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Monday, December 19, 2011

Is Warren Buffett a prodigy, a speculator or both?

Buffett's performance came from a combination of relentless drive,
ruthless self-interest, boundless curiosity about a narrow subject,
record-breaking parsimony, social climbing, complex financial maneuvers,
occasional bullying, a keen understanding of the tax code, ceaseless
study of financial and business arcana, the critical insight that
running a hedge fund created low risk almost zero-cost leverage, the
critical insight that insurance float created low risk zero-cost
leverage, and the gradual accumulation of personal and institutional
advantages from the repeated application of all of these things. I may
have left a few things out, but this is the gist. Like most great
performances, Buffett's success is to be admired for its scale,
audacity, creativity, and ambition -- although not necessarily emulated
in every respect.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Jack Kerouac of Junk

The Jack Kerouac of Junk


MIKE WOLFE, the co-star of “American Pickers,” the popular antiques show, is known for driving the country’s back roads and pulling old signage, bicycles, gasoline pumps and other “rusty gold,” to use his term, out of people’s barns and garages. So it’s not entirely surprising to walk into his house and find a 1913 Harley-Davidson parked in the dining room.

Like everything Mr. Wolfe “picks,” the motorcycle has a story. He bought it in upstate New York from a man whose father ran a classified ad that Mr. Wolfe came across 30 years later. After establishing that the bike was still in the family, he recalled, “I drove all the way to New York, slept in the guy’s driveway and knocked on his door the next morning.”

Fast-talking and persistent, Mr. Wolfe, 46, can sniff out unique or valuable antiques like a bloodhound. He persuaded the reluctant owner to sell him the bike for $25,000, although “it’s worth 55 grand, easily,” he said, holding the handlebars protectively, as if a visitor might jump on and drive away.

On “American Pickers” (and in “American Pickers Guide to Picking,” a book out next month from Hyperion), Mr. Wolfe and his childhood friend, Frank Fritz, 47, show a similar enthusiasm for wheeling and dealing with eccentric collectors or, more often, “freestyling,” their word for driving around in search of homes with lawns that look like junkyards and may contain treasures. As pickers, they are middlemen in the antiques food chain, buying items they can sell quickly, at a markup, to dealers and collectors.

The History cable-network reality series draws about 5.5 million viewers a week, and its success lies in its rugged approach to the traditionally genteel antiques world. As Mr. Wolfe put it, “We don’t wear blue blazers and have 10 cats and talk about Ming Dynasty vases.” Seeing him pull a dirt-caked crock from a farmer’s field with giddy excitement, one might assume Mr. Wolfe lives in the kind of pack-rat nest he visits on the show.

In fact, he owns one of the prettiest buildings on the main street of this small town on the Mississippi River, and the duplex apartment on the top floors that he shares with his girlfriend, Jodi Faeth, is furnished with Mission-style pieces, comfy chairs and a few carefully edited picks, like the 1913 Harley and a weather vane pulled from a Nebraska barn.

Their third-floor bedroom has large windows with a sweeping view of the river. “I can sit right here, dude,” Mr. Wolfe said, hopping onto the bed with his boots on. “I can watch the river, I got the fireplace raging. It’s like a treehouse up here.”

Following the advice in his book, which suggests avoiding “fresh paint jobs,” “landscaping” and “shiny new cars,” his house wouldn’t rate a second look from a picker. What gives?

“I love this stuff, but I would never live in a place that looks like the places we pick,” Mr. Wolfe said, leading a visitor around the building, a former grocery and boardinghouse built in 1860 that was a “dump,” he said, when he bought it seven years ago.

It doesn’t look like that now. Mr. Wolfe refurbished the ground floor and rents it to a pair of home décor stores. Upstairs, he gutted the space to the studs, widening doorways and windows to open the floor plan. “There were four fireplaces in this building — so all that soot,” he said. “I still have a cough.”

The original window trim and hardwood floors retain the building’s historic feel, but Mr. Wolfe installed a modern kitchen and bathrooms.

Still, one thinks of “American Pickers” and envisions Mr. Wolfe on an old farm, tinkering with machinery. “I want to be in the thick of things downtown,” he countered. “See, that’s the beauty of this property, man. I’ve got a two-car garage, a courtyard and I’m on the river side. I’ve really created my own environment.”

It appears the building is one of Mr. Wolfe’s picks, and to pay for it, and its renovation, he sold several of his other picks, including rare motorcycles. (In typical fashion, he also negotiated the $325,000 asking price down to $175,000.)

