EconoMatters

Warren Buffett’s Reflections on Delivering Papers

Wartime Washington, DC, taught Buffet hard work and reliability

Credit: Medill DC - www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Warren Buffett’s first successful business -- delivering newspapers in Washington, DC.
  • “You learn a lot about human nature when you deliver papers,” says Buffett.
  • Wartime Washington was short of adult men so Buffett was able to get multiple paper routes.
  • In Washington during WWII, “I delivered papers when Roosevelt died and when the atomic bomb was dropped.”
  • 2015 is the 50th year Buffett has headed Berkshire Hathaway - and the 70th year since he delivered papers in DC.

Forbes Magazine says that in 2014 Warren Buffett was the world’s second richest man, worth an estimated $74 billion. The 84-year-old sage of Omaha, Nebraska, is also the world’s most generous philanthropist.

Buffet gave away over $2 billion last year and is committed to giving away 85% of his fortune.

The reach of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is global. It is the largest investor in Coca Cola, owns large percentages of American Express, Gillette and Swiss Re.

Since acquiring H.J. Heinz in 2013 and more recently a big share in Kraft, Berkshire is a big player in food, controlling many brands popular in Europe — Planters Peanuts, Lea and Perrins and Gevalia Kaffe.

Finding his feet in D.C.

Some time back, Buffett told me about his first successful business — delivering newspapers in Washington, DC.

Buffett has long been active in newspapers and until Amazon’s Jeff Bezos came along, he was the biggest share holder in The Washington Post. He still owns several U.S. newspapers.

Few people are aware that Buffett spent his formative teenage years in Washington, DC, during the time his father was a Member of Congress for six years.

“You learn a lot about human nature when you deliver papers,” says Buffett. “For one thing you learn you have to pay for them each month. Whether the customers pay you or not. You have to collect money.”

Buffett’s family lived in Spring Valley, an upper middle class neighborhood in Washington, not far from the Maryland line. His house on 49th street northwest is less than a mile from where I live.

Young Warren attended the DC public school Alice Deal Junior High and he graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School.

Buffett says delivering papers at age 14 instilled the importance of hard work and reliability.

Wartime Washington was short of adult men and for that reason, says Buffett, he was able to get multiple paper routes at the Westchester Apartments, a five-building complex that was home to the city’s elite.

“I also learned,” he says, “that if you did a good job you were going to move up. The very fact that I did a good job in Spring Valley got me the Westchester routes later on.”

Savoring the past

Buffett savors the years when he got up before dawn, riding his bicycle or taking the bus to deliver papers before school.

“I was fortunate,” he says, “in that I was here in what was probably the most interesting period to be in Washington, during World War II. I delivered papers when Roosevelt died and when the atomic bomb was dropped.”

Newspapers remain important to Buffett, and not only through direct ownership. A newspaper-throwing contest is a regular feature at Berkshire’s annual meeting in Omaha.

This weekend, May 2, 2015, Berkshire holds its annual meeting. It is the 50th year that Warren Buffett has headed Berkshire Hathaway and the 70th year since he delivered newspapers in Washington.

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About Barry Wood

Barry D. Wood is a Washington writer and broadcaster. His new book is Exploring New Europe, a Bicycle Journey. His twitter handle is @econbarry

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