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Liz Claman on Warren Buffett’s Missteps, and his Fascination with Trains

She chatted with him Thursday ahead this weekend’s Berkshire Hathaway board meeting, now FBN’s Liz Claman is sitting down again with Warren Buffett this morning, along with Bill Gates, Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger and Berkshire board member Susan Decker. The interview airs live at 9:30am on FBN. But before Claman questions them, we had some questions for her.

TVNewser: You’ve interviewed Warren Buffett something like 732 times (maybe an exaggeration) but who from the business world haven’t you interviewed, that you’re dying to?

Claman: He’s a world leader but a business icon too: French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He’s the first French leader in decades to strike a Capitalist-friendly tone. He’s worked hard to get the French to unclench their fingers– their grip– from the Socialist, nanny-state that’s become a way of life in France. He may lose his job because of it. People don’t like the austerity measures he’s tried to implement but I think he’s brave and hyper-intelligent. I’ve been practicing my French business lexicon for years in anticipation that one day I might land the big “poisson.” (French for ‘fish’)

TVNewser: In the past, your interviews with Buffett have been pretty standard and free of scandal, not this time. How are you going to approach the resignation of his heir apparent David Sokol?

Claman: I’ll approach it with point-blank questions. “How could you not have pushed Dave Sokol harder when he mentioned, as you said, in a “passing remark” that he owned stock in Lubrizol– a company he was suggesting you buy outright? If it’s part of Berkshire’s policy NOT to own stock in a company in which Berkshire might invest in the future, why wouldn’t you have pressed him on how much he owned and when he bought it? And, if you did push him, did he lie to you? Do you regret writing in that initial press release that Dave did nothing wrong in buying Lubrizol stock? Did you fire Dave Sokol? And by the way, Warren, telling Sokol, ‘Make it look like you resigned’ is the same as firing him.” I know Sokol well, he’s a good human being and is someone who has suffered terrible pain and suffering in his life after the loss of his young son to cancer. Everyone makes mistakes but I also want to ask, “Was this a mistake on Dave’s part, or just pure greed? With all you know now about how Dave bought stock in the company he knew you might buy– and he bought it *before* he presented the company to you as a possible acquisition– are you livid that the guy you pinned your hopes on for big business decisions and maybe even the top job at Berkshire did this?”

TVNewser: What do you want to learn that we don’t already know from Bill Gates?

Claman: Thanks to Buffett’s multi-billion dollar donation, Bill and Melinda Gates have the biggest private, philanthropic fortune in history (although inflation-adjusted, maybe the Medicis had more…) I’d love to ask, “What would the foundation have to accomplish to achieve the level of success akin to what you accomplished at Microsoft?” The standard is incredibly high, given that with Microsoft, he created a company that changed how we all communicate. Microsoft is the company that shuttled in the Digital Age. He has his own big shoes to fill. He might just answer, “Wipe out Malaria on the planet.” I would also ask, “Has Warren ever done something you really thought was dumb?”

TVNewser: What is it with Gates and Buffet and their affinity for trains? Are investors missing the boat err train?

Claman: Gates was on the train investment party-train way before Buffett was. Gates invested in a Canadian railroad for his own portfolio and told Warren about it. I broke the story in April of 2007 when Buffett made his initial investment in 3 railroads all at once. Why? Back then, he and Gates anticipated railroads would have major environmental advantages over trucking, plus while railroads are heavily capital-intensive, meaning they eat up a lot of cash to operate, they have unbelievably consistent earnings power. And if the economy continues to improve, more people will ship goods via rail. Instant money for Buffett. And here’s a secret: Buffett’s been obsessed by trains since he was a kid. He has what I’m told is an unbelievable Lionel train set in his attic. He even brought in Union Pacific engineers to set up the tracks.

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