Mr. Wolfe, who has lived in LeClaire for 15 years, owns several buildings in town and would like to see the riverfront community become a tourist destination. Speaking as if the town itself were a pick, he said, “I used to wander around down here at night and say, ‘This could be something.’ ”

His store, Antique Archaeology, is a few blocks away. On “American Pickers,” the men return there at the end of each episode and present their finds to the third cast member, Danielle Colby, 35, a sassy tattooed woman who minds the store. Mr. Wolfe’s home, on the other hand, doesn’t play a role on the show, and his personal life isn’t discussed, either.

Perhaps owing to a stereotype about the antiques business, rumors circulate on the Internet that Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Fritz are gay. In fact, both men are straight; for the last 17 years, Mr. Wolfe has dated Ms. Faeth, an accountant with a laid-back manner that complements what Ms. Colby described as her boss’s “firecracker” personality.

Ms. Faeth, 40, learned of his picking early on.

“When I met him, he used to disguise picks as dates,” she said. “He’d say, ‘We’re going to Wisconsin to a bed-and-breakfast.’ We were really going to Wisconsin to meet Speedo Joe.”

She doesn’t take issue with the things Mr. Wolfe brings home (“Obviously, I let a motorcycle in the living room,” she said), but on occasion she boils over when he sells a favorite piece, like the vintage tobacco ad depicting a American Indian woman that hung in their living room. “I came home and it was gone,” she said. “He’s like, ‘What? Property taxes are due.’ ”

Referring to the success of “American Pickers,” she added: “I’m happy to say things have changed and pieces are staying around longer.”

As for Mr. Wolfe, he is still making the adjustment. “I was sleeping in my van on buying trips two years ago,” he said. “Now people are coming up to me and saying ‘We love your show.’ It’s trippy.”

MR. WOLFE grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, just downriver from LeClaire, and began picking at age 6. “I found a bicycle in the garbage, and I sold it in two days for $5,” he recalled. “I was hooked.”

The family didn’t have much money (his single mother raised three children) so Mr. Wolfe learned to barter his picks for things he wanted, like his first motorcycle. “I traded a guy a pair of stereo speakers for it,” he said.

By the late 1990s, he owned two bicycle shops, but he began to focus on picking professionally. He started with antique bicycles (“I was pulling bikes out of barns for 10 bucks and selling them for 500 bucks,” he said). Then, after meeting two antiques dealers who quizzed him about what else was in those barns, he expanded into furniture, lighting and items that evoked the machine age.

Eventually, he said, “I’m sitting in the bicycle shop going: ‘What am I doing in here, man? I need to be on the road.’ So I closed the shop, bought a cargo van and hit the back roads. I was a full-on hobo — a Jack Kerouac of junk.”

At the suggestion of a friend, Mr. Wolfe bought a video camera and began filming his picking trips. Sometimes Mr. Fritz came along. Mr. Wolfe thought their adventures would make great TV because “antiques are all about the story, the treasure hunt,” he said, and pickers are “in the trenches finding this stuff.”

But he spent four and a half years trying to convince a network of that, and failing. Finally, History bought “American Pickers,” and the show began early last year.

Since the first episode, viewers have been coming in droves to Mr. Wolfe’s Antique Archaeology shop, a converted garage in an alley that once functioned as his man cave and warehouse. (In the beginning, he said, “we didn’t even own a cash register.”) Ms. Colby, who meets many of them, reasoned that they “develop a crush on the lifestyle and the cool stuff we find” and get “sucked into Mike’s fantasy world.” These days, the store is a curious hybrid of retail operation and unofficial “American Pickers” museum.

On a recent afternoon there, an older couple from northern Iowa took photos while other fans bought Antique Archaeology T-shirts and pointed to oddball items picked on the show, like oversize Laurel and Hardy heads made of plastic. Most of them asked, “Where’s Mike and Frank?” or “Where’s Danielle?” and seemed surprised by their absence.

Adam Hurlburt, an employee, kept repeating, “Mike was here yesterday” and “You just missed him.”

As a small-town guy, Mr. Wolfe is in the strange position of being a TV star who is also accessible. He limits visits to the shop now because it’s difficult to get work done. Sitting on the fireplace hearth in his bedroom, he admitted that the show’s popularity caught him off guard. “I never thought about how busy the store would be,” he said. “I was so naïve to all of this.”

But he appears to be learning quickly. He joked that his store’s logo now appears so often on television, “it’s like I have the advertising budget of Ford.”

