Warren Buffett isn’t likely to ever be profiled in a health and fitness magazine.
He’s never been big on exercise. He drinks four Cokes a day. He consumes alarming amounts of salt. He loves hamburgers and hot dogs, the same favorite foods he ate as a 6-year-old.
“Asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts — I haven’t eaten any of those for 70 years,” he said in a recent interview with The World-Herald.
But sheer longevity would tell you Buffett must be somehow living right.
Next Sunday, on Aug. 30, Omaha’s megabillionaire down the street will celebrate his 90th birthday.
At an age where most anyone else would be long retired and kicking back or completely horizontal, Buffett continues to lead Berkshire Hathaway, the hometown investment partnership he’s built into one of the world’s biggest, most stable and most respected conglomerates. Within the Fortune 500, there’s no CEO older than Buffett.
Putting that diet aside, Buffett and those close to him have some theories as to how he’s been able to lead such a long and happy — not to mention lucrative — life.
Find a job you love.
Surround yourself with people you enjoy.
Laugh a lot.
And face each day with a sunny outlook.
“There are a lot of things about health you can’t change,” Buffett said. “But I’ve been able to do what I want to do every day, and had a lot of fun doing it. That’s a big plus in life.”
The man who ranks fourth on Forbes’ list of the richest people on the planet still can’t wait to get to the office each day. You can hear the enthusiasm in his spry, energetic voice — one you’d swear is that of a man no older than 60.
Buffett has certainly made some accommodations to age over the years, including in recent years cutting back on both his work demands and outside commitments. But friends and co-workers say he remains mentally acute, able to quickly absorb and process large amounts of information and to easily recall facts from history or his own past.
“I play bridge with him two or three times a week — I would know if he’s slipping,” said Sharon Osberg, among Buffett’s closest friends. “It’s remarkable. Not everyone is going to have the mental ability to run something at the age of 90.”
Of course, Buffett’s ever-advancing age always raises questions about the fortunes of Berkshire in a post-Warren world.
But many Berkshire shareholders seem past the point of worrying about the exit of their chairman and CEO. The same questions were being asked when Buffett turned 70, 80 and 85. During shareholder meetings and in annual letters over the past two decades, Buffett has always sought to assure shareholders that Berkshire has been ingrained with an enduring culture.
“The most astute Berkshire shareholders know that Buffett’s most important achievement is having built an organization that will thrive long after he leaves the scene,” said Lawrence Cunningham, a George Washington University professor who has written about Buffett.
Daughter Susie Buffett said people need to stop worrying about her father’s age.
“My dad is going to outlive us all, and I’m not kidding,” she said. “I’ll bet a lot of money he will get to 100.”
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Warren Buffett was recently talking on the phone with Bill Gates about COVID-19, something the two longtime friends have been doing on a weekly basis since the virus first emerged.
Gates’ charitable foundation is spending millions globally to fight the health crisis, while Buffett has been trying to navigate the uncharted territory its business disruptions have created within the world economy.
As he and Gates chatted, Buffett started ruminating on negative interest rates, the rare recent phenomena in which cash deposited at a bank yields a storage charge rather than interest. Curious, Buffett pulled out a classic economics textbook, one that dated to his own college days of learning economic theory.
“Nope,” Buffett told Gates after thumbing through the old text. “Nothing in here about negative interest rates.”
Buffett was born in Omaha on Aug. 30, 1930, 10 months after the stock market crash that launched the Great Depression. But in all the years since, he’s never seen anything quite like current times.
“He sees the world as just endlessly fascinating,” Gates said in a recent interview.
Gates first befriended Buffett in 1991 when Gates’ parents invited him to meet the investment sage at a dinner party they were hosting.
The Microsoft co-founder at first didn’t want to go, thinking he and Buffett, who is 25 years older, would have nothing in common. They talked for hours, and haven’t stopped since.
Even after all these years, Gates said, Buffett remains engaged and extremely sharp. You don’t have to talk to him for very long to see it.
“There is no diminishment in his genius,” Gates said.
Now in his 56th year leading Berkshire, Buffett can still be found in his midtown office six days a week, including Saturday mornings.
