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The 'Activist' Side of Warren Buffett: 'Like Being Attacked By Santa Claus'

Business Week magazine cover: Hold for Mr. Buffett Please
Business Week magazine cover: Hold for Mr. Buffett Please

Warren Buffett can be a great boss, hands-off and complimentary, with plenty of great advice if you want or need it. But it really helps if you're making money for him.

The new issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine features an extensive cover story by Buffett biographer Alice Schroeder.

She writes that in many cases, Buffett is "just as genial and supportive as his persona would lead you to believe."

"Chief executives of companies he has a stake in laud his patience, foresight, and ability to capture the essence of a complex financial situation in just a few words. They also like the fact that he usually leaves them alone as long as they're getting the job done."

But watch out! There is another, "far less familiar" side of him.

According to Schroeder, "When he sees something he doesn't like in a company whose shares he owns, the famously passive investor can swing into action to protect his investment—jawboning behind the scenes, scolding, cutting opportunistic deals, even hiring and firing CEOs. For some of those on the receiving end of his activism, it can feel a bit like being attacked by Santa Claus."

The article details several examples of Buffett's relationships with the companies he's involved with, including help and advice for American Express and USG , public criticism for Kraft's management over the Cadbury acquisition, and behind-the-scenes activism at Coca-Cola as it faltered in the late 90s. In that case, Schroeder says Buffett "helped force the early departure in 1998" of Coke CEO M. Douglas Ivester and "quashed" a proposed purchase in 2000 of Quaker Oats.

The bottom line, as expressed by former Gillette CEO Jim Kilts: "We had a warm, close, personal relationship, but at the end of the day, I knew it was business."

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