"This is sort of embarrassing," Peter Buffett says as he leads the way to his hotel room in a luxury Toronto hotel. "I don't usually stay in rooms like this."
He opens the door to a palatial suite with several rooms, all in muted shades of polished, dark wood. "But they gave me this," he continues, rolling his eyes.
Such is the power of a name. But the 53-year-old second son of Warren Buffett, America's economic oracle who is ranked consistently among the world's wealthiest people with an estimated fortune of $44-billion, has an unusual relationship with money and his famous surname, which he admits "can be both a blessing and a curse." An award-winning musician and composer and first-time author of a new book, Life Is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment, Mr. Buffett is an unexpected mixture of down-home American candour and Zen-like aphorisms about the "quest to be yourself" and "true wealth being your values."
He is also a compelling paradox. He talks about making life what you want when his has clearly been made by his famous father. Despite his family's wealth, he doesn't consider himself rich – not with money, anyway. His grandfather left him $90,000 when he was 19. At 40, his father gave him enough to pay off some "equipment loans" for his music business and the mortgage on his $194,000 home in Milwaukee. He doesn't speculate on investments. "I have never bought a share of stock."
And yet he gives away millions that were never his. His father's long-held view on inherited wealth was that he would give his children "enough money so they would feel they can do anything but not so much that they could do nothing." However, he has heavily endowed their independent foundations. In 2006, he gave each of his three children a billion to pursue their own vision of philanthropy.
It would seem that while the famous patriarch was telling his children to do anything and follow their passion, he was, at the end of the day, giving them the job of stewarding his millions. "Yeah," the younger Mr. Buffett laughs. "He never actually asked." His father's directive did cause him consternation about how the responsibility would affect his musical career. In addition to writing songs, he has written Emmy-winning scores for TV and film, including the "Firedance" scene in the Oscar-winning film, Dances with Wolves. "I wondered, 'Will this pull me off track? Will it in some sense be a burden?'"
He credits his wife, Jennifer, with helping him figure out the focus of NoVo Foundation, which gives away millions to empower women and girls through education, collaboration and economic development. It had grown out of his interest in native culture, a sense of how "patriarchal domination" had shaped much of history and society. "It seemed clear that what seemed like feminine values, collaboration, listening to others and consensus, needed to come more into play to balance things out," he says.
Interestingly, the balance he enjoyed as a child is what he most reveres about his upbringing in Omaha, Neb. His mother, who died in 2004, and his father were "very yin and yang," he explains. His father, who is famously frugal, never moved from the house in Omaha and still drives himself to work. He gave his children 75 cents a week for allowance. Once, when his daughter, Susan, asked her father for a $41,000 loan to renovate her kitchen after she had a child, he refused, telling her to "go to the bank like everyone else."
But if he learned about a strong work ethic from his father, his mother taught him emotional values. "She would radiate compassion, love and acceptance," he explains. He would walk home from the local elementary school every day for lunch and find his stay-at-home fifties-era mother, talking with other people, often less fortunate, from different parts of town. "The warmth in that room was amazing," he recalls, shaking his head.
As children, they were never taught about the importance of philanthropy. "What we learned was love of people, and that's what I think philanthropy is," he says, adding that those principles were inculcated in them through "a mysterious osmosis" of family culture, never spoken but simply demonstrated through action.
In Toronto to speak to parents and children at Havergal, a privileged private girls' school, Mr. Buffett had been leading a simple, anonymous life until he was asked about six years ago to speak to a banking audience about the issue of intergenerational transfer of wealth and values. "I was Exhibit A of a child with wealthy parents who was quote-unquote normal," he says.
Unlike many people who have an intimate experience of money, he is unabashed in talking about it. "I am frugal. I don't believe in spending money on things to show you have it. I don't want to wear it," he says, gesturing to the outfit he prefers to wear: jeans, an open-collar shirt and a sports coat. He volunteers that he drives a Ford Escape. "But it's not like I'm afraid of living," he quickly puts in. "I won't deny myself certain things," he continues. He and his wife, who have no children and have been married for 15 years, bought an 18th-century stone farmhouse an hour north of New York City, where they have an apartment, because they love nature.
He may not be his father in terms of wealth and career choice, but he is similar in his pursuit of doing something he loves. And in the end, while he worried that stewarding a foundation with his father's money may distract him from his career, he has found that the two come from the same desire – to speak about humanity and equality. "There is no line between them," he says of the two interests. Maybe his father is an oracle, after all. "It's his uncanny ability to foresee the future."