In addition to the “Guide to Picking,” which he worked on with Mr. Fritz, Ms. Colby and Libby Callaway, a freelance writer, he is one of the authors of a children’s book, with the working title “Kid Picker,” because a lot of children watch the show. And last month, he opened a second Antique Archaeology store, in Nashville.

Mr. Wolfe has also started to move from finding cool stuff to designing it. At the new store, he sells lighting made from materials he picked, created with David Phillips, a designer in Nashville. The next step, he said, is to produce antique-looking home pieces, similar to those sold by Restoration Hardware.

“I can never pick enough stuff — it’s physically impossible,” he said. “I have to make stuff to sell, and I want to do that because I’m into décor.”

Mr. Wolfe was interrupted by a text message, and he disappeared into another room to conduct business. Lazy afternoons around the house are rare. He had just returned from a two-week picking trip to South Dakota, and the next day he and Ms. Faeth were driving to Nashville with a van full of fresh picks. The couple bought a historic home there last year, something they were able to afford because of the show’s success.

“Hopefully, we’re doing some porch time,” Ms. Faeth said.

But the work schedule Mr. Wolfe rattled off for the coming week made that seem unlikely.

“I’m always busy,” he said. Then, as if summing up the itinerant life of a picker, he added, “Sometimes it feels like I don’t live anywhere.”

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pierre de Beaumont, at 95; founder of Brookstone Co.

Pierre de Beaumont started Brookstone Company from his farmhouse parlor in the Berkshires in 1965. A former engineer for Packard Motor Car, he put a classified ad peddling special tools in Popular Mechanics magazine and filled orders the same day they landed in his mailbox.

Launching their business with an initial investment of $500, Mr. de Beaumont and his wife, Mary Deland (Robbins), eventually saw the venture mushroom into 300 retail outlets, where mall shoppers still plunk down in massage chairs and marvel at gizmos and gadgets for better living.

Named after their farm in the village of Worthington, Brookstone was sold in 1980 to the Quaker Oats Co. The de Beaumonts retired on their stock and put part of their fortune into foundations focused on education and communication needs in public health.

Mr. de Beaumont’s family recently announced that he died on Dec. 4 at his home in Manchester-by-the-Sea following a long illness. He was 95.

“He was an ingenious, experimental fellow, and he enjoyed working with his hands. He was a lot of fun to be with, and we all miss him,’’ said his brother-in-law Joseph C. Robbins of Cambridge.

Mr. de Beaumont had no experience in mail order when he launched Brookstone out of his frustration after combing hardware stores for the right tools for tinkering with ship models and other projects.

“Each time I went in, I could feel defeat staring me in the face,’’ he wrote in a 1976 essay titled “Ramblings on Brookstone History.’’ “The clerk would invariably look slightly bored and tell me that he had never heard of such a thing and turn to the next customer.’’

Born in New York City, Mr. de Beaumont was the son of the Countess de Beaumont, a Paris beauty queen who appeared in New York vaudeville in the 1920s under the stage name Gypsy Norman. His father was a French nobleman who died in World War I.

Mr. de Beaumont graduated from Harvard with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1938 and went to work for Packard, where he won patents for several designs. He also worked for General Motors.

When World War II hit, he served as an officer in the US Naval Reserve. He later worked for Apex Electrical Manufacturing Co. of Cleveland, and Bostitch Inc., of Westerly, R.I. He founded an Ohio regional chapter of the Antique Automobile Club of America and also was active in the Sports Car Club of America.

Mr. de Beaumont and his wife taught themselves the mail-order business and eventually expanded Brookstone to offer gifts and gourmet foods.

They took correspondence courses in accounting, and Mr. de Beaumont took the early catalog photographs himself. They sold their catalogs for 20 cents to “keep the children and lonely hearts from using up our small supply,’’ he wrote.

They drove their shipments to the post office daily in a 1961 Jeep station wagon. When they watched Walter Cronkite deliver the nightly news, Mr. de Beaumont would exercise the grip on a new stock of Brookstone pliers while his wife put labels on their catalogs. They sometimes called on family members to test grilled-cheese irons and other potential products.

“When I got to the point that I needed an electric opener to open all the envelopes that came, I knew I was on to something,’’ Mr. de Beaumont said, according to Robert M. Cabral Jr., who got his start in the mail-order gift business when the de Beaumonts included his scrimshaw jewelry in their 1978 gift catalog.

“He was a big, imposing guy. The thing I remember most about him was this cackling giggle and a twinkle in his eye. He just liked the fact that I was showing entrepreneurial spirit,’’ said Cabral, who later founded