Just about every successful person reads. Many of them like to read business biographies.
Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s right hand man, has said a lot about reading over the years. My favorite quote is “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”
Or as your favorite blogger once said, “duh, me like to read lots because me’s smart. (fart)”
Both Munger and Buffett spend much of their time reading, and I do too. Each day is started by skimming the best of a new different news sources, as well as reading stuff I find on the Twitter. After writing all morning I take a leisurely lunch, which is usually spent reading something. After supper is when I work out (while listening to audio books) and then more time dedicated to reading, usually working on whatever my latest book is. Sometimes I spend time with my wife, too.
My favorite are business biographies. There’s a huge amount of wisdom you can learn from the average memoir. The author is forced to condense the subject’s life into just a few hundred pages, which allows the reader to get a quick version of what made successful business people the way they are. It covers the big picture stuff and enough of the details for you to figure out how they did it.
Or, to put it another way, think of a business biography as a rich person’s life condensed down to all the good stuff. You get the person’s highs and lows, without the nose picking and only a sentence or two about the year the subject went to South Korea to “find himself”, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.
Anyhoo, here are 17 of my favorite business biographies.
1. The Snowball
I gotta start with The Snowball. It might be my favorite book of all time.
Buffett’s business life has been fascinating. He started out as a value investor, owning obscure micro-caps for his partnership. That was followed up by taking control of Berkshire Hathaway, which really got the compounding machine going. Buffett eventually became the richest man in the world, all without sacrificing his morals or integrity.
His personal life might be even more interesting. He essentially had two wives for a while. He managed to grow a world-class company out of a nondescript office building in Omaha, Nebraska, of all places. And he did it all while maintaining a folksy, guy-next-door persona.
If you haven’t already read The Snowball, do so now.
Bonus: I interviewed Warren Buffett once. Okay, maybe it was his evil twin.
2. The Patriarch: The remarkable life and turbulent times of Joseph P. Kennedy
The Patriarch is equal parts business and political biography.
Joe Kennedy grew up an Irish Catholic from the wrong part of Boston. Through sheer will and incredible ambition, he became one of the richest men in America, partially though investing aggressively into the sexy growth stocks of the 1920s, movie studios. He also did a little insider trading back when such a practice was legal.
Kennedy then went to serve in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, followed that up with becoming the Ambassador to England, and then dedicated his life to helping his son become president. He did all that while travelling immensely and having several girlfriends on the side.
We could all aspire to learn from Joe Kennedy, minus the mistress part.
Warren Buffett will always be my favorite billionaire. But Jimmy Pattison isn’t far behind.
Pattison turned a single car dealership purchased in his early 30s into one of Canada’s largest business empires. The Jim Pattison Group owns grocery stores, TV and radio stations, magazine distributors, real estate, food manufacturers, tourist attractions, and a million other things. He’s basically Canada’s Warren Buffett.
I reviewed Jimmy’s book about a year ago. You’ll love the story of Jimmy’s short-lived experiment as a silver speculator.
4. Confessions of a Street Addict
Jim Cramer has a bunch of books on investing that he clearly didn’t write. Millions of people buy them because he holds up the latest one during THE LIGHTNING ROUND of Mad Money and they all think it’s cute.
Confessions of a Street Addict is completely different.
Cramer talks about his life and what led him to the world of hedge funds. He openly discusses the soaring highs and the heart-breaking lows of the industry. Cramer then journeyed to journalism, both at CNBC and through The Street, a website he’s still very involved with to this way.
5. Steve Jobs
If you had any interest in reading this book, chances are you’ve read it by now. It was incredibly popular.
We tend to only remember the good parts of Steve Jobs. He was truly a visionary, building Apple from a dream to the world’s foremost technology company. Then he was ousted. A decade later he came back and did it again.
He was also a megalomaniac, with little regard to others’ feelings. He denied his daughter’s existence for years and pushed his employees to the edge of mental breakdowns. And when he got the cancer that eventually killed him, he tried to cure it by going on some stupid all fruit diet.
6. Sam Walton – Made in America
A lot of people don’t like Sam Walton’s autobiography, saying they think the ‘aw shucks’ attitude was more phony than a $7 bill.
Underneath the first impression is a very important message, however. Walton might not have been retail’s smartest guy. But he was terrific at execution. Wal-Mart became the world’s top retailer because it did everything better than competitors. They had lower prices. They had the best distribution network. And they invested in technology before anyone else did.