There, he spends his time reading corporate disclosure documents, government economic reports and newspapers, talking on the phone and exploring any other topic that piques his curiosity. It’s all geared toward determining Berkshire’s next big move, whether making a new stock investment, dumping a position (he sold off all his newspaper holdings this year, including this one) or landing a “big elephant” — the major corporate acquisition Buffett is always on the hunt for.
“There’s always some change, always something to think about,” Buffett said of the business world. “It’s more fun than solving crossword puzzles. And it doesn’t require that your legs are strong or that you can bench press 300 pounds. You can just keep doing it.”
The lifting on Buffett’s job has also gotten a little easier since January 2018. That’s when he named longtime Berkshire executives Greg Abel and Ajit Jain as vice chairmen of the company.
Jain was given the role of overseeing Berkshire’s extensive insurance operations, including companies like Geico and Omaha-based National Indemnity, while Abel now oversees non-insurance businesses like BNSF Railway Co. and Berkshire’s manufacturing, retail and energy holdings.
The move at the time led to much speculation about who might one day succeed Buffett as CEO, and indeed most business pundits do think it will be one of those men. But largely lost in such talk has been how life-changing the move has been for Buffett.
“He’s very enthused about the new vice chairmen,” Gates said.
Berkshire’s philosophy for acquired companies has always been to leave management teams in place and generally let them do their thing. But as CEO, Buffett still was the direct report for the managers of 100-plus operating units under the Berkshire umbrella.
Now Abel and Jain have taken that off Buffett’s plate, and he has complete confidence in them. Buffett said the move has worked “terrifically,” freeing him up to do what he likes best.
“With Greg and Ajit doing what they do, it made a perfect job even a little better,” he said.
Abel said he sees the energy and passion Buffett brings into the office each day. And it was on display for all to see in May during the pandemic-disrupted Berkshire shareholders meeting.
Buffett lives for that meeting, loving the chance to interact each year with some 30,000 of the company’s shareholders. So it was a tremendous disappointment for Buffett to have to call off the big gathering.
But Buffett still went ahead with the traditional Q&A, streaming it online. With sidekick Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s 96-year-old vice chair, sheltering back home in California, Buffett took the stage alone.
Sipping from a Coke and munching See’s peanut brittle, he proceeded to hold court for more than four hours.
“It was incredible,” Abel said. It wasn’t just the stamina Buffett showed, Abel said, but the confident, optimistic outlook Buffett voiced even during the worst days of the pandemic. It was something the world was waiting to hear.
Susie Buffett said she wasn’t surprised by her father’s performance that day. The annual meeting is like oxygen for him, the favorite part of a job he absolutely loves.
She said she can’t ever see her dad retiring. Sure, if he ever felt he was declining cognitively, he and the board would have some decisions to make.
“At the moment,” Susie said, “there is not one marble missing.”
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There are lots of jokes about Warren Buffett and his diet. But they aren’t really jokes. The stories are all true.
Bill Gates tells of the time Buffett was staying at his house and decided to have Oreo cookies for breakfast. Naturally, Gates’ kids demanded the same.
Osberg once bought the popcorn-loving Buffett an air popper so he wouldn’t consume so much fatty oil. The Californian was aghast during a visit to Omaha when Buffett air-popped his healthy snack and then slathered it with an entire stick of butter.
Susie Buffett said her father’s favorite reading chair at home is surrounded by books, papers and “several salt shakers.” He has a drawer in his desk at work whose sole contents are several salt shakers and salt packets.
“I take pictures of all this stuff,” she said. “I send them to his doctor.”
Nonetheless, Buffett says that by almost any measure, his health is quite good.
He gets checked out regularly by a variety of doctors, particularly after having been treated for prostate cancer in 2012. Just last week, he got a report back from his doctor with the results of a battery of recent tests.
“I’m in perfect shape,” Buffett was happy to share. “In fact, her final line was, ‘The only thing he has to worry about is not getting COVID.’ ”
Buffett said he’s been taking many precautions to try to prevent that.
After the pandemic first struck in March, he avoided the office entirely for three months. That period stuck at home “was hell for him,” Osberg said.
