This is my review of the THIRD EDITION, dated March 18, 2013. If you wish to read my review of the SECOND EDITION, it follows.
This is the Third Edition of an ongoing process by which Warren Buffett presents a "chairman's letter" (i.e. progress report with his unique reflections) to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders at their annual meeting. Lawrence A. Cunningham edited each of the three editions, with the latest including Buffett's annual letters to Berkshire shareholders since 2008, the date of the prior edition. Other new material includes:
o The financial crisis and its continuing implications for investors, managers and society;
o The housing bubble at the bottom of that crisis
o The debt and derivatives excesses that fueled the crisis and how to deal with them
o Controlling risk and protecting reputation in corporate governance
o Berkshire's acquisition and operation of Burlington Northern Santa Fe
o The role of oversight in heavily regulated industries
o Investment possibilities today
o Weaknesses of popular option valuation models
Some other material has been rearranged to deepen the themes and lessons that the collection has always produced:
o Buffett's "owner-related business principles" are in the prologue as a separate subject
o Valuation and accounting topics are spread over four instead of two sections and reordered to sharpen their payoff.
According to Cunningham, "Those who are familiar with The Essays will notice that we have made the cover snappier than has been our custom. (Thanks for the cover design to Tim Colton, of Carolina Academic Press, which will continue to partner with me in the distribution of the book.) The main reason: the book's traditional covers could be seen well in physical form but pictures of them, shown on the internet, could not. Since most sales are done over the Internet these days, the cover needed a face-lift.
"The adage remains, however, that one should not judge a book by its cover. This book should continue to be judged on its content and organization, in which a distinctive investment and business philosophy is coherently articulated. Thanks to the many fans of the book, first published in 1997. I hope you enjoy the updated edition. And I hope to see many of you in Omaha for the Berkshire shareholders' meeting in May."
With regard to the Third Edition's subtitle, "Lessons for Corporate America," my own opinion is that almost all of the lessons can be of substantial value to leaders in any organization, whatever its size and nature may be. Among Buffett's most important and yet least appreciated talents is his ability to establish a direct and personal rapport with each person he meets or who reads any of his letters as well as any of his articles such as those included in Carol Loomis' superb book, Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012.
I watched three segments of Buffett and Loomis' appearances on The Charlie Rose Show and their informal but gracious manner made me feel as if I had been a personal friend of theirs for many years. (I wish I had purchased Berkshire stock 50 years ago!) Credit Cunningham with brilliant editing as well as his own contributions to what continues to be a "moveable feast" of information, insights, wisdom, and wit. Once again, his Introduction (all by itself) is worth much more than the cost of the book as he again discusses with rigor and eloquence what he considers to be key points about Buffett and his leadership of Berkshire Hathaway in recent years.
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Review of SECOND EDITION:
Over the years, I have read several of the essays that Warren Buffett included in Berkshire Hathaway's annual reports. After reading two biographies of him (Alice Schroeder's The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life and Roger Lowenstein's Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist), I purchased a copy of this volume and began to work my way through the contents selected, arranged, and introduced by Lawrence A. Cunningham. I began with Cunningham's Introduction (all by itself, worth much more than the cost of the book) in which he reviews what he considers to be key points about Buffett and his leadership of Berkshire Hathaway.
For example, "The CEOs of Berkshire's various operating companies enjoy a unique position in corporate America. They are given a simple set of commands: to run their business as if (1) they are its sole owner, (2) it is the only asset they hold, and (3) they can never sell or merge it for a hundred years." With regard to investment thinking, "one must guard against what Buffett calls the `institutional imperative.' It is a pervasive force in which institutional dynamics produce resistance to change, absorption of available corporate funds, and reflexive approval of suboptimal CEO strategies by subordinates. Contrary to what is often taught in business and law schools, this powerful force often interferes with rational business decision-making. The ultimate result of the institutional imperative is a follow-the-pack mentality producing industry imitators, rather than industry leaders - what Buffett calls a lemming-like approach to business."
Cunningham organizes the essays within seven sections between Buffett's Prologue (Pages 27-28) and his Epilogue (Pages 273-282):
I Corporate Governance
II Corporate Finance and Investing
III Alternatives to Common Stock
IV Common Stock
V Mergers and Acquisitions
VI Accounting and Valuation
VII Accounting Policy and Tax Matters
As Buffett explains in his Prologue, members of Berkshire Hathaway's shareholder group receive communications directly "from the fellow you are paying to run the business. Your Chairman has a firm belief that owners are entitled to hear directly from the CEO as to what is going on and how he evaluates the business, currently and prospectively. You should demand that in a private company; you should expect no less in a public company. A once-a-year report of stewardship should not be turned over to a staff specialist or public relations consultant who is unlikely to be in a position to talk frankly on a manager-to-owner basis."
Those who share my own keen interest in Warren Buffett's leadership and management principles will learn a great deal from a careful reading of these essays. They are quite literally "from the horse's mouth." The substantial value-added benefits include the fact that Buffett thinks and writes so clearly, duly acknowledges bad decisions and personal regrets (yes, there were several), explains what he learned from them, and meanwhile reveals a playful (albeit dry) sense of humor. He also includes a number of personal observations about America, especially about its culture and economy, at various times throughout the last 25-30 years. The two aforementioned biographies indicate that throughout his life, Buffett thoroughly enjoyed each and every opportunity to increase others' understanding of sound business principles that include but are by no means limited to investments.
Readers who are not among Berkshire Hathaway's shareholders will especially appreciate the fact that, in each of these essays, Buffett establishes and then sustains a direct and personal rapport. The tone is conversational and, better yet, inclusive. He never talks down to his reader. He never "dumbs down" the material. Inevitably and appropriately, he cites Berkshire Hathaway situations when illustrating certain key points but, really, most of the material in this book will have wide and deep general interest to executives as well as to shareholders who otherwise have no association with either Buffett or his company. I highly recommend this book without hesitation or qualification.