Charlie Munger’s unique partnership with Warren Buffett, spanning over half a century, helped forge one of the most successful conglomerates in history.
It was a special relationship.
At age 35, Munger was introduced to the then-29-year-old Buffett in Omaha. The two started working together and ended up transforming Berkshire Hathaway from a small textile mill into a $785 billion multifaceted juggernaut. The journey to their unparalleled success was full of learning, experience and laughter, but never an argument.
“Charlie and I have never had an argument,” Buffett said in 2014. “We’ve disagreed on a lot of things. And it’s just never led, and never will, lead to an argument. We argue with other people.”
Buffett said when they did have a differing view, Munger, who died Tuesday just one month shy of his 100th birthday, would say “well, you’ll end up agreeing with me because you’re smart and I am right.”
‘We think alike’
As often shown in interviews and shareholder meetings, they shared a similar, quirky sense of humor and enjoyed occasionally poking fun at each other. Compared to Buffett’s folksy image, Munger often spoke bluntly, sprinkling witty zingers that his followers adored.
“Most of the time, we think alike,” Munger said in 2014. “That’s one of the problems. If one of us misses it, the other is likely to, too.”
In 2010, when Munger had to miss a special Berkshire shareholder meeting, Buffett brought on stage a cardboard cutout of his righthand man, mimicking “I couldn’t agree more” in Munger’s voice.
“It is almost hilarious. It’s been so much fun,” Munger said of his partnership with Buffett.
Munger’s Costco obsession
On the rare occasions they disagreed, the two icons dealt with it by wielding laughter. One example was Munger’s love and obsession over Costco, a big box retailer Buffett never really favored.
During Berkshire’s 2011 annual meeting, Buffett made up a scenario involving airplane hijackers asking about his and Munger’s last requests on earth.
“The hijackers picked us out as the two dirty capitalists that they really had to execute,” he said. “They didn’t really have anything against us, so they said that each of us would be given one request before they shot us.”
“Charlie said, ‘I would like to give, once more, my speech on the virtues of Costco — with illustrations.’ The hijacker said, ‘Well, that sounds pretty reasonable to me.’ He turned to me and said, ‘And what would you like, Mr. Buffett?’ And I said, ‘Shoot me first,'” Buffett said, sparking a howls of laughter from shareholders.
Munger broadened Buffett’s approach
Early in their careers, Munger broadened Buffett’s investing approach from buying dirt cheap, “cigar-butt” companies that might still have a little smoke left in them, to instead focusing on quality companies selling at fair prices.
“He actually hit me over the head with a two by four from the idea of buying very so-so companies at very cheap prices, knowing that that was some small profit and looking for really wonderful businesses that we could buy at fair prices,” Buffett said.
As Munger put it at the 1998 Berkshire shareholder meeting: “It’s not that much fun to buy a business where you really hope this sucker liquidates before it goes broke.”
Later in his career, Buffett realized he was more inclined toward action than Munger when it comes to deal-making. He once joked that Munger was the “abominable no-man,” often curbing Buffett’s enthusiasm to acquire certain companies.
The two investing legends were firm believers in reciprocation and respect when it came to successful relationships.
“We both have this fundamental idea that the world works better if you make your relationships win win. And we both early learned that the way to get a good partner was to be a good partner,” Munger said. “These are very old fashioned ideas. And they just worked so fabulously well.”
Much like Munger encouraging Buffett to pivot toward quality businesses early on in their career, the “Oracle of Omaha” said Munger inspired him every day in one way or another.
“He’s made me think about things I haven’t thought about. In fact, I would say that every time I’m with Charlie, I’ve got at least some new slant on the idea that that causes me to rethink certain things,” Buffett said.
Munger graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1948, founding his law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson and his own hedge fund in 1962. Munger closed the fund in 1975, and three years later, he formally became vice chairman of Berkshire.
“Charlie has given me the ultimate gift that a person can give to somebody else,” Buffett said. “I’ve lived a better life because of Charlie.”