He returned to Berkshire headquarters in June. But he largely keeps to his own office, interacting with just a handful of staffers. He doesn’t hold meetings. He wears a mask. He even has someone else push the elevator buttons.
“I can sit here in my office all day,” he said. “There’s really no difference in risk between home and the office.”
Buffett otherwise isn’t getting out much. He hasn’t taken any trips outside Nebraska, though he’s planning one next month to visit his younger sister, Bertie, and Munger in California.
Buffett only recently resumed a cherished monthly outing to Dairy Queen with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, finding an acceptably socially distant way to do it.
Despite his diet, Buffett does have a few checks on the plus side of the health ledger.
Good genetics are likely one. Numerous Buffetts over past generations have lived to ripe old ages. Warren’s oldest sister, Doris, died just this month at age 92. Buffett’s mother died on his 66th birthday, also at 92.
Warren has also never smoked or drank. He much prefers sugary drinks to the taste of beer.
As for exercise, he did golf some when he was younger, dropping the sport years ago when it ceased to be fun. But he has recently been pretty religious about spending 25 minutes a day on a treadmill, something he does while watching the evening news.
“All you guys who used up your muscles and joints when you were young, I carefully put mine away in a box when I was 6 to save them for old age, and I only pulled them out a few years ago,” he said. “They’ve never been used.”
Those who know Buffett say that self-deprecating sense of humor also can’t be overlooked as one of many intangibles contributing to his overall good health.
He always goes through life with a positive outlook, not taking himself or anything else too seriously. His job does not weigh on him. He never feels pressure to hit some quarterly number that would please Wall Street.
“His goal is to keep his life simple,” oldest son Howard Buffett says.
Buffett all day is surrounded by people he loves to be with. They include his small office staff, his circle of friends, his three children — all of whom he has good bonds with — and his wife, Astrid Menks, the longtime, low-profile companion he married in 2006.
A big part of Buffett’s social and leisure life revolves around playing online bridge. Regular partners include Osberg, sister Bertie, Bill Gates and former Fortune magazine editor Carol Loomis. Buffett’s time of arrival at the office each morning is in part dependent on how late he was up on his iPad the night before playing bridge.
Osberg, a two-time world bridge champion, befriended Buffett through the game, meeting him 30 years ago at a tournament in New York.
Osberg came from the corporate banking world but said she never had a lot of money before she met Buffett. She scraped together $16,000, which seemed a fortune to her, to buy a single Berkshire A share after Buffett invited her to an annual meeting a few years after they met. (Incidentally, an A share by last week was worth about $310,000.)
Osberg said her friendship with Buffett has given her a unique window into the lives of the very wealthy. There is indeed truth to the old saw about money not buying happiness. Interestingly, she said, many wealthy people are not very happy.
But she does not count Buffett among them. And it’s because he has found that life’s true riches are rooted in things you can’t buy.
She said Buffett’s wealth has arguably enabled him to meet and befriend an interesting group of people that he enjoys immensely. But he would have friends without his wealth, too. She said the primary meaning of money for Buffett is as a measure of Berkshire’s performance — “how he keeps score.”
Of course, eating the foods that you like can be a source of happiness, too. That’s why Buffett is not likely to ever give up the trips to McDonald’s, the ice cream with chocolate sauce or his Cokes.
“I’m drinking a Coke as we talk,” he said during a recent 9 a.m. interview.
Even at 90, Buffett is going to continue to do all the things that make him happy. Buffett’s life philosophy of food, health and happiness was probably best summed up by a quip he made during a family holiday dinner last year, words recently recalled by daughter Susie.
“You can never have too much love,” her father said, “or too much gravy.”
* * *
As far back as the 1960s, when Berkshire was just a small, mostly local investment partnership, shareholders pondered what would happen if they ever lost the budding Oracle of Omaha.
“Hopefully, he’ll dodge all the trucks,” Dr. Stanley Truhlsen, a friend who first invested with Buffett in 1960, recently recalled of those days with a chuckle.
Berkshire post-Buffett remains a topic of interest. Buffett regularly offers shareholders assurances that things will be just fine when he’s gone.
“Charlie and I long ago entered the urgent zone,” Buffett wrote in this year’s annual shareholder letter. “That’s not exactly great news for us. But Berkshire shareholders need not worry. Your company is 100% prepared for our departure.”
