#34 – The Letter Reader

Lawrence Cunningham is a prolific author, an academic, a legal expert, an accounting expert, a governance expert, a director of 3 quoted company boards and a corporate adviser.

SUMMARY

Lawrence Cunningham is the author of 20 books, an academic who has published over 60 publications, a legal expert, an accounting expert, a governance expert, a director on 3 quoted company boards and an adviser. His most famous book is the Essays of Warren Buffett in which he extracts sections from the sage’s letters over decades and orders them by subject. In our conversation, he tells how he first met Mr Buffett, how the books came about, how he sends Mr Buffett a draft of each publication, and explains how and why the letters are so carefully crafted. Few have studied Berkshire and particularly the letters as closely and he has some fascinating perspectives.

 

Some takeaways

Steve could have carried on chatting to Larry for another hour quite easily. They did not even begin on Steve’s favourite of Cunningham’s books, Quality Investing. The discussion focused on how Larry got started – by organising a symposium as a young academic in 1995 at Cardozo School of Law to discuss the letters. Buffett came with his wife as did Charlei Munger and so began a long relationship.  

Cunningham explains in our discussion that Buffett was incredibly kind and considerate towards the young academic and invited him and his girlfriend to join them at his table at a dinner held in Buffett’s honour that weekend.

Before publishing a new edition of the Essays of Warren Buffett, which he does roughly every 5 years (sometimes 3, sometimes 7), Cunningham sends the proposed additions and deletions to Buffett who will sometimes make the odd suggestion. Buffett orders copies of the latest edition to send to the board and to the Berkshire subsidiary CEOs (roughly 85 last time, Cunningham believes).

The book is incredibly popular. And rightly so. Buffett finely crafts examples and illustrations which Steve likened in their conversation as “poetry for finance geeks”. Cunningham remembers fondly the discussions which took place at the original symposium where Buffett was heavily involved and made a number of pithy witty phrases off the cuff. The transcript of the conference is available as a book, The Buffett Essay Symposium (Amazon UK link).

Steve asked if it wasn’t time for Mr Buffett to move to a non-executive Chairman role and allow the next generation to step in, in a more gentle and gradual handover. Cunningham doesn’t think it will happen and doesn’t believe it’s necessary.

Governance expert Cunningham gives his views on the Berkshire board and points out how they have exhibited real teeth and independence of the charismatic Chairman. The Audit Committee has gone against Mr Buffett’s preference and demonstrated that the Borad is bigger than the founder. He sees it as highly effective.

ABOUT Lawrence Cunningham

Lawrence Cunningham is a professor, author, lawyer and corporate director and advisor. He is an expert on corporate governance, the founder and managing partner of the Quality Shareholders Group and special counsel with international law firm, Mayer Brown LLP. He is best known for his association with Warren Buffett and his publication of an approved compilation of extracts from Berkshire letters. He also serves board of directors of Constellation Software, Kelly Group Partners, and Markel Group.
In his early career, Cunningham practiced corporate law with Cravath, Swaine & Moore, specialising in corporate governance, corporate finance and M&A. He then taught at the prestigious Cardozo School of Law, where he directed The Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Center on Corporate Governance. He then moved to become professor of law and business and vice dean at Boston College before becoming the Henry St. George Tucker III Research Professor at George Washington University. In 2023, Cunningham joined Mayer Brown LLP as Special Counsel, advising public company boards on corporate governance.
Larry’s list of publications is too long to repeat here. He has published 21 books at last count as well as some 50 academic publications. Steve’s favourites (although he hasn’t read all of Larry’s books) are listed below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Although we mainly talked about The Essays of Warren Buffett, Steve particularly likes 3 of Larry’s books:

Quality Investing: Owning the best companies for the long term

Written in conjunction with the team at AKO Capital, this book analyses what constitutes a quality company and gives practical examples. The there pillars of quality per AKO are These are strong, predictable cash generation; sustainably high returns on capital; and attractive growth opportunities. AKO’s founder is now the CIO of Norges Bank Investment Management, and probably the most powerful investor in the world.

The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America
We spent most time on this book, Lawrence’s most successful and the best book in Steve’s view to analyse Warren Buffett. Cunningham has taken extracts of the essays over the years and arranged them by subject. Steve as read this book several times And in more than one edition and described Buffett’s turn of phrase as “poetry for finance geeks”.

 

Dear Shareholder: The best executive letters from Warren Buffett, Prem Watsa and other great CEOs
Lawrence has taken extracts of letters from some of his favourite letter writers in corporate America. He used a candour rating to select what he felt was a universe of best letters and then drilled down into a smaller sample. Steve is studying the performance of the companies.

HOW STEVE KNOWS THE GUEST

Steve met Larry at the Markel brunch in Omaha on the Sunday and asked him to come on the podcast. Well it took a year, but it was well worth the wait. 

 

Transcript

0:01

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0:21

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0:41

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1:18

Or my 16th?

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1:34

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I think they can help anyone improve their position sizing process if you would like to see how alpha theory can help you.

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2:10

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2:30

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3:30

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Thank you.

Lawrence Cunningham barely needs an introduction.

If you’ve heard of Warren Buffett, and who listening to this podcast hasn’t, the chances are you’ve either read the essays of Warren Buffett or at least heard of its author.

3:51

I met Larry in Omaha in 2023, and we chatted a couple of weeks before we both headed out for the AGM in 2024.

Larry explains how, as a young university lecturer, he first met Mr. Buffett, and he tells some lovely stories about their relationship.

4:10

Cunningham is a prolific author, an academic, a legal expert, an accounting expert, a governance expert, a director of three quoted company boards, and in his spare time, a company advisor.

He’s written some fantastic books, which we didn’t even have time to mention because this discussion focused on Buffett and Berkshire.

4:30

He studied Berkshire, and particularly Buffett’s letters as closely as anyone.

Well, with the possible exception of Chris Bloomstrand, My guest in episode 19 and Larry has some fantastic insights into the man and the business.

I could have carried on talking for much longer.

I know you’re going to enjoy my conversation with Larry Cunningham.