7. The Billionaire Who Wasn’t
After stepping away from day-to-day operations in the 1980s, Feeney dedicated his life to giving away his fortune. If you’re interested in philanthropy at all, you’ll enjoy The Billionaire Who Wasn’t.
8. The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age
In an era where women were expected to play a secondary role, Hetty Green leveraged a decent-sized estate from her father into one of the biggest fortunes ever accumulated.
Plus, her frugality was legendary. She reportedly would wear clothes until they were falling apart and stay in ran-down rooming houses even after she became a billionaire. There’s even a story (which has been debunked, much to my chagrin) that her son lost his leg because she was too cheap to pay for proper medical care.
Bonus: I wrote about Hetty Green here.
9. Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster who Created Vegas Poker
I find the mob history of Las Vegas to be fascinating. They were good capitalists who just happened to be into illegal stuff, that’s all.
Benny Binion was one of the originals. Binion got his start in Dallas before leaving town after it was revealed a few of his rivals were looking to whack him. He then moved to Vegas, where he operated the Horseshoe (it’s called Binion’s today) casino on Fremont Street.
He then created the World Series of Poker, almost by accident. All he wanted was a way to draw in crowds during the slow season.
10. Buffett: The Making of An American Capitalist
The Snowball focuses a lot on Buffett’s personal life. Roger Lowenstein’s book focuses much more on his business career. Think of it as his business biography, while the other is more focused on his personal life.
I wrote about why Warren Buffett would be a bad personal finance blogger.
11. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.
A lot of people hated John D. Rockefeller. They thought he was a ruthless capitalist who wouldn’t think twice before ruining his workers, competitors, or even the whole country. Standard Oil grew so big the feds felt compelled to break it up.
Rockefeller was a true business visionary. He mastered vertical integration before there was even a term for it. He aggressively expanded, even buying out competitors at crazy prices. And he was the first oil refiner to really invest in technology, which strengthened his dominance. This stuff is standard today. Rockefeller basically invented it.
And then he retired, turning from a capitalist to philanthropist, giving away billions to education, health care, and religious causes. He also golfed a lot and would flirt with all the other lady widowers after his wife kicked it.
12. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Cornelius Vanderbilt was America’s first tycoon. Hence the title of the book.
After controlling the steamship market in the United States, Vanderbilt realized railroads would take over. So he invested aggressively in the new technology, securing his dominant position even as the world around him changed.
13. Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie was an interesting guy.
We all know about his life story. He built U.S. Steel into one of the world’s biggest companies. And then he gave away all of his money.
What’s more interesting is the way he did it. Carnegie regularly took time off to write, travel, or just spend time with friends. We sometimes think we need to work relentlessly to get rich. Carnegie proves you don’t have to.
14. Shoe Dog
Phil Knight borrowed $50 from his old man in the 1960s to launch a company that would import high-quality running shoes from Japan. Yes, Japan used to be the world’s China.
The rest reads almost like fiction. He weaves all sorts of lessons about personal growth, goals, and tenacity into the book, all while telling the fascinating story of his life. Nike has become not only the gold-standard for athletic brands, it might even be the world’s best brand. Period.
15. Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s
Here’s a fun fact: Ray Kroc didn’t get involved with McDonald’s until he was 52 years old. He discovered the McDonald brothers when he showed up to sell them a milk shake mixer.
Kroc was a hard-ass. He would regularly “fire” employees who would quietly be hired back by one of his other execs. But he revolutionized the restaurant business, creating the modern supply chain. McDonald’s even engineered their own potato, one that fried up crispy and golden each time.
16. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
OH THE IRONY OF THIS BEING SOLD AT AMAZON.
There’s a reason why Jeff Bezos is one of the world’s five richest men. He relentlessly improved Amazon over the years by focusing on the things that didn’t change about the retail business.
Everything at Amazon comes down to a couple of common factors. Selection continues to get bigger, prices decrease, and shipping continues to get quicker. Bezos’s genius was he figured out the more things change, the more they stay the same.
17. The Richest Man Who Ever Lived
The Richest Man Who Ever Lived is the biography of Jakob Fugger, who lived from 1459-1525.
Fugger turned a textile import/export business into something much bigger when he started lending money to the Austrian Royal Family. As collateral for his loans, he’d take royalties on the state’s gold, silver, or copper mines. After non-payment, he’d own the asset. This happened a lot.
He wasn’t a completely ruthless capitalist, however. He founded Germany’s first social housing project in 1515.
Okay kids, let’s wrap this up. There’s enough reading to keep you busy here for months.
And if you’re so inclined, feel free to mention your favorite business biographies in the comments, or leave a note or two about the ones you have read.