In addition to praising the skills of Jain and Abel, he cites a number of other reasons for shareholder confidence: the extraordinary variety of companies Berkshire has invested in, and their attractive returns; and a Berkshire board that’s focused on the welfare of stockholders and keen on nurturing Berkshire’s unique culture.
“We are the best protected company,” Buffett said.
Buffett also pointed out that his own faith in Berkshire’s future will remain steadfast even after he’s gone to the grave.
Some 99% of Buffett’s net worth — which Forbes currently pegs at $78 billion — is in Berkshire stock. And his will specifically directs executors of his estate not to sell any of it for purposes of diversifying. He even absolves them of any responsibility for keeping the estate so concentrated in a single investment.
Over the next 12 to 15 years, those shares would then be sold, with the proceeds distributed to charitable foundations. Buffett said there is some risk to those charitable assets during that lengthy distribution period. But he said there’s also a high probability his directive will deliver substantially greater resources to society.
If there are still people concerned about Berkshire’s future, they can always just sell the stock, Buffett said. Some no doubt have.
“Everyone who owns the stock knows how old I am,” he said.
Brian Gongol of Des Moines is not among those who’ll be selling. The shareholder and big Buffett-ologist says the founder has left a lasting imprint at Berkshire.
“He’s part of the DNA of the company now,” he said.
Paul Lountzis, principal of a New York-based investment firm that has about a fourth of its client stock holdings in Berkshire, likewise continues to put his faith in Buffett and what he has built. The businesses Buffett has invested in are solid ones that should continue to “chug along.”
“At the end of the day, you accept the fact he’s irreplaceable,” Lountzis said. “There will never be another one like him.”
Not only does Buffett feel Berkshire’s future is secure, he’s also not worrying about what will come of his own personal fortune. Gates said Buffett is proud that it will one day all go back to society.
The friendship between the two billionaires in 2006 spawned the world’s greatest charitable partnership, as Buffett pledged most of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. When Buffett saw the work the Gates Foundation was doing around the world, he said it didn’t make sense to try to duplicate that through a foundation of his own.
Part of Buffett’s fortune has also been going to the three foundations set up by his children and another by his late wife, Susan Thompson Buffett. Buffett’s No. 4-in-the-world wealth ranking comes despite the fact he’s already donated billions in stock to the five foundations.
While the Gates Foundation tackles global problems like disease, hunger and poverty, Susie’s Sherwood Foundation is active in Buffett’s hometown. Buffett said it’s all worked out perfectly.
“They are doing my work for me, which is an arrangement I really like,” he said.
Countless other foundations and charitable causes in Omaha have benefited from Buffett’s investment success. Truhlsen, the early Buffett investor who is now approaching his own 100th birthday, offers an example of that.
The longtime ophthalmologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center helped establish the $20 million Truhlsen Eye Institute at UNMC.
“If there hadn’t been a Mr. Buffett, I don’t think there’s a Truhlsen Eye Institute,” Truhlsen said. “You see a lot of that around Omaha. I give him credit. It’s been a great ride.”
* * *
Don’t expect to see any fireworks going off around Buffett’s Dundee home when he marks his birthday next Sunday. Susie said the plan at this point is to just grill some burgers. Her father’s is sure to feature way too much salt and mayo.
Buffett doesn’t tend to treat any of his birthdays as a big deal, even when they feature a big round number like this one. While some friends threw him a pretty big bash for his 50th, there hasn’t been one like it since.
He said it’s mostly because he doesn’t want the hassle and risk of bruised feelings in coming up with an invitation list for such an affair. Again with Buffett, the simpler the better.
“I don’t think 90 is a big deal,” he joked in a recent interview. “Now if I live to be 100 …”
Buffett has already looked into the odds on that, and he knows they’re long.
But Osberg is willing to make this bet: No matter how long Buffett has to live, he’s going to be productive and enjoy himself.
“He understands this party is going to end sooner rather than later,” Osberg said. “But if it’s one year or two years or three years out, he is going to make the very best of the time he has left. And he will be happy throughout.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect type of cancer that Warren Buffett was treated for in 2012.