4:50

Larry, we met about a year ago in in Omaha and I’ve been really looking forward to to talking to you.

You’re very hard to pigeonhole because you’re part legal expert, part accounting expert, part governance expert, academic author, director.

5:07

I mean, you’ve got so many hats.

What did you want to be when you were a a university student?

What did you do?

What do you want to be?

Well, I studied economics and that’s a that’s a discipline that tries it’s very ambitious attempt to understand the world.

So.

So I think it led to that interest in that series of interdisciplinary adventures that that you described.

5:29

So that that explains it I think.

But it’s quite intimidating interviewing someone who’s so proficient in so many disciplines.

I mean, what’s made you operate in all these different fields?

Is it just curiosity, or did you get bored?

Or what’s the most special to you?

5:44

Well.

In a way that list you could create a an overlap a sort of a Venn diagram sort of that there there is an intersection among all all those things and you know ultimately it it’s probably the a perspective on investing that you it’s it’s useful to have knowledge of of finance accounting law, organizational behavior obviously fundamental microeconomics especially in order to do investing well.

6:19

So that that probably is the the area that is most interesting to me.

I like trying to you know, study and understand a particular business, its organizational structure, it’s production model and then it’s, you know, it’s sort of governance arrangements around that.

6:38

So I think that’s sort of the most interesting and again I think it’s a a combination of many of those disciplines.

And what do you spend the most time on?

Nowadays I spend most of my time advising boards of directors and CEOs, mostly of public companies, but also of of private companies and and some start-ups too.

7:01

And I I really do enjoy that it’s, you know, troubleshooting for others help helping solve thority problems.

What sort of problems do they bring you any?

Governance.

I call it governance related problems.

So the common topics include succession planning for the CEO especially, but also for the senior suite, the Chief Financial Officer and others, and also for the Board of Directors.

7:28

So succession planning is a big one.

A particular challenge these days, especially for public company boards, is that fine line between board oversight and managerial autonomy.

That’s a traditional distinction.

The boards of directors are charged with overseeing the the business and operations, and the executives not calling the shots, certainly day-to-day managerial topics.

7:55

But that tradition is under stress in the current period because so much is expected of companies and of directors.

And so directors are asked to develop expertise around cybersecurity or climate politics or human Capital Management.

8:12

And that set of expectations tends to pull them a little bit closer to that line.

And so that’s it’s a big question, recurring question from a lot of my clients these days, but then there could be other other just run-of-the-mill sort of questions about shareholder voting, shareholder rights, shareholder engagement, financial reporting, audit committee role, audit committee process.

8:38

So it it runs the gamut, but I’d I’d say it’s all under the umbrella of corporate governance.

And you think directors are good at that sort of thing, cybersecurity or the energy transition, I mean these are quite technical subjects often with a lot I mean cybersecurity huge amount of technology and non executive directors of public companies they’d be older.

9:00

I mean, do you think there’s that conflict there a problem I I.

Agree absolutely that that topic among others that are that are being being asked of directors today are very specialized.

And my own view and advice is that boards function better when the members are generalists.

9:20

That obviously everyone brings a particular set of background skills, but to me, the most important, most valuable trait that a director possesses is excellent business judgement.

And so that’s what I look for.

So it’s a very general concept of good judgement, good business judgement, whether the person knows a a great amount about accounting, tax, climate, cyber is a bonus or can be helpful, but it’s it’s not what I look for.

9:51

There’s a downside to having such technical expertise on the board which is that that person then becomes expected to have the answers or to know the approach to every question and that that undermines the deliberative value of a board of directors where people are exchanging viewpoints and testing each other in in in healthy ways And so it puts too much of A burden on that person and and creates unhelpful expectations.

10:19

So, but that and that debate is going on and I participate in it and I I take that generalist position and there are others who feel differently.

But I think the best boards are people who have good business judgement above all.

No, that’s very interesting.

And it’s slightly ironic that perhaps there’s a drawback in having a cybersecurity expert on your board, because they’re obviously going to be the fan of all wisdom on that subject.

10:44

So, ironically, you’re better off not having the expert and then you can have a proper debate.

Yeah I mean on expertise the board is able to enlist experts who when needed to to provide technical specifications and and you know answer deep detailed questions and so that they they can enlist such person either from the managerial ranks or at the Chief Information Security Officer or one of the people on that person’s staff can appear before the board give a presentation, answer questions they could appear quarterly they could appear whatever frequency the board judges is appropriate.

11:26

And we could all the board can also enlist an outside consultant have have that person present to the board and in fact participated in boards where we sequence that.

So we well we started the other way have an have an outside expert come in and talk to the board for half an hour.

It could be some somebody from one of the one of the tech firms, auditing firms and and and provide a presentation and then the next meeting have the CISO, the CISO Chief Information Security Officer come in and field questions about that person’s presentation, strengths, weaknesses, implications for our company and how we’re doing.

12:01

And so an intelligent director with good business judgement will add a lot of value through those means.

And the board as a whole I think will add value to by asking questions of the CSO, by requesting information, by seeking reporting protocol.

12:18

I mean it’s if you did have one technical expert on the board, it’s fine.

But my my concern is that people chosen for that skill alone will not overall add value.

The skill that’s critical everyone needs to possess is business judgment.

And then if if people have additional skills, obviously that can add add value.

12:36

Very interesting point.

I suppose you’re having a lot of conversations right now about AI, but we won’t talk about AI because then we’ll be here all night.

Now look, you have published something like 20 books, I don’t know how many 5060 academic publications I’ve written and published one book.

12:55

And it was not the easiest.

I mean, it wasn’t 10 years or I mean, it was OK.

I mean, I might, but the idea of doing 20, how did you find the time?

Are you doing super Quake mean?

Do you have some secret that you can share?

13:11

I have a secret.

A friend of a colleague of mine, a fellow professor who who is really super productive, more productive than that, told me that his secret was to just write the same book 20 different times, the same article 60 different ways.

And that’s that’s a traditional way to do it.

13:27

I I did not do that.

Most of my books are a little different from one another but I mean it was you know that was really my job as as I spent 30 years as a professor and the coin of the realm is publication.

