Warren Buffett Watch: Spy drama sparked strong reaction at Washington dinner in ’40s

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Posted: Sunday, January 19, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 1:52 am, Tue May 20, 2014.

For this Warren Buffett story, we go back to the late 1940s.

Dean Acheson was President Harry Truman’s secretary of state. One of Acheson’s staffers, Alger Hiss, was accused of passing secrets to the Soviet Union and landed in prison for perjury.

Acheson, despite the evidence, stood by his former associate, saying at a press conference, “I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss.”

About that time Omaha grocer Neil Shaver went to Washington, D.C., for a convention of the National Association of Retail Grocers, representing his family’s 17-store Shaver’s Food Mart chain.

At a dinner, Shaver recalled recently, he was seated next to Leila Buffett, wife of then-Rep. Howard Buffett and mother of Warren Buffett, now CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. The Omaha congressman was a conservative Republican, and his party was adamant about Hiss’ guilt.

Acheson’s accomplishments included helping to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, encouraging the United States to defend South Korea, helping design the Marshall Plan for European recovery from World War II and, in general, helping to guide the U.S. through the early stages of the Cold War.

But, Shaver said recently, “Acheson, for the life of him, could not believe that Alger Hiss was guilty. The conservatives couldn’t believe that Acheson wouldn’t go along with the rest of them in accepting that he was guilty.”

At the dinner, Shaver asked Leila Buffett, “How do you like living in Washington?”

“It’s fine,” she said, “except if you’re at a cocktail party and find yourself sitting next to a traitor like Dean Acheson.”

Bullying by Berkshire?

An attorney for IntelliJet Group of Jacksonville, Fla., raised the idea after a federal judge’s ruling in a trademark infringement lawsuit filed against IntelliJet in January 2012 by NetJets Inc., Berkshire’s jet service company.

IntelliJet founder Gary Spivack said in a press release that he had been surprised, annoyed and stressed by the lawsuit because he had interacted with NetJets personnel for years and didn’t expect to be sued.

Defending against the lawsuit was expensive, he said, but “we felt it was the right thing to do and in the end, we prevailed.”

IntelliJet attorney Joe Dreitler said NetJets and Berkshire “were trying to throw their weight around by suing IntelliJet for trademark infringement. We thought this was a case of trademark bullying, a Warren Buffett company picking on a little guy that doesn’t have a fraction of Buffett’s financial resources.”

NetJets and Berkshire declined to comment. IntelliJet is an aircraft broker, buying and selling aircraft nationwide, and has used the name since 2005.

NetJets alleged that IntelliJet violated trademark rules by using the same name as IntelliJet, a computer software program developed by NetJets and trademarked in 1995.

NetJets uses its IntelliJet software to schedule flights, let clients book travel, communicate with crew members and other purposes, touting it as a competitive advantage that attracts and keeps customers.

NetJets argued that it prominently displayed “IntelliJet” in its sales material and licensed its use to third parties, making it a part of commerce that is properly protected by its trademark.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost of Columbus, Ohio, wrote that although NetJets “does, to some degree, publicize the existence and the functionality of the IntelliJet software,” that doesn’t meet the trademark law’s definition of “use in commerce.”

The IntelliJet software is “simply the conduit through which NetJets provides its services,” Frost wrote, and isn’t sold, advertised, marketed or otherwise entered into general commerce.

As a result, Frost ruled, IntelliJet software has no commercial value outside NetJets and was “not validly trademarked.”

The judge also declined to order NetJets to pay IntelliJet’s attorney fees, saying that the lawsuit was not “oppressive” and had a reasonable chance of success when it was filed.

For a less-contentious story, we turn to Wilma Larson, who was in line at the McDonald’s at 40th and Dodge Streets with her two grandsons.

They wanted “Happy Meals” and other goodies that weren’t in Grandma’s budget. She was talking them into less-expensive fare.

Then the guy in front of her turned, introduced himself, handed her some McD’s gift certificates and said, “Get the boys what they want.”

“The boys were ecstatic,” said Wilma’s son, Pat, and Wilma was thrilled to meet Buffett. This was about 25 years ago, before Buffett began making bigger philanthropic gestures.

Wilma, now retired from Northwestern Bell Telephone Co., hasn’t forgotten. “She thought it was great that he would realize that the kids were not getting what they wanted,” Pat said.

News stories this past week have reported on the start of demolition of the manufacturing plant that “started Warren Buffett’s investment empire.”

It’s true that Berkshire’s name comes from the New Bedford, Mass., textile mill, and that the mill’s current owner is razing the long-closed structure to get the land ready for sale.

But Buffett’s 1966 purchase of Berkshire Hathaway wasn’t exactly the start of his career. Rather, it’s more a matter of convenience that Buffett’s investment company has that name.

Buffett had been investing on his own when he returned to Omaha from New York City in 1956. He soon set up a series of partnerships for relatives, friends and other investors.

When he dissolved the partnerships in 1969, saying there weren’t many good investment opportunities, he gave his early partners the choice of taking cash, buying bonds, investing with another adviser or converting their holdings into Berkshire stock, as he planned to do.

From then on, the mill’s corporate identity was Buffett’s investment vehicle, holding the shares he bought in other companies and owning dozens of other businesses he purchased over the next 45 years.

In the end, the textile business turned out to be a loser as foreign producers took over the industry. As Buffett told the Wall Street Journal when it reported on the impending demolition, “I don’t know what you’d do with that place.”

Buffett said in November that the 740 workers losing their jobs when H.J. Heinz Co. closes its plant in Leamington, Ontario, Canada, would receive “very generous severance benefits.”

Now Global News of Canada reported that Heinz would pay two weeks’ wages for every year of service, 52 weeks of health benefits after the plant closes June 27 and a $2,500 “productivity” bonus, plus the community will get $500,000 for retraining and job creation in Leamington.

“It’s a fair deal,” said Rob Crawford, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers union at the plant. “I guess he’s a man of his word. This will allow the employees to get through a year to find employment.”

Berkshire is half-owner of Heinz but doesn’t manage it.

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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