“Personal History” by Katharine Graham
“Personal History” is Katharine Graham’s autobiography. A memoir that shines for its honesty, the remarkable wide range of stories and people she met. I’m a voracious reader of biographies, and I found this one wonderful. The Washington Post saga is a lesson in business and life in itself that should be taught. It contains the power of a family driven and committed to its passion and business. It shows the magic of consistency and persistence in building a dream more than a newspaper. It’s the story of years struggling under the radar and years with great economic loss endured by Katharine Graham’s family until the genius of Kay’s husband Phil Graham took over. I obviously grabbed the book because of Warren. (1 dollar at a book sale in Bonita Springs! I proposed successfully to pay for it 2 dollars knowing it was going to be such a good book worth much more than the 15.00 priced on the cover). I was right. I will pause a bit on the pages in which Buffett pops up, but the lessons from this personal history are multiple. I would say the 625 pages are an endless source of teachings about how to react to a personal tragedy (Phil Graham shot himself in the basement of their house) as well as how difficult was to run a newspaper through hard times and big challenges. The challenges accepted gradually but strongly and courageously by a woman in a time in which all the newspapers and boards in general were run by men, and only men. A time in which unions and scandals were going strong.
The story encompasses crises and victories as huge and critical as inspiring : the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the strikes of the early seventies. Thrown without her will and consent by the husband’s suicide in a business in turmoil, Katharine Graham overcame her insecurity to finally discover herself and her potential. In a fascinating adventure he accepted to fight to survive personally and financially. The burden never became less complicated but Katharine Graham faced every obstacle. Only this way they became lighter to carry through the bumps and curves of the journey. A journey she never looked back to refuse, neglect , not to endure or simply live. It is to me (and after reading will be to you) so clear why such a woman was so interesting a friend and a business partner for Warren Buffett.
For the Buffett students the investment in the Washington Post in the early 70s is pretty much straightforward and typical to understand. The passion and competence of the sage in the newspapers field was proverbial. The bargain was in plain sight considering the price of the stock. The entire group (not only the Post) was selling for roughly 100 million dollars compared to an intrinsic value of at least 400 million. Problems were always present and others will come for the management but trust in the Graham family to face them, and the ridiculous selling price were enough margin of safety for Warren. Add his famous patience and long term look together with his presence on the board in the following years and you will have a perfect picture of a Buffett deal. Also Warren will be tireless and always responsive in advising Katharine Graham and actually became her teacher and Pygmalion from a business point of view. He played a big part in the repurchase of shares at such an undervalued stock price, and was so immensely useful in many other managerial decisions and critical moments.
The book is a gold mine not only for the Buffett student but for every business enthusiast and why not, for everybody that really likes a good, true story of courage and fulfillment. I wouldn’t add much more to let Katharine Graham speak for herself, since she does it tremendously well. I learnt a lot from this book in the last month in which it was with me everyday and everywhere. I was so eager to see “what’s next? What’s next?”. I’m sure soon I will read it again. Now, wrapping up for the Buffett maniacs like me, here’s few lines that will sound like music to our ears. A music for us, “Buffettists” that Graham in the book really played so well:
“(…).And it led to some sort of rationale that I can live with about the goal of each individual being to fulfill the unique potential within-and do it to the utmost…This is what you do Warren-or you are in the process of doing. Your intensity, concentration and drive almost scare me, but are luckily and happily relieved by those other things you also possess-decency, gaiety, enjoyment and warmth.”
Let’s write down all of those qualities on a piece of paper and keep them handy in your heart.