So that was part of the culture part of the job and and part of the time I I I taught classes to be sure but I typically create teaching materials and iterate my research with my teaching.

13:52

So there’s a there’s a symbiotic connection there and I had administrative functions, committee assignments and Dean roles and stuff.

But within a university, those are not overwhelming time commitments.

So I had, you know, it’s just a part of my career, part of my job, the freedom and the flexibility to write.

14:13

And I I simply, I like doing it or I I guess better.

I I like having done it.

Dorothy Parker has a wonderful quote.

She said that I I hate writing but I love having written.

You know the actual sitting down can be challenging, can be hard, may not flow easily, but then once you get in the groove it usually does and then having published is a a wonderful accomplishment.

14:37

And what do you do?

Do you do like get up at 5:00 in the morning and and write?

Do you do?

Do you have a a process like?

That yeah, it helps.

I mean that was when I was when I was deep in in production mode at various times we’re, you know, working on a book or getting the end of an article.

I’d I would discipline it exactly that way.

14:54

I I I’ve got up crack of dawn, you know 5:00 AM and would sit down and work and you know steadily without any interruptions until 9:00 or 10:00.

And then I can come back to it later in the day.

But there’s a wonderful book called Deep Work by a computer scientist at Georgetown that emphasizes the value of sustained engagement with a project.

15:16

He called it deep work and so and and he means time in particular that having a unbroken without emails phone calls distractions, checking the website and so I would I would do that and that added enormously to the productivity.

15:32

I mean, just he’s right about your brain works more efficiently at the the sentences come out clear, paragraphs come out almost, you know, right away.

And so that is a good trick if, if you like, trying to find sustained blocks just produces better work.

15:49

I did mine just sporadically.

So, you know, if I had, I would come home in the evening.

I might spend an hour writing a bit of it or, you know, two hours on a Sunday or whatever.

And I did it over an extended period I was at.

I asked quite a famous entrepreneur here who’d written a book how he did it, and he did a series of interviews and he said I didn’t go to bed until I’d finished that interview.

16:13

So it’s like four or five pages for each interview because he had a deadline.

I I did it without a deadline, but I want to get on to the Buffett essays in a minute.

But before I do that, can we just ask about a couple of your other books?

I mean obviously you’ve written so many.

There are a couple of books that I really loved apart from the essays and the Dear Shareholder book I bought a little while ago and it said I think you initially did a review of lots of letters for the degree of candor versus obfuscation.

16:44

I wondered, how did you do that in in practice?

Because I think this idea of candor is something that runs through a lot of those letters, and it’s something that investors should look for, isn’t it?

Yes, those letters that I chose for the for that book rank high on a number of different tests or or scales that I I sourced and then deployed on a large population of letters.

17:09

And so there is research that uses linguistic analytics to probe for a degree of candor versus obfuscation.

And so it’s a it’s a sort of keyword counts phrasing sequencing and it’s it’s a sort of old fashioned AI type of type of type of tool just a a computerized quantification that that you know and then you need to double check it but then so you can get a ranking or in in clusters you know you know relatively clear to to relatively obfuscatory.

17:50

And so I I used a lot of those.

And then I also there are a lot of surveys you know, that just I think accomplished investors who who detected value in those letters had published.

And I I remember some from The Motley Fool and on Morningstar Seeking Alpha.

18:07

So I I I cite them all in the book.

I and I just I tried to rank them And then I just in my own travels I had become acquainted with different letters and had read decent inventory.

18:23

So.

So through that process, I whittled it down to about 35 or 40 and then chose about 15 to feature in the book, and I list the other 30 or so at the end.

No, I saw there were several near misses that didn’t quite make it in.

18:40

And I was curious if there are any letters which are awful and which you would like to name but you probably won’t.

But I have to just ask what I mean.

What makes for a good letter versus a bad letter?

And have you done any studies in Europe?

Because it’s my observation, they’re very, I mean, there’s loads of good letters in America, very few in Europe.

19:00

There’s people like Lord Wolfson at Next and he stands out.

I mean his his letters are brilliant, but there are so rare.

And you know why that is?

Well, it takes a lot of time and effort to produce those letters.

We were just talking about writing, writing books.

19:17

And you know how hard that is and how you need the deep, Deep Work time.

Getting up early, staying up late, you know and these CEOs are also running their business and and you know managing, managing the team and and trying to deliver substantive results.

So you know take it takes time and effort to step back and then try to craft a valuable message for shareholders and so, so I think that’s a reason why you don’t see as many as you see a a decent number.

19:49

But while a lot of CEOs simply say look, I, I I can’t invest the time that it takes to create this create a really valuable letter.

And so I, I, I understand that.

I think those who those who do it have decided.

20:06

Either they’re relatively better at it and can do it more efficiently, or simply bet it’s worth it.

And you know what makes for a good letter is that you can tell that it is the personality.

The CEO coming across that page you could tell they stayed up late or got up earlier, you know spent the extra time to try to communicate their view of the business and so illuminate, you know So what counts what as is a good letter I mean illumination about the business how how does this fellow think about the business and you know and and in a way that might shed some understanding help a shareholder think better about the business, how to think about its performance.

20:47

And you know the sense of of audience is this person interested in the shareholders mostly or other things like his ego or his friends or the other managers or other stakeholders out there out there in the world.

And so trying to get a set, you know who this person is and what does he care most about in running the business.

21:07

I think I think about the headlines I would I would count as particularly to look for that are particularly valuable.

Have you ever done any studies of investor letters?

So that’s just from fund managers.

No, I didn’t.

I’ve done a study but I’ve I’ve read quite a few just in informally and I think yeah, my impression is those those folks do put more time in.

21:31

I think that my my guess is the sort of the the population of of high quality investor letters is is probably larger you know prorate than than CEO letters.

And I’m not 100% sure why that is, but it, you know, if a fund manager is, you know that person’s primarily an investor and so it’s probably schooled in thinking and understanding what his or her investors will want to know.

21:58

And so would, would you know, prioritize finding the time and energy and attention to write a high, a high quality letter.

