Monday, December 04, 2017

The Sage of Omaha? You can look it up in the encyclopedia.

I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy reading about Warren Buffett. Not that I read a lot about the Sage of Omaha, mind you, but what I do read, I find interesting.

As in an article I saw the other day on Bloomberg with a headline about Buffett’s owning the World Book.

I grew up when people had encyclopedias in their homes. All those GI’s settling down and having all those Baby Boomers who were all going to be first gen to college. Almost everyone’s living room had a set of some encyclopedia. World Book. Britannica. Collier’s. Colliers EncyclopediaIn keeping with having the most oddball version of what everyone else had, we had Collier’s. Here’s what the 1956 edition – which graced one of the bookcases in our living room – looked like. (You can get it on eBay for $70.) The Rogers kids did a lot of homework projects with information gleaned from one of these volumes. (I was in high school before I did a research project that I actually had to go to the library for.) Information didn’t change as fast and furious as it does today, but it still changed, and one of the highlights of the year was the arrival of the annual update volume for the prior year. Coup in the Congo! Yanks win Series!

Even when I didn’t have a project in mind, I much enjoyed just thumbing through a volume and learning “stuff.” It’s no wonder my head is full of so much of it.

Pliny the Elder might claim that his age was the Golden Age of Encyclopedia, but I’m going with the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Proof point? Look no further: we even had a theme song, Jiminy Cricket singing “Encyclopedia, E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A”.

So, yes, it’s interesting that Warren Buffett owns World Book. But World Book is not alone among his more off-beat assets:

Along with large, thriving businesses such as Geico and the BNSF Railway, he’s accumulated a collectIion of head-scratchers. There’s a bowling shoe brand, a maker of vacuum cleaner bags, almost three dozen newspapers, and the manufacturer of Ginsu knives. (Source: Bloomberg)

Bowling shoes? Ginsu knives? (“Slices roast beef so thin, your in-laws will never come back.”) Vacuum cleaner bags? (Achoo!)

And the World Book.

When the first edition of the World Book came out in 1917, its illustrations were as cutting-edge as today’s virtual-reality video games. By the late 1950s the company was printing more than half a million sets a year, many of which were sold door to door. At one point the sales force numbered more than 40,000.

Good God! 40,000 door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen? Yikes! I remember Fuller Brush. And Jehovah’s Witnesses. Maybe World Book sellers didn’t come to Main South Worcester.

Early on during his ownership, what with that mighty sales force pounding the pavement, World Book was a pretty good bet for Buffett. But then came the Internet, and suddenly we had encyclopedia on steroids at our fingertips. Sure, a lot of the content out there is intentionally false or just plain wrong. And a ton of it isn’t curated. But a lot of it is good and true. And it’s perpetually updated. So you don’t need to wait months into the new year to get a summation of what happened the year prior. World Book has gone from throwing off enough cash that it appeared as a line item in the annual report. Over the last decade or so, it was just lumped in with a bunch of other miscellany.

Who buys book form encyclopedias? I would have guessed nobody. But, as it turns out, some people do.

After decades of declines, sales of print encyclopedias rose last year and are projected to do so again. Why? It doesn’t hurt that World Book is the last of its kind, a multivolume encyclopedia that’s updated each year.

Whatever the reason – last encyclopedia standing or pure nostalgia – World Book has become a profitable (small, but profitable) part of the Buffett portfolio. And even if it were still a loser, there’s a method to Buffett’s madness.

Because Buffett hangs on to his acquisitions – no quick in and out for the Sage – he believes that sellers want to sell to his Berkshire rather than a ruthless, predatory investor who’s going to come in and strip, gut, and toss. And it’s been working pretty well. If, in 1965, I had had in my possession $100, and had known enough to invest in Berkshire Hathaway, I would be $2 million to the good today.

Of course, in 1965, I didn’t have $100, and I was too busy thumbing through the annual Collier’s Year Book to see what had happened in 1964 (Johnson trounces Goldwater! Cards beat Yanks!) to look at what was going on in money world.

Still, fun to learn a bit more about Warren Buffett. Pretty sage for a guy from Omaha. And good to think that somewhere, there’s a kid paging through the encyclopedia, stuffing their head with stuff.

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