Warren Watch: Mr. B was nice guy overshadowed by dynamic Mrs. B

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Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013 12:00 am

Ron Blumkin spoke recently about his grandparents, Nebraska Furniture Mart founder Rose and her husband, Isadore.

Isadore was an easygoing, jovial man who ran a shop but would close up early to buy ice cream with his grandchildren. Rose, who opened a furniture store in the basement after having four children, didn't understand that sort of business interruption.

Isadore, who died of a heart attack in 1950, was a good person but overshadowed by his wife. “He just happened to be married to this dynamo,” said Ron Blumkin, now president of the Mart.

Rose, known as Mrs. B., sold the business to Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in 1983 to forestall any family disputes over ownership, essentially bringing in Berkshire CEO Warren Buffett as a partner.

Her dedication to the business meant she didn't take vacations and loved her customers, but Ron said she didn't always get along with her staff.

She used to call out a phrase in Russian to summon one employee, who eventually asked Ron what the words meant. He told the man that she was calling him, “No. 1 dock worker,” but actually she was saying, “stupid as a stone.”

Her disrespect of employees was “a huge flaw,” Blumkin said. If her passion for the staff had equaled her passion for her customers, “who knows what she could have accomplished?”

Rose and Isadore Blumkin had escaped from Russia in the 1930s, coming first to Iowa but soon moving to Omaha to be with other people who spoke Yiddish, Russian and German, the languages she knew. She learned English from her children when they went to school.

Mrs. B's adopted homeland gave her the freedom to succeed, and in return she was “a true patriot,” Ron said. At family gatherings, she would have everyone sing “God Bless America.” If it wasn't loud and enthusiastic enough, they would have to sing it again.

Abel is 'idea man'

Greg Abel, CEO of Berkshire's MidAmerican Energy Holdings of Des Moines, was named a distinguished alumnus of the University of Alberta recently and is a “born-and-raised Edmontonian,” the Edmonton Journal reported.

He also has been mentioned as a candidate to succeed Buffett as CEO of Berkshire, the story said. Abel, 51, earned a business degree at the Canadian college in 1984 and became an accountant, shifting to business management as his career progressed.

“Here was a businessman who is having a huge impact in the energy sector, leading a big U.S. energy company into the emerging landscape of renewable energy,” said Cindie LeBlanc, who headed the award selection committee. “He exemplified that social and environmental sensibility that we see in many alumni who found or run businesses.”

Buffett wrote to the committee that he always takes phone calls from Abel, who “brings me great ideas, and is truly innovative in his thinking and business approach.”

Abel told the newspaper that there are times in Iowa when 100 percent of the company's electricity is coming from wind.

Fruit of Loom losses

Fruit of the Loom isn't doing well in Ireland, the Irish Independent reported.

At its peak, the Berkshire-owned clothing company's European division had six plants and 3,500 workers in Ireland, but gradually moved nearly all that production to lower-cost Morocco.

Losses last year totaled $43 million for the division, which still has a 27-employee operation at Buncrana in Ireland's County Donegal.

High-cost cotton inventories and resistance to higher prices contributed to the loss, the company reported.

Wisdom for students

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that she found “a dose of grandfatherly wisdom” when Buffett came to talk to Georgetown University students recently.

Washington, D.C., is a sort of hometown, Dowd wrote, since Buffett lived there while his father was a congressman. He worked as a waterboy for the Redskins and delivered newspapers at Georgetown Hospital.

Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, and students asked questions.

Buffett said he has been “dialing for dollars,” asking wealthy people to donate at least half of their money to charities.

When a 70-year-old billionaire resists the Giving Pledge, Buffett said he asks, “Do you really think your decision-making ability is going to be better when you're 95 with some blonde on your lap, or now?”

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

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