“When people think of Warren Buffet they think investor and business icon, but he is an expert in corporate governance.”
On today’s episode of “The Future is Bright,” Larry Cunningham, special counsel at Mayer Brown, tells the story of his organizing and hosting a two-day symposium with business magnate Warren Buffett at Cardozo Law School in 1996. The intellectual traction and gains produced therein–a rare occurrence for such high-level discussions–were aided by the moderation of Charlie Munger, who has been called Warren Buffet’s closest partner at Buffett’s holding firm Berkshire Hathaway. Given Buffett’s valuable insights into corporate governance, Larry wanted to call greater attention to Buffet’s largely scattered and isolated writings, and used them as the basis for the panel discussions. The results became the best-selling book “The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America.” Larry recalls his efforts to almost single-handedly print and distribute the book in response to the almost immediate demand for it.
The foundational feature at Berkshire Hathaway is trust, Larry says, in contrast to the American business model standard of policies, controls and procedures. Buffett operates under the assumption that most people are not trustworthy, but that a much smaller number of people are infinitely so. He surrounds himself with select members of the latter. Even when organizing the symposium, Buffett was very hands-off, never second-guessing his proposals and leaving all decisions in Larry’s hands.
Recently Larry has pivoted away from academia and toward the practice of law. He raises a new pressing issue regarding corporate governance: the extremes to which some groups have taken the Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) considerations for corporations as initiated by the UN. Hear his thoughts on this and more in today’s discussion.
“He was exactly as you perceive him in his public persona, and exactly as he behaves in his businesses, to wit: totally hands off, delegated everything to me, didn’t second guess anything that I proposed…His management philosophy is to put decision-making power in the hands of the people closest to the issue.” (6:47 | Larry)
“We had 200 seats. You couldn’t do a conference with Warren Buffet with 200 seats today. You could try to do, say, 40,000.” (7:55 | Larry)
“We had traction. Sometimes you get these gatherings together, and people just talk past each other and they leave in the same position in which they came. Here we had real engagement, identification of overlaps and reinterpretations of positions and some wonderful intellectual gains.” (10:16 | Larry)
“I then went into marketing and letting everyone know, through direct mail. Again, this is pre- internet really, but some direct mailings. I created leaflets and I rode my bicycle over Manhattan dropping them off to all of the quality firms who would care about this, and word of mouth started to build.” (18:23 | Larry)
“Warren’s relationship with all those people and with me which I saw firsthand was trust. Trust in all of those features, you see, a desire and a will, to trust.” (22:52 | Larry)