Monday, May 7, 2012

Linder, The Women of Berkshire Hathaway

For those who read everything about Warren Buffett they can lay their hands on or for women in search of models Karen Linder’s The Women of Berkshire Hathaway: Lessons from Warren Buffett’s Female CEOs and Directors (Wiley, 2012) is a pleasant, occasionally inspirational read. Linder offers portraits of nine women in the Berkshire Hathaway orbit. Seven are or were CEOs of companies that are subsidiaries of Berkshire or in which Berkshire holds a large stake, and two are directors of Berkshire itself.

Linder starts with the feistiest member of the group, Rose Blumkin of Nebraska Furniture Mart fame, who worked 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, until a year before her death in 1998 at the age of 104. The other women featured in this book are Susan Jacques, CEO of Borsheims Fine Jewelry and Gifts; Doris Christopher, the founder of The Pampered Chef, and Marla Gottschalk, its current CEO; Cathy Baron Tamraz, CEO of Business Wire; Beryl Raff, CEO of Helzberg Diamond Shops; Katharine Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post (for years Buffett was also on the board of the Washington Post Company, in which Berkshire has an 18% stake); and Charlotte Guyman and Susan Decker, both members of Berkshire’s board of directors.

What struck me in reading this book was how ordinary many of these women seemed and yet what extraordinary success they had. Doris Christopher, for instance, discovered that she was good at home economics in high school and subsequently majored in the field in college. After teaching adult education courses at a cooperative extension service and then being a stay-at-home mom for eight years, she was ready to get back into a career, this time with a more flexible schedule. She started buying kitchen items wholesale and selling them at home cooking shows (akin to what used to be known as parties, along the Tupperware line). Slowly she expanded The Pampered Chef, hiring both employees and consultants, who hosted shows. By the end of 1981, its first year in business, the company had 12 kitchen consultants; in 2001 there were 71,000. Revenues were $67,000 in 1981, $740 million in 2001. In 2002 Buffett purchased the company.

The Women of Berkshire Hathaway is not a must-read book, but it amply demonstrates that with ambition, hard work, and the right fit women can become highly successful entrepreneurs.

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