In March, I had the pleasure of interviewing investigative journalist and best-selling author Jeff Benedict. He had recently published Little Pink House, about the 2005 Supreme Court case on eminent domain. We’re back, just a few short months later, to discuss How to Build a Business Warren Buffett Would Buy: The R. C. Willey Story which was also recently released. It’s a pleasure to talk to have you back so soon, Jeff.
How did this book come about?
I was told by a mutual friend that [Utah home furnishings giant] Bill Child desired to have his company’s story told in book form. I was also told he already had a title picked out – How to Build a Business Warren Buffett Would Buy – and that Buffett had agreed to the title. So I wrote Bill a letter and introduced myself. He called two days later. We met and the rest is history.
Were you already familiar with RC Willey and Bill Child through your research for your earlier book, The Mormon Way of Doing Business?
I had never heard of R.C. Willey.
I can't get over the timeliness of this book. Here we have a couple of unpretentious business men successful, almost beyond measure, conducting themselves in a thoroughly honorable manner. It's a startling contrast to the many robber barons currently on Wall Street. What a good fit these two men are. Did you anticipate there would be such compatibility from the get-go?
I knew at the outset that Bill and Warren were good friends and formed an immediate bond.
Can you talk about their similarities a bit?
Both men are very down to earth, despite the accumulation of great wealth. The ability to maintain humility and frugality amidst money and power is rare. But these two guys have the gift. And they both have a wonderful sense of humor. Neither one takes himself too seriously.
Bill Child inherited the RC Willey Company when his father in law, (RC Willey) suddenly fell ill and died. The business was in the red, and the bank immediately advised Child and his mother-in-law to close its doors. Child had little experience and was hardly a natural businessman. Yet, he brought an unconventional wisdom to the task at hand.
One thing Bill knew was how to work hard. He had been raised on a farm. He also had a tremendous sense of honesty and integrity. So when he encountered the financial problems inherent in his father-in-law’s store, he systematically attacked them one at a time. He had the patience to plug away, little by little by doing simple things like not buying things he couldn’t pay for. Rather than trying to make his first million, he was out to establish a reputation. He ended up building a legacy that has grown over the course of 40 years.
Your book is not a "how to get rich quick" manual. In fact, it took the RC Willey Company decades to be taken seriously and be courted by the big boys (Buffett and others). Nevertheless, I predict that the book will have a wide appeal. Anyone running a business, or hoping to some day, can learn a lot within these pages. What do you see as the secret to this company’s success?
Rather than setting out to build a business he could sell for a big profit, RC set out to build a company to keep forever. That approach touches off an entirely different approach.
What aspect of the RC Willey story did you find most compelling?
I had a personal affinity for the early history of Rufus Call Willey. I found him to be most interesting. And the time period of the early 1900s is one that is particularly interesting to me. I loved the way he made himself into a salesman by mastering the new technology of electricity.
In many ways, this is an old-fashioned book. It stresses the importance of avoiding debt, carefully picking the right employees, planning ahead, and delivering premium customer service. Nothing revolutionary there. The main characters, besides for being tremendously adept in their business dealings, seem refreshingly down to earth. Is that what makes this such a riveting story?