands-off approach, and leaves Kinstler to helm See's, he nonetheless has some big ideas for the products he likes best. The lollipops, for instance (See's spells it "lollypop"), he feels could be sold in Starbucks (SBUX) locations.
He told me many good yarns over the course of an hour, including a memorable one from back when See's was trying to expand into Japan. It had tried before, including at Tokyo Disneyland, but with no lasting luck. At one point, a Japanese woman made a real estate deal with Chuck Huggins, the CEO of See's before Kinstler. When Huggins's wife died, the woman came to the U.S. for the funeral, and at the reception, Buffett met her for the first time. When he approached her, she held out her hands for him. "I don't know what the hell she's doing," he recalled. "And so finally I looked at her and I sort of … slapped her." It turns out she had been asking for his business card; instead, he had given her a high-five. "I practically destroyed our relationship," he said.
Buffett is just glad to have found See's. "It's amazing," he said. "We almost missed it. Charlie wouldn't have missed it. I would have missed it, and I would have never known what I missed."
I, meanwhile, will miss Buffett, and even Omaha. Sitting in a Barnes & Noble with six hours to kill after my interview, I got a call from our corporate travel bookers, who told me they could get me on an earlier flight out. I had reached this shopping plaza by city bus. I would need to get to the airport in a hurry; the earlier flight was barely more than an hour away. I got up and asked the woman at the Starbucks counter, who looked 30 or so, whether there was an easy way to get from this Barnes & Noble to the airport, or if calling a cab was my only option. "Oh, I wouldn't know," she told me kindly, "I've never been to the airport." I thought she might have misspoken. "So you've never left Omaha," I asked her. She said, "Right!" and laughed. I next tried a Barnes & Noble employee who was sitting down for a coffee. I asked her the airport question; she, who was a bit younger, maybe 25, had never needed to go to the airport either. I called a cab.
These are the kinds of Nebraskans who, while perfectly happy, make me feel that Buffett's globetrotting success is all the more impressive and notable. They're also people who must feel proud of their hometown hero. And who can blame them? Sitting down with him, especially the day after meeting his brilliant friend and partner, was an experience I'll never forget.