Monday, August 2, 2010

The Sage's Son: What became of the Buffett billions?

Thanks to Matt for passing this along.

When the super-investor, Warren Buffett, gave a chunk of his fortune to his son, Howard, there was one proviso: it had to be spent on charitable projects. Paola Totaro goes on the road with the billionaire philanthropist

It is a typical midsummer's day, duck-egg blue skies, a wisp of cloud, not a hint of breeze. A convoy of vehicles is burrowing deep into the impossibly green mountains of rural Congo. The first, a flat-top, is bristling with men and machine guns and the last, a jeep, is driven by a brilliant young anthropologist who also happens to be heir to the now defunct Belgian throne. I am in the truck in the middle sitting next to the son of the second richest man in the world.

Howard Buffett, eldest son of the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, is a big man blessed with a big, easy laugh. As we hurtle past forests, fields and farms, you wouldn't know it. The Illinois farmer, photographer and philanthropist has been awake all night fighting a kidney stone in a tiny hotel room in Kindu, one of Congo's poorest and most miserable townships. He is not the type to complain. But he is pale and the last wretched hours are etched on his face.

We've been on the road a few days already: Rwanda first, then carefully, almost surreptitiously, with the help of the UN, over the border into Congo. He is travelling incognito in this dangerous, conflict-torn part of East Africa to avoid VIP fuss.

It has been this way since 2006, when Buffett Snr not only stunned the global financial community by bequeathing $30bn to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but also earmarked $1bn in family company shares to each of his three children. Raised in the knowledge that their father doesn't believe in inherited wealth, the gift was a huge surprise, but the unusual caveat didn't raise a blink from the siblings: the money was theirs but only if they could find ways to give it all away.