I asked Charlie Munger about his wealth. Here’s how he responded.

Buffett was once asked to name his greatest investment accomplishment. “Recruiting Charlie,” he said.

Charlie Munger, who died Tuesday at the age of 99, and Warren Buffett are a shining example of the adage that two heads are better than one. Where would Buffett be without Munger, and vice-versa? Successful, yes, but not to the stratospheric heights they reached together. Thanks to that partnership, thousands of Berkshire Hathaway


shareholders have become multimillionaires, and millions more gained a wealth of knowledge. 

I once mentioned to Munger how impressed people were with the wealth he had accumulated, to which he responded with uncharacteristic humility: “Being Warren’s business partner, that was unavoidable.” For Buffett’s part, when asked to name his greatest investment accomplishment, without hesitation he said, “Recruiting Charlie.”   

In Buffett’s 2015 letter to shareholders, marking Berkshire’s 50th anniversary, he said Munger’s most significant contribution to Berkshire was shaping Buffett’s investment philosophy. It was 1972 and the transaction was See’s Candies. For the first time, Buffett paid a premium for a franchise business, ever since saying it was the most important investment he had ever made. Munger had taught a lesson Buffett has immortalized in his own memorable teaching: “It is better to buy a good business at a fair price than a fair business at a good price.”

The Buffett-Munger relationship is at the heart of another well-known statement about Berkshire: “Though our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership.” Acting on that concept, in 1981, Munger invented Berkshire’s distinctive shareholder charitable-giving program. At most companies, the CEO picks which charities the company donates to, but that would be anathema at Berkshire. Munger devised a tax-advantaged and shareholder-centric program through which every Berkshire shareholder got to identify the charities to which Berkshire would donate.

Munger was, to Buffett, the ‘abominable no-man,’ referencing his veto power over improvident Berkshire acquisitions.

Buffett jokes that Munger was the “abominable no-man,” referencing his veto power over improvident acquisitions. Virtually all of these remain confidential, of course, but the examples tended to involve companies with many visible strong points — brand loyalty, pricing power, skilled workforce — along with some nettlesome or troubling drawbacks such as opaque disclosures or aggressive accounting.  

On the rare occasions when Buffett and Munger disagreed, they did so with humor. In a classic example, Berkshire in 1985 acquired a corporate jet. Buffett thought it was a marvelous tool for him to fly around the world, making deals. Munger thought it terribly indulgent. They debated what to name this aircraft. Munger thought it should be named The Aberration. Buffett countered with Charles T. Munger. They settled on Indefensible

Berkshire sold that jet after it acquired NetJets, the fractional aviation company with which Buffett has done all his flying since.

‘Next time I’ll call Charlie’

Munger was also deferential. At the 1999 Berkshire annual meeting, a shareholder asked Buffett, “How do you know when you have a big idea?” Buffett said, “I know I have a big idea when I talk it over with Charlie and he says no instead of saying, ‘That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.’ ”

Buffett didn’t always consult with Munger. In 2007 he invested $2 billion in the debt of a leveraged buyout of Texas Electric Utilities. Within a year after the financial crisis that investment had to be written off, and Berkshire lost $1 billion on it. In confessing that it was his sole error in the 2013 report, Buffett wrote: “Next time I’ll call Charlie.”

At the 2013 annual meeting, a Berkshire shareholder asked about investment opportunities for the company in the eurozone. After Buffett criticized political flaws in the European Union, Munger, in trademark fashion, said that admitting Greece into the EU was like “putting rat poison in whipping cream.” Buffett nevertheless said, “I would like to buy a big business in Europe so if you have any ideas let me know.” To which Munger added, closing out the topic, “If it’s in Greece I hope you’ll give me a call.”

After Charlie

In Munger’s 2015 letter commemorating Berkshire’s 50th anniversary, his theme was Berkshire’s anti-bureaucracy. He attributed Berkshire’s success in part to a combination of thrift and autonomy, two of the nine values I highlighted in Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Valueswill sustain Berkshire long after Munger and Buffett leave the scene. 

Munger and Buffett complemented each other in a nearly ideal way: Buffett tended to lean in, while Munger tended to lean out.

People have long pondered the fate of Berkshire without Buffett, who is 93. Today we face an equally difficult question of what Berkshire will be like without Munger — or perhaps what Buffett will be like without his alter-ego, the person uniquely able to identify his blind spots.  

After all, these longtime business partners complemented each other in a nearly ideal way: Buffett tended to lean in, while Munger tended to lean out. Munger was Buffett’s no-man because Buffett runs amiable and optimistic and Munger embodied a curmudgeonly cynicism.

Yet the two obviously have far more traits in common — such as being learned, loyal, patient, rational, trustworthy and long-term-focused. The good news for Berkshire is that the two built a culture on these values that will sustain itself. The result is a deep managerial bench at Berkshire that offers reassuring answers about Berkshire’s future beyond Munger as well as beyond Buffett.

Read: Charlie Munger’s death ends partnership with Warren Buffett that built Berkshire Hathaway

Multiple individuals will together assume various parts of the roles those two traditionally played. Buffett has been board chairman, chief executive officer and chief investment officer, roles that Buffett has said will be filled by his son Howard as chairman, Greg Abel as CEO, and Todd Combs and Ted Weschler as co-chief investment officers.

Just as Buffett’s role will be split among his successors, so will Munger’s.

Munger’s role as Berkshire’s No. 2, with the official title of vice chairman, has been partner to the CEO and speaker, as needed, of the word no. Just as Buffett’s role will be split among his successors, so will Munger’s. The duty of sustaining the culture — saying no to threats to its rational, acquisitive, decentralized, autonomous, trust-based strengths — will fall to all of their successors.

Munger participated in shaping Berkshire’s culture for more than 60 years. His influence will continue to shape both Buffett for his lifetime and Berkshire for all time. All members of the Berkshire partnership that Buffett and Munger forged can be grateful for that. 

Lawrence A. Cunningham is the author of many books, including “The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America.” Cunningham is a public company director, and a special counsel at Mayer Brown LLP, advising public companies on corporate governance. He is also the founder of Quality Shareholders Group, a boutique that facilitates relationships between long-term, concentrated shareholders and the companies that would like to attract them.

Read on: Famed investor Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s ‘right-hand man,’ dead at 99

Also see: 9 of Charlie Munger’s best investing lessons and words of wisdom

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