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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The Gonzaga professor breaks down Buffett in his book about the entrepreneurial icon

By Ed Condran For The Spokesman-Review

If the YouTube show “Who Knows Me Better, My Mom or My Crush” had been in existence when Warren Buffett was a child, the answer in his case would have been the latter.

The mother of the American business magnate, who is the fifth wealthiest person in the world, ironically called Buffett “worthless” while he was growing up during the Depression in Omaha.

Leila Buffett was as wrong about her son as Buffett, who is worth $106 billion, is right about becoming a successful entrepreneur.

Buffet’s relationship with his mother is one of the many revelations in “Warren Buffett: Investor and Entrepreneur,” the entertaining and informative book written by Gonzaga University Pigott Professor of Entrepreneurship Todd Finkle.

“Warren Buffett is a fascinating man,” Finkle said. “He was even a fascinating child.”

As a 5-year-old during the Great Depression, Buffet read every book about entrepreneurship in the Omaha Library, according to Finkle’s research. “By the time Buffett was 10, he decided that he never wanted to work for anyone,” Finkle said. “Buffett wanted to be an entrepreneur at that age. I didn’t even know what the word entrepreneur meant when I was 10.”

Finkle details how the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway overcame considerable adversity while literally making lemonade out of lemons. “Warren Buffett sold lemonade during the depression and brought in money to his family who desperately needed it,” Finkle said from his Gonzaga office. “His father lost his job and lost all of his money, like many people did. His mother broke down because of all of the stress.”

But it was no money, no problem for Buffett, who navigated his way to the top of the financial world without an inheritance or contacts. “Warren Buffett is an original,” Finkle said.

What sets Finkle’s Buffett book apart is that it’s part biography, part business instruction and part philosophy primer. It took Finkle, founder of GU’s Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program, 14 years to write the 272-page book.

“I want to leave something behind that is significant,” Finkle said. “What Warren has achieved and how he did it and where he did it is important to me.”

Finkle gets to the heart of the matter and has a unique perspective since he grew up in Omaha and went to school with Peter Buffett, Warren’s son.

“Peter is cut from the same cloth as his father,” Finkle said. “He would come to school with ripped jeans. He was into photography and music. You never would have known that his father was extraordinarily wealthy.”

The same could be said for Buffett, who has lived in the same relatively modest house he bought during the ‘50s. Buffett has a nondescript office in downtown Omaha and enjoys dining on hamburgers in greasy spoons, loves McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches and downs five Cokes a day.

Finkle is familiar with the latter since he has visited Buffett with classes of his students on six occasions. “He has a big case of Coke products in his home and he encouraged us to drink as many Coke products as possible,” Finkle said. “Warren said, “I get a penny every time you open one of those.’ It’s been fascinating for my students not just to learn about entrepreneurship from Warren Buffett but his views on life.”

Buffett’s philosophies are among the book’s highlights. When Finkle asked his students about what was the biggest impact of their Buffet encounter, the response was surprising.

“They told me it was about how to live your life,” Finkle said. “They were taken aback by what Buffett said is the most important decision you’ll make in your life and that is who you will marry.”

The prescient investor had an unconventional marriage with his first wife, Susan Buffett. The couple had three children – Susan, Howard and Peter – and were married for 52 years, but they lived apart for half of their marriage. Susan Buffett moved to San Francisco to advance her musical career during the mid-70s but the Buffetts never divorced.

Susan Buffett was a director of Berkshire Hathaway, owning 2.2% of the company, which was worth about $3 billion at the time of her death. When Susan Buffett died in 2004, Warren Buffett was so grief-stricken that he didn’t attend the service. Family friend and fellow philanthropist Bono sung “Forever Young” and “All I Want is You” at her funeral.

Warren Buffett married Astrid Menks in 2006. “Finding the right partner is what Warren would talk about,” Finkle said. “When you think about it, he’s right about how significant that is. Warren has made so many great decisions.”

However, the “Oracle of Omaha” has had some misfires and Finkle devotes an entire chapter on Buffett’s mistakes.

“Writers seldom focus on what someone of Buffett’s stature misses on,” Finkle said. “I don’t know of any other book on Buffet that focuses on his mistakes.”

More than a dozen of Buffett’s gaffes date all the way back to pre-pubescence. “The mistakes are varied, such as omissions,” Finkle said. “Buffett failed to invest in Microsoft and Google.”

However, Buffett has an extraordinary track record. Many of his peers live in fortresses of solitude, while Buffett enjoys passing along his wisdom to students.

Finkle has been taking students to meet Buffett since 2009, when he was teaching at the University of Akron.

“Those kids from the University of Akron were so enthusiastic,” Finkle said. “Many of the students (from Akron) still have their photo with Warren Buffett as their Linkedin photo. But my Gonzaga students didn’t take their visit lightly. They all know how hard it is to be approved for such an experience.”

Each professor and class must apply to meet Buffett. Even though Finkle, who left the University of Akron for Gonzaga in 2010, was pals with Peter Buffett, his initial application in 2007 was rejected. “I always stressed to my students how competitive this is,” Finkle said. “I told my (2011) class that half of their grade is based on a product that would enable us to visit Buffett. I was so impressed with how creative they were.”

A Warren Buffett pinball machine concept attracted Buffett’s crew, who gave Finkle the go ahead for his first of five visits with his Gonzaga classes.

“Visiting Warren, who is such a warm, likable man, has had a profound impact on each of the students I’ve brought to Omaha to visit him,” Finkle said. “I can’t say enough about the experience for the students.”

And then there is the experience for Finkle, who was given the green light to write his book by the legendary investor. “I treasure my friendship with Warren,” Finkle said. “He knows me and he’s friendly toward me but writing a book about him is something else.”

Finkle sent Buffet his first draft in 2015 and shortly thereafter received the green light. “I couldn’t have been happier about that and this whole process,” Finkle said. “I put everything into it.”

It was a major commitment for Finkle who devoted five years full time and nine years part-time to the book.

“The project was a labor of love,” Finkle said. “I learned so much in the process.”

The significance of family is apparent at the Buffett home. “You can see how Warren’s values were shaped by his father,” Finkle said. “When you go into Buffett’s office, you won’t find a computer or gadgets but you’ll see a picture of his father. His father’s sense of humor and sense of values stuck with Warren and his father loved him very much. That offset how his mother was with him. I hope that comes through in the book and that people realize that Warren Buffett is more than just another rich guy. He truly cares about people and if you follow what he believes, his philosophies might have a positive impact on your life.”