But that’s just a guess.

I haven’t really studied IT system.

Well, it’s also because it’s a sales document for an investor.

And I think Mr. Buffett treats his letter as a sales letter in a funny way, and very few CEOs do.

22:19

And if they understood that there was a value in it, perhaps they more would spend more time.

Well, that’s a great point.

In 1978, Warren wrote a letter in his letter saying that exact point.

22:35

He said, I’m writing this because I want to attract a certain kind of shareholder.

I want to attract a focused patient shareholder base.

And so I’m talking to you patient, focused shareholders, please listen, come along for the ride.

22:51

And he did that year after year after year and and and and it’s always selling.

I mean it’s it’s a it’s a it’s a sophisticated sale because he’s he he’s not simply transactional he he really believes that the company will prosper if it has a long term focus group and and so he consciously cultivated that group to help Berkshire and it did and I think he he makes comments of that type every so often and every few years about the shareholder base the quality the shareholder base and some of the some of the policies the company has adopted are designed to attract and retain that focused patient cohort.

23:35

And I think you’re absolutely right that if more CEOs understood the value they shareholder base that that that the shareholder demographic can contribute or subtract from a company more people would put more more time into it.

And I’ve I’ve I’ve coached and I’ve I know a lot of CEOs who do understand that and who do work to cultivate exactly that that cohort so so it’s a it’s a thing let’s say it’s you know it happens and and you’re you’re absolutely right that that kind of clear letter is is a you know a useful sales document for for that purpose.

24:15

Yeah, it’s a it’s.

I just find it funny that more people don’t understand this and just for their own discipline to look back, OK, So we’ve just ended the year.

And I just wanted, you know, record what I’ve done.

24:30

And you would imagine that, you know, people that get to the top of these large companies, I mean, they’re very successful people.

And you would think that they would want to measure themselves and want to do that.

But Buffett obviously has set the bar incredibly high.

24:47

And I so enjoyed reading the new edition of your book.

And what I found really funny was I’ve read all the letters and I’ve read, you know, I’m reading your book a second time and it’s still fantastic.

25:03

Tell the story about how you started because it’s a lovely story.

Thank you.

It was 1995 and I was the director of my university’s corporate governance program and my Dean said my duties include supporting or sponsoring high visibility events and high impact scholarship.

25:24

And so I did a couple of things that seemed to get close to that.

But was he was looking for something really big?

And I, through my own mentor, my professor, I started reading Warren’s letters and I saw this connection to corporate governance.

25:40

He’s famous for as an investor, and the letters are famous missives to investors.

But there’s also a lot of really good governance, insight, wisdom and knowledge.

And so I said that would be high impact, that would be high visibility.

And so I asked my Dean for some help getting in contact with with Warren, and through a good friend to his, a network of of friends, really, I got the proposal in in front of Warren.

26:06

And to almost everyone’s surprise, he said yes.

So he would participate in the symposium at my university, where I put, you know, a version of what became the essays.

But, and I think I called it that, but it was like a rearranged collection of his letters on topics that the symposium panels would under would consider.

26:26

So governance, finance, tax, accounting, M&A.

And so it was a two day conference in New York City, right in the middle of New York City, about 200 people in the audience, you know and you you couldn’t do that today.

You’d need to have a, you know, Wembley Stadium or Madison Square Garden or you know the the stadium they have in in Omaha.

26:45

You need 30 or 40,000 people.

So we went, and it was his, his sort of entourage, I mean his wife, his son.

Many people from the Charlie Munger sat right in the front row, participating Carol Loomis, who, who’s been the editor of his, his letters and and my sort of colleagues, professors.

27:04

And we had just wonderful debates the whole, the whole weekend.

And then suppose we also got some.

And so I published the the, the, the Professor’s commentary.

They all all each wrote a research article around their their topic and that was actually a pretty successful academic publication and got the impact that my Dean was looking for.

27:25

And then it it it spilled over into the popular arena.

It was this posing was mentioned in some media and and it got some attention.

So eventually it was obvious that we should publish this as a book and which you know, I I hadn’t initially thought of but it worked on.

27:45

It was Warren’s idea.

I think it was at the supposing it might have been after you should you should update that every few years, you know with new material.

So that’s what we’ve done.

Why do you think he agreed?

How old were you when you approached him?

30.

You weren’t the Lawrence Cunningham of today.

28:00

I mean, you were.

Yeah, I was an assistant professor at at a, you know, law school in in New York City.

It’s a prestigious law school, of course.

Yes it is Cardozo Law School.

That’s that’s its name.

28:16

Part of Yeshiva University which is an excellent excellent university excellent law school.

So oh and there was a connection the let’s see there were a few layers like people asked how did why did Warren say yes, even monger.

I remember at at the conference we were walking from the hotel to the school, just Charlie and I and and monger out of the clear blue sky said, you know, we were all very surprised that Warren agreed to let you do this.

28:45

And I said, oh, well, OK why do you think he did?

And he said, I think it’s trust.

I said OK what do you mean he said, because you found your way to Warren through a circle of friends to all of whom trust is critical.

And so people vouched for me.

29:01

My Dean certainly vouched for me.

And one of the people that was in that mix was a was one of Warren’s best friends whose name is Sandy Gottesman.

I think they’d gone to Business School together or where they they invested together at a very young age.

29:20

And then Sandy, Sandy, Charlie and Warren were the three original people that owned big stake in Berkshire, so billions and billions of dollars.

And Sandy, Sandy was the chair of the board of Overseers of Yeshiva University.

29:35

And so.

Oh, I see.

Yeah.

So he knew my Dean very well.

And so when I think Sandy’s sort of sniffing around, So what?

Who who’s this Larry Cunningham?

Oh, very, very solid guy, very trustworthy guy.

And so that that that was a, that was a big, a big part of it.

So Monger said, you know, trust.

29:51

And what what he meant by trust was that, you know, the letters are a very special asset of warrants.

They’re they’re very personal to him.

You know, he he has the copyright on them.

They’re they’re not owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

They’re owned by him personally, you know.

