By Alice Schroeder
Bantam, 960 pages, $39.95
When Warren Buffett was nine, he caught some snowflakes in his glove and rolled them into a ball. Then he pushed that ball across his lawn, beyond his house and into his neighbourhood, watching it grow bigger and bigger and bigger.
Two years later, that moment came flooding back to the introverted, precocious youngster when he read a book, One Thousand Ways To Make $1,000, and discovered the miracles of compounding: how money could grow just like that snowball.
That led to two life-altering conclusions. The first was that if $1 could be worth $2 in 10 years' time, you had to view every dollar not by what it was worth today but by what it could be worth down the road. That affected not just how he invested, but how he viewed every dollar that came into his life and that of his family. Indeed, when he bought his first home for $31,000 (U.S.) - the modest home he still lives in today - he called it "Buffett's Folly," because, to his mind it was costing $1-million, given what he could have made had he invested that sum.
The second conclusion, as he vowed to a friend, was that he would be a millionaire by age 35. He made it five years early. , And at 78, he is a multibillionaire, who usually ranks close to or at the top of the lists of richest Americans.
The snowball is a recurring metaphor running through financial analyst-turned-journalist Alice Schroeder's magnificent new biography of the multibillionaire investor.
But as the title, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life suggests, this book is not yet another primer about the many companies he heads through his holding entity Berkshire Hathaway Inc. nor a treatise on investing.
Instead, it is about the business of life, something Mr. Buffett is far less skilled at. "Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill," he says.
Sometimes, he has been successful. Sometimes it has been a bumpy ride, which makes the book more entrancing.
Because of the focus on his life, the book abounds with new information on him. As a youngster, he loved to calculate odds on everything, down to whether the composers of his favourite hymns in church reaped some reward from their faith by living longer than average. His paper route was so sprawling and bountiful that he was paying income tax at 14 (after deducting his bike and watch as business expenses). At 15, he bought a farm and leased it to a farmer. In high school, he was earning more from his various enterprises than his teachers' salaries.
Mr. Buffett's father was a rabid, unbending, right-wing Republican member of the House of Representatives, who abhorred Franklin Delano Roosevelt and joined the John Birch Society. Repeatedly, Howard Buffett ran afoul of his electorate and even his party by refusing to bend on matters of principle.
That helped his son to recognize the importance of what he calls "the inner scorecard" - ignoring others even when they are all telling you that you are wrong. At times, when he has been out of step with the market and other investors - notably in the tech boom of the late 1990s - he held to his principles, and eventually was proved right.
But Warren Buffett was less forceful with his own father, never levelling with him before he died that he had abandoned the Republican Party over civil rights. Indeed, he followed the lead of his wife, Susan, to become very active in the civil rights movement in his native Omaha, Neb.
And although he was initially refused a job with his hero Benjamin Graham's investment firm because he wasn't Jewish - given discrimination on Wall Street, the firm tried to hold its few jobs solely for Jews - he was undeterred and eventually won a job there. Later in life, with Jews blocked from joining the prestigious Omaha Country Club where he was a member, he got himself nominated to the all-Jewish Highland Club. It was to make a point: that Omaha club members had no excuse for excluding Jews, if Jews were letting Gentiles into the Highland club.
He is also known for his simple and junk food preferences. Once invited to dine at the New York apartment of Sony chairman Akio Morita, he returned each of the more than 10 dishes untouched, waiting to eat popcorn, peanuts and strawberry ice cream later back at the home of a friend where he was staying. "I will never eat Japanese food again," he vowed, not even having eaten it that night.
When Bill Gates hosted a tour of China, the Microsoft founder arranged for each of the restaurants where the group ate to serve Mr. Buffett a burger and fries - often several courses of fries during banquets - while the others enjoyed the splendour of the exotic cuisine. "I follow a very simple rule when it comes to food," Mr. Buffett has said. "If a three-year-old doesn't eat it, I don't."
As a youngster, he loved the comic Li'l Abner, and the busty Daisy Mae, who slaved away to keep her husband happy after snaring him. It proved more than an adolescent fantasy, as he spent most of his life being cared for - and helped through life - by women. That included his bridge partner, world champion Sharon Osberg, and Carol Loomis, who helped him write his enchanting and informative annual reports to stockholders.
But the two women who most looked after him through life were his two wives, Susan Buffett and Astrid Menks. They were co-conspirators in that operation.
His first wife, Susan Buffett, had always been breaking out in new directions. After their children left home, she decided she needed a new life, and left him to live in San Francisco with, unknown to him, her tennis coach.
But she sensed he couldn't face life alone, so she asked Ms. Menks to look after him; soon, she was living with him. He would spend part of each year with Susan on his arm, his formal wife at his annual meetings, important business and cultural events and family get-togethers, while spending the bulk of the year at home in Omaha and at other events with Ms. Menks, his informal wife, at his side.
When Susan Buffett was stricken with throat cancer, he was at her side most weekends in San Francisco, even though he was fearful of doctors and his own mortality. When she suddenly died of a stroke, he married Ms. Menks.
The story of Susan Buffett's medical battles near her end - and how they affected Mr. Buffett, wounding him but also nudging him to come to grips with his mortality and better reach out to his children - will leave many readers tearful.
But there is more in this remarkable biography, as the writer, with unlimited access to Mr. Buffett, takes us into his struggles with his children, his friendship with Mr. Gates and other business colleagues, his decision a few years ago to give his money away before he died, and, yes, the twists and turns of his business life as well as the business of life.
A flawed man - one can't help feeling sorry for his refusal to include his son's two adopted children in his own family - he is also in many ways an extraordinary man, whose biography, despite its length, is gripping
Perhaps it is fitting to end with the snowball, in his own words: "The snowball just happens if you're in the right kind of snow, and that's what happened with me. I don't just mean compounding money either. It's in terms of understanding the world and what kinds of friends you accumulate. You get to select over time, and you've got to be the kind of person that the snow wants to attach itself to. You've got to be your own wet snow, in effect. You'd better be picking up snow as you go along, because you are not going to be getting back up to the top of the hill again. That's the way life works."