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My lunch with Warren Buffett

Mohnish Pabrai and his friend Guy Spier paid $650,100 to dine with the world’s best-known investor. This is what they took out from their three-hour lunch. A Business Today exclusive.

Print Edition: August 24, 2008

Three hundred and sixty two days, 20 hours and 45 minutes after my friend Guy Spier and I won the bid for the privilege of dining out with the world’s richest man and my idol, Warren Buffett, here I was—along with my wife Harina and daughters Monsoon and Momachi (Guy was accompanied by his wife Lory)—at New York’s famous steakhouse, Smith & Wollensky, for my big moment.

Mohnish Pabrai (right) with Guy Spier
Mohnish Pabrai (right) with Guy Spier
Days earlier, I had already looked up S&W’s menu to save precious time, but I need not have bothered. Warren, dressed in a dark suit and yellow tie, seems to be in no hurry. At 77 years of age, the Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway is full of energy. The Oracle of Omaha is more than happy to let us get as many pictures clicked with him as we want. After the pictures are done, we sit down for our meal; my daughters on the either side of Warren, Harina and I to his left and Guy and Lory to his right. The menus arrive and Warren opts for a medium-rare New York T-bone steak with hash browns and a cherry Coke (not surprising; his Berkshire Hathaway owns shares in Coca-Cola Co.). Guy and I order steaks, too, my daughters go for hamburgers and fries, while Harina and Lory settle for fish and salad.

Pabrai with Buffett
Pabrai with Buffett
It didn’t strike me then, but when I look back now I realise that over the three hours that we spent chatting over our lunch, we discussed 55 different topics, ranging from Warren’s value system as an investor to his friend and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger to the importance of picking the right life partner. But what made the most impression on me had nothing to do with Warren’s investment philosophy (of that I have read a lot and tried to live it, too). Rather, what moved me deeply was his love for his former wife, Susan. “I never did anything for Suzie, but she did everything for me; I wouldn’t have been as successful without her,” I remember Warren telling us.

Warren speaks sparingly about his late wife in public, but that day, perhaps to make a point to us young couples and the two children, he decided to talk about her. Susan had left him and Omaha a long time ago—1974, to be precise—to move to San Francisco to pursue her singing career.

The Spiers and Pabrais with Buffett
The Spiers and Pabrais with Buffett
It was a decision that probably broke Warren’s heart but he was obviously too much in love with her to stand in the way of her dreams. They remained married and good friends. Incredibly, Susan even introduced Warren to a woman (Astrid Menks) who would become his companion and eventually his wife after Susan’s death in 2004.

The Oracle of Omaha holds forth
The Oracle of Omaha holds forth
While Warren has become the world’s biggest philanthropist by donating most of his fabulous wealth (estimated at upwards of $60 billion) to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Susan was a social worker in her own right. As Warren told us, she would routinely take homeless people dying of AIDS into her home in San Francisco to make their last days as comfortable as possible. She even gave these dying strangers her own bedroom, which had a spectacular view of the San Francisco bay, and took to sleeping in the living room. Another time, she flew a similarly sick guest in a private jet to meet the Dalai Lama in New York because that was the dying man’s last wish.

Before our June 25 lunch date, I had mailed Warren a copy of Dakshana’s annual report. Dakshana, a foundation Harina and I set up two years ago, provides free IIT-JEE coaching to impoverished rural scholars. Warren had not just read the report but mailed a copy each to Bill Gates and Charlie Munger. He even said it was the best annual report from a non-profit that he’d ever read! I asked Warren whether I was right to start on my philanthropic work in a modest way or I should have waited a few more years to start giving back. Warren’s reply was simple: “It’s never a good idea to wait to do anything; given the uncertainty of life, just get going.”

The money from annual lunch will go to Glide Foundation
The money from annual lunch will go to Glide Foundation
It was time for dessert (ice cream in shot glasses) and for our lunch to wind down. A week before the luncheon meeting, my daughters had put together a scrap book on Warren that, at the end of the lunch, he wanted to carry with him despite my offer to FedEx it to him. For their work and for being the only kids to have dined with Warren at his charity lunch, he gave them bags full of candies— including “custom M&M’s” with his picture on each one (specially packed for him by Berkshire’s portfolio companies, See’s Candies, Hershey’s and Mars).

He gave them something else, too: an offer to share hamburgers with him at Johnny Rocket’s (a hamburger chain) the next time he was in Irvine, California, where I live. And he said, “maybe we’ll ask your dad to join us.” And to Harina and me, Warren gave an unexpected gift—he offered to set us up for a lunch date with Charlie Munger. And true to his word, two days after our meal, Warren copied me on an e-mail to Charlie asking him to dine with us.

There is a price one can pay annually to dine with Warren. But a lunch with Charlie is priceless. Harina and I are very much looking forward to breaking bread with Charlie. I never thought that I’d buy one and get another (priceless one at that) for free! At the start of our meeting, I had told Warren that he was my guru and that this lunch was a way for me to make a small down payment on a very large guru dakshana that I owed him. At the end, I told him that I would be honoured if he, my guru, allowed me to touch his feet and if he could put his hands on my head and bless me. Warren’s response: “Mohnish, I will do anything you ask me to do.” Harina clicked the priceless photo of me touching my guru’s feet as he smiled and placed his hands on my head.

The 14 years of learning vicariously from Warren have made me into a vastly better human being. I can already see the lunch leading to more improvements.

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