And he, as we were discussing the, the effort it takes to to create these, it’s it’s blood, sweat and tears, you know.

30:12

And he’s poured himself into them even by 1995, you know, he already had this substantial corpus and now it’s twice as valuable, twice as big.

So the idea that you’re going to, you know, give permission to rearrange them as I did in thematic manner and then publish them, you know, you don’t just let anybody do that, say, all right, I need to have somebody who I can trust to to respect that personal feature, the legacy, the content, you know, the institution and all of that.

30:49

And so, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

I mean, it must have been very difficult to do it at the start, but it must be almost even more difficult to do the updates.

And I was looking, I don’t know if this is right.

I looked at the two books that I’ve got and the page length is very similar.

31:06

There’s a couple of percent in it.

But I reckon that the newer edition had a word less per line, and I estimated about 10,000 words shorter.

Is that right?

And how could you get rid of 10,000 of Warren Buffett’s words?

Yeah.

31:22

Well, that that’s interesting.

Yeah, it was very hard initially, you know, all of those letters as of 1995.

So I guess it’s 20 ish years and his originals got longer and longer every year.

And so sculpting the initial content, the the challenge that posed, you know, I had to read through everything.

31:45

My my goal was to compile content that would be of greatest interest to the greatest number of people.

And so that meant leaving a lot of the more technical discussions of insurance out.

I actually created a separate document.

32:01

I have all of his insurance letters, but I just, I left that out.

I also wanted to eliminate duplication.

So there there was material that that he returns to sometimes every year, but but usually every every few years.

32:18

So, you know, share buybacks, corporate philanthropy, tax topics, accounting topics.

And so I tried to choose the the example that was most comprehensive or most compelling or most most interesting.

32:36

And you know, that was it was painful to do, but you know, I had to let some of that go to avoid duplication.

And then the weaving of that was challenging, ’cause he sometimes takes share buybacks.

Again it’s a topic to which he returns over over you know every few years and so and there’s often something something new and interesting and and yet you know you you can’t just pluck the, you know ten of them, ten of them out in a row because they’ve got some lumpy duplication.

33:06

So I had to smooth all of that out.

So those are those were the challenges even even in 1995 just sort of get so a limit, you know make it most most valuable to most people, eliminate the redundancies and then then try to organize it in a way that read as a book so that it goes sequentially and builds towards the end.

33:31

So it starts with the fundamental you know a a snapshot of the fundamental principles he calls them the owner related business principles And then then it kind of expands into governance, finance, common stocks, other kinds of investments then accounting tax and history and so.

33:46

So getting that right that was that was that was fun and A and A and a challenge and then but you’re right.

So I did all that for the first cut and then you know I mapped that into the symposium.

So there was a very logical break breaking for each of those topics.

34:04

And then yes, every, you know every year I, I study the new letter very carefully and I with every sentence I’m connecting it back to the current edition.

The essay is thinking where would this go?

And you know so I’d I’d take that document over you know a couple months.

34:21

You know I I sort of go through it a couple times like you said I don’t want to lose any juice you know I’m going through as it’s hard to leave out a sentence So make make you know go through very very, very carefully with a with a fine tooth comb you know sieve and and finally have a sense of where the inserts would go and then if anything would need to be removed.

34:44

So share buyback update might supersede an earlier essay and and you know that’s that’s sometimes you know happens but most of the time it’s it’s sedition and so it’s accretion and so if you actually you look at each of the additions the the page count increased and it’s it’s I always try and so and then the next question is how many years until you do a release and it it that depends early days I think it was four or five once it was seven once it was 3 depends on how much that content will will change the the book.

35:26

I try to keep that at roughly at around 10% you know by page because you know IA lot of the book is also used as a teaching book at a lot of universities and business schools and law schools.

And so as a as an educator, as a producer of textbooks I am aware that that you know teachers like you know they’ve got their syllabus their their notes their questions and so big radical renovations of books is is is a tax for them.

35:56

So I and I just generalize that to to the the rest of the audience people who’ve read it once do like to come back to it but it but I don’t think they want to see a radical revision of it.

So I always kept it iterative you know any in a sort of evolutionary way.

36:14

And so I think what I did on your your recent note that’s I’m not sure how exactly you counted but what I did in this 8th edition was there was so much more material that I wanted to add because he’s he’s taking a fresh look at certain things and and and and you know looking looking more globally at some topics climate, you know some of the ESG topics.

36:43

So I I felt compelled, I felt constrained to include a an amount this this time around that would have exceeded my typical 10% and it was only three years.

So what I what I did I cut my part.

I’ve I’ve I’ve got an introduction to the to the overall in there.

37:01

It also grew a little bit every year you know maybe in proportion to the additions from Warren.

But at this point I was like in order to keep it to that 10% without without scaring people, I I cut my introduction back.

37:21

All.

Right.

Interesting.

Considerably.

You know, you know, I think, I think people like the framing, it’s useful, but you know, I think the the greater value is in Warren’s words.

So I I thought that was a sensible trade off to make.

Do you have any interaction with anybody at Berkshire on the production of it?

37:41

I mean, do you, do you send it to them or I mean is there any or do they say once it’s do you get any feedback?

I I before so when I when I do I get those letters you know and I work on them two or three years four years go by and I I sort of create a a set of writers you know inserts and then I I take the the plant the plant of the book with printers term for a a printed version of the manuscript.

38:08

You know typeset and I I mark it.

I Mark, you know I put proofreaders changes on there showing the insertions and deletions and then make a copy of that product and send it to Warren and say I I think it’s time for the X edition and hear the suggested insertions and deletions etcetera.

38:29

And then he will approve that and he he may have made one minor change here and there over the years but generally just flips through and says it says it’s OK, so that’s it.

And I always ask him how many, how many copies he wants and and he’s he’s had a different number each time depending on he likes to give them to the board.

38:47

He likes to give them to the CEOs of the companies.

Extremely a growing number, isn’t it?

Because the business has grown so much, he must have.

Yeah, it’s, yeah, we’ve got the, you know, 85 CEOs now of something like that.

But, but yeah, so, so it’s light touch and you know, to say the least, but I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t release it without running it by him.

39:05

And that’s that’s the way I’ve always done it.

And yeah, it’s kind of nice.

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39:22

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39:50

The juxtaposition of the commentary and the same subject from several years I think is really useful and it really reals some considerable insights.

I mean, as I said I, you know, you know that Warren Buffett is is a genius.

I mean, you, you know, everybody knows that, but you don’t really appreciate just how much of A genius he is.

40:12

I mean, there was one, I don’t know, G of you that got a favorite quote.

But there’s one thing when I read Cash is the business, as oxygen is to an individual, never thought about when it’s present, the only thing in mind when it’s absent.

It’s like poetry for finance geeks, isn’t it?

40:30

That’s a wonderful description.

It’s an exquisite example and and you’re right there there are a a very large number of illustrations like that distilling a a complicated idea or subject into a simple memorable expression or phrase and that’s a skill.

40:53

He has that skill and he does it.

He There are hundreds of illustrations of that sort, partly because he.

But he he doesn’t do it effortlessly.

Even though he’s so clever, it still takes him time to craft.

Oh.

I think, I think so.

41:09

I I think you’re absolutely right about that.

I I I do think that he’s faster than most of us.

You know I I would I don’t know how many days it would take me to get that thing into shape that that or if I could even do it.

So I mean I just, you know you see him, you see him on the stage in Omaha.

41:26

You see him even on Squawk box on TV’s.

And I remember from the conference, the conference is my favorite example because it was all, it was all dynamic, you know real debate in live time.

Like I’m sure he prepares for his annual meeting and prepares for those TV shows.

41:42

There was no way to prepare for this.

And I just saw him coming up with ideas and phrases and you know I had a whole transcript of that that conference I also published as a book and you can see the that wit, that pithy artistic expression.

41:59

You know he so he’s just he’s gifted in in many ways and that’s that’s what I think most of us are gifted in a couple of ways.

He’s gifted in a very large number of ways and when you combine it, he’s perspicacious, he he grasps complicated things and then is able to summarize them in I like how you called it, poetry for finance geeks.

42:20

It’s There’s no one has accomplished at that art.

No one even close.

I absolutely agree.

You mentioned the transcript of the conference.

Has that been published?

Yeah, I did.

I published.

Wait, I haven’t read that?

I’d really.

I’d really love to read that.

It’s.

Pretty.

It’s pretty neat.

Yeah.

42:36

It’s worth.

I think it’s worth.

Worthwhile.

We published it with Harriman House.

All right, OK.

But even better because Harriman House are my publisher as well, so I can, I can twist their arm to get a freebie.

Now I have a slightly controversial question to ask you because it seems to me.

42:52

That.

There’s a a very strong case to be made for Mr. Buffett to now become a non executive chair and give the younger group that are going to succeed him the chance to step into his size 69 shoes.

43:10

He’s a he’s got such huge, huge shoes to fill, but he’d still be there and be there as a standing board.

Do you think that’s a bad idea?

Well, it’s interesting, Steve.

You called it controversial and it certainly would be in in Omaha.

Warren, as I said earlier, I used that phrase of pouring his ego into those letters.

43:29

He’s poured his ego into the company too, into the, into the business.

I think he cannot step out.

He wouldn’t be Warren Berkshire, wouldn’t be Berkshire I.

So I just think he’s almost incapable of doing that.

So now are there, you know, what are the downsides and you know setting that aside, what’s the pro and con?

43:48

Well he, he is unique and uniquely able to look out across Berkshire and and the rest of the economy and identify opportunities, trade-offs in a way that I don’t think anybody else is.

44:04

So having him in that role, both the CEO and and the board chair role adds an enormous amount of value.

If he’s so if he stepped out the advantage I guess would be for Greg able to be you know begin to see that as well and to pull some of the levers around scouting for opportunities following up with people and then you know having having the team take a look.

44:38

But you know I think Greg does a lot of that anyway, especially within his business at Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

So I’m not sure how much value it would add to sort of get him doing doing that.

And Ajit you know in the insurance area, you know really calls all the shots over there.

44:58

So I’m not sure, I’m not sure that that formal elevation would would add, would add a lot of value.

And again I think both of those fellows, you know who will be the captains when that day comes.

I think they already have the the insight the the the knowledge of what the job entails to the to the that that sort of formal switchover probably wouldn’t add a lot of value.

45:27

So I think take it together, you know that that it’s really it’s Warren’s, it’s Warren’s life to have that job and I think take, you know, if he quit that job, you know, I I just don’t think he’d he’d be as excited, you know, tap dancing.

So I think, I think the status code for them actually actually actually works.

45:49

I I just thought it would be a lot smoother, easier transition for the others.

That was my observation.

But I wanted to ask you about the Berkshire board, because I looked at it, but a few years ago, maybe five years ago, and they had 17 people on the board of Berkshire, two people in their 80s, three in their 90s, six in their 50s.

46:11

The average age was below 60.

Because of that, the total funding off was 1000, Exactly 1000 years.

When I looked at it was a slightly funny thing.

Do you have any views on the composition of Berkshire’s board?

Yeah, well, that’s a fascinating data point there.

Well, unfortunately a few of them have.

46:30

Those octogenarians, or nanogenarians I guess they’re called, have have passed away just in the past three or four years, I guess.

Walter Scott, Tom Murphy, Sandy Gottesman.

And then they also had a departure.

46:46

Bill Gates stepped off the board.

They added within that past five years, Chris Davis, Wally White and then his daughter Susan, who took Bill Gates’s spot, which is interesting because Bill Gates took his her mom’s Susan Senior’s spot when Susan passed away.

47:07

Howard Buffett is the son who’s been on it for on the board for decades.

And so it’s changed, you know, a fair amount just in that in that past five years, there’s certainly some continuity.

Tom Murphy’s son took Tom’s spot.

47:25

Having the Buffett’s on there adds that that sense of the family legacy to the board, which I think is valuable because of it really started as a family company.

It was really Warren’s family and I think that that set of values that that he has baked into the company will endure within the company because they have baked it in so well.

47:46

But I think having some of those buffets on the board is a strong plus.

You know, so as a as a whole I’d I’d say you know the they epitomize what I said in the beginning of this conversation is the most important skill that a director can have, which is which is good business judgement.

48:03

And I think all 15 or 16 whatever that number is of those directors at Berkshire possess excellent business judgement.

And then the second thing, Warren has been very clear about what he looks for in his own board of directors and in boards of investee companies.

48:19

And he says, you know in addition to excellent business judgment, he he wants to have somebody who really cares deeply about the particular company, ideally demonstrated through having purchased shares of that company with their own cash.

And and here I think all or virtually all the directors satisfy that.

48:37

Well, they all satisfy their, they’re all really interested in Berkshire.

They really care about it.

They get it.

They understand the special features, the value of those special features and then I, you know all of them own some shares and most of them own a lot of shares.

So they really do have an owner.

48:56

Berkshire meant Berkshire shareholder mentality.

So I think it’s, I think it’s a good word.

I think the other thing to appreciate about about Berkshire is that uniqueness it’s an unusual company in that it’s got this insurance driver that generates this enormous float that then invests in a portfolio of public equities and bonds and then these individual businesses operations that are required help forever in a decentralized structure so held together by trust.

49:25

So for a board to be effective in that kind of organization, they have to understand those principles, understand the, the rationales understate capital allocation and I and I think this this board possesses all of that.

49:41

You know the other weird thing about Berkshire is those directors are not paid very much basically nominal sums.

But it’s a good board, I think.

Yeah, the real test of an effective board it it’s not the sort of routine quarterly, even annual annual stuff, but it comes at acute inflection points of crisis of scandal of succession.

50:03

This exact board, you know, hasn’t hasn’t been fully tested on that.

They will when succession comes.

But a version of this board back in 2014, I think proved on the metal of the board and and I think half of the people who were on the board now were on there then.

50:20

And I’m talking about the incident involving David Sokel who was Buffett’s heir apparent in 2014, so expected to take over as CEO.

When Buffett left the scene and had a important collection of responsibilities, and one of them is was to scout for acquisitions.

50:38

He scouted for an acquisition, found one, told Warren about it, left out some important information, including that he had bought stock in that company, which was a certainly a violation of Berkshire policy and potentially a violation of U.S.

50:55

Federal securities laws.

Well when Warren discovered that and issued a press release about it he was he was gonna separate David fire him but but not take any other formal action And and the response to that the the business press the shareholders and and others who revolted how, you know, trust is the most important thing at Berkshire.

51:20

And you what you’ve always said is that anybody who disappoints your trust will face you know vehement retro you know rebuke.

This was a slap on the wrist.

How could you do that.

So is there sort of a governance crisis at at Berkshire you know the chief Lieutenant being you know doing something clearly wrong and and the and the you know the chief the CEO not really doing much about it.

51:44

So when that flare up happened the board took control of the topic and the audit committee swung into action conducted a formal investigation and review and and analysis and recommendation and and they recommended a very harsh termination of David stripping of all of all benefits and and so on making it a four cause termination.

52:10

I really throwing him under the bus a very bitter ending to me.

What this illustrated was the strength of that board that and and the fact that Berkshire is bigger than Warren.

You know Warren would prefer what he he was prepared to do is just slap him on the wrist and move along.

52:27

The board recognized that this was insufficient response and that the corporation had to take a formal position a very strong position and and it did so.

So to me that was a sign of a of a very effective board acting for the company whether the CEO wanted them to or not.

52:45

Again that that board, it’s a little different than today’s board but a lot of the people overlap especially I think all the people who are on that audit committee are still on today.

Certainly the chair of the audit committee Ron Olson Susan Decker.

I I like the board.

I I think it’s a it’s an impressive group.

53:01

I think it’s good for Berkshire.

That was a really odd incident, wasn’t it?

Because one of Mr. Buffett’s great skills seems to be in picking managers, isn’t it?

It was a strange incident.

It’s a it’s a head scratcher that’s the I’m scratching my head scratch and and you could see it it was it was it was enigmatic right from the start for a couple data points.

53:25

Yes.

David’s.

Yes, Warren is famous for selecting managers.

He has a very high standard.

He sizes people up pretty well.

But he also knows that he has limits and and most people do.

And so he’s also extremely picky.

So if there’s just any whiff of doubt whatsoever, he says no, you know, won’t buy the business won’t hire the person.

53:45

So it’s it’s partly because he’s good at it.

Partly because he he’s extremely careful.

So David came with the American Energy acquisition he had worked with Walter Scott who was a pal of Warrens around Omaha and and and on the Berkshire board and he’s exceptional.

54:02

I I know David, I think I think he’s he’s terrific.

He was terrific.

Now this episode is a mind boggler.

And this all took place incidentally, the four weeks before the Berkshire annual meeting.

So it was the first topic 930 Whenever the meet, the meeting starts and Warren opened with it.

54:20

I summarized what what happened and you could see on his face he said, I I I’m baffled.

I I can’t understand.

This doesn’t make any sense to me.

Why?

I don’t know why David would have done that.

It makes it makes no sense.

And I think it was Warren who then mentioned some numbers that the value of the stock purchase that David had made was something like $3,000,000.

54:43

It’s a lot to a lot of us, but David at that time was you know making 20 million a year or something and had a very high net worth, you know hundreds of millions.

So why would person is enough for the money and so what’s going on?

54:59

So Warren just was couldn’t, couldn’t figure it out.

On mistakes, Buffett spends a huge amount of time talking about his mistakes, and he beats himself up.

I don’t know whether this is just like a mental discipline, but in contrast he rarely mentions the other side like stories like he was playing golf with the CEO of Hertz, who told him American Express was a brilliant business and that turned them from thinking about selling the stock into buying more.

55:27

He must get a huge amount of I mean the circles that he mixes in.

He must get a huge amount of intelligence.

Do you think he doesn’t talk about that in the lectures because he doesn’t often act on it?

Yeah I think so.

I you know he’s that bit about the mistakes.

55:45

I I think it’s it’s training.

I I think he thinks well he he recognizes the value of learning from mistakes.

And so I think it helps for him to retell the story of the mistake to reinforce that knowledge And and it is kind of extraordinary that he, you know he picks at them over and over and over again.

56:06

You know Dexter Shue is his, his favorite, you know buying or even buying the original textile business that was the Berkshire Hathaway brand.

But both of them were bad investments and in one, in Dexter’s case, he used Berkshire stock to buy a a dying business.

56:26

So he just kicks himself.

So yeah, I say I and on the on the upside or the opportunities, yeah, I think I think one one reason we might not hear as much about all the opportunities declined is is because you know part of what’s appealing when people go to Warren is knowing that if it doesn’t work out, no one’s going to know about it.

56:51

I mean I think you know potential sellers of business who have an opportunity to talk to Warren or or have it an idea considered you know would very often would love to to have to receive an offer and and to to make a sale to to join the company.

57:09

But if they weren’t given the opportunity that didn’t go forward like it can be awkward or embarrassing or or worse And so you know Warren’s made you know makes an ironclad commitment like all those conversations are are are confidential and you know and I I mean I think most most business people are are like that.

57:30

So I think that’s a that’s a important habit, important virtue for for him.

Listen, I I could talk to you for a long time, but I know you’re a busy guy, You’ve got all these hats to wear, and listeners probably don’t have an unlimited amount of time either.

57:52

But do you have a a favorite quote or a favorite story about Berkshire or Mr. Buffett or?

Well, my favorite, my favorite story really is.

It goes back to that and there are a bunch of them of of that symposium I did in in.

58:08

It was 1996.

It was a weekend long symposium at my university.

So we had a variety of events surrounding it a a a lunch for the participants and then we had a dinner the first evening of the conference at the home of the benefactor of the program I was running, Sam and Ronnie Heyman.

58:33

Very impressive, you know, billionaires, New New York financiers, takeover artists and business managers.

And so they they hosted a dinner in their home in Warren’s honor for the symposium and they invited all of their friends who were also fan famous New York billionaires.

58:53

And the guest list was was you know blew blew me away.

Carl Icahn.

Jimmy Kane from Bear Stearns.

I think Michael Milken was there just person after person.

59:14

And I get like you said earlier I’m I’m a young assistant professor.

I’m there with my girlfriend you know.

So I’m I’m sort of milling around and wondering with my girlfriend where we should where we should sit.

You know, it’s a beautiful 5th Ave. home, and then it’s about 60 people, I think 10 tables of six, all all around it.

59:35

We’re wondering where we should sit.

And Warren says, hey, hey, Larry, Larry, come on, Larry and Robin come sit with us, sit with us and see.

He had us sit with Susan his he and his wife and Sandy Gottesman about whom I spoke earlier from Yeshiva University and his wife Ruth Gottesman.

59:52

And the six of us sat for dinner in this in this room full of, you know, very powerful people.

And I it just blew me away.

And that’s that’s what he wanted to do.

He wanted to sit and talk to us not not hobnob that’s that’s kind of that’s kind of how he is and you know just made us feel great.

1:00:11

I mean and the related thing.

Then I was asked he he invited my nephew and I to come to the annual meeting the next year.

I I wasn’t married so I taken my wife ever ever since.

But that that year I.

He he asked my nephew who he admitted the symposium and so we went and Warren used to have a brunch on the Sunday morning after the meeting for his out of town guests and probably 100 people or so at this one that Justin and I attended.

1:00:39

And again it’s that that same it was his Omaha version of all the top Berkshire people and and again Justin and my nephew and I are like oh man, where where we should sit you know.

And here Howard Buffett came, came to us, came up to us, Warren’s son and exactly the same style and manner and everything else made us feel so comfortable.

1:00:59

We said come, come sit with us, sit with, sit with my family and we we joined them and and it was just just wonderful.

And that’s, you know that that’s just how the Buffett’s are very, very solid.

The Earth, you know, just the nicest people.

It’s funny, I’ve had guy spear in my podcast, so of course with Manish Papra I paid to have lunch with him and he said that, you know, Mr. Buffett is just genuinely warm person, but you it’s not something you can fake.

1:01:28

So listen, it’s been fantastic talking to you.

I’m just going to put this book up and I’m going to show you I’d like to take notes So I’m old fashioned.

I don’t like to use a Kindle because I prefer to read the book and I like to take notes.

1:01:45

And for this look I’ve got page after page after page.

I ran out of paper, so I’ve got here.

I was in Zurich last week.

I had to take the hotel, no.

Notepad.

So, yeah, it’s it’s a phenomenal book.

1:02:01

You know, like most most books, you know, they follow the 8020 principle, like like 80% of the knowledge is in 20% of the pages.

You know, so you skip through and you have one page of notes.

This book is, you know, is the the other end of that spectrum because you take that 8020 principle, you first, you know, apply it to all of Warren’s letters and then, you know, compress it down into this collection.

1:02:28

It’s all gold.

I mean, I do the same thing.

I go back to it quite, quite a bit.

You know, there’s just three insights a page.

I mean it, it’s stunning.

But that’s that’s why I think from the Pareto principle that if if you you go across the whole 10,000 pages or whatever it would be and you’ve got this, this is the 300.

1:02:49

Yeah, it’s it’s it’s like no other book.

Well, you’ve done an amazing job of the book.

I’ve so enjoyed talking to you.

We’ll need to do this again because I’ve still got lots of questions I would have liked to have asked.

But Larry Cunningham, thank you very much.

1:03:05

My pleasure.

Steve, thank you very much.

I really enjoyed talking to Larry, and I loved his anecdotes from the original symposium which launched the book.

It’s interesting to meet someone who’s achieved so much in so many different areas, which is true of a number of my guests actually.

1:03:22

But it’s a huge endeavour to produce a single book of that quality, let alone 20 plus books.

I’m looking forward to meeting up with Larry and Omaha a couple of weeks from now.

Perhaps I’ll see you there.

Please come say hi and don’t forget my new sponsor.

Check out the website pagealphatheory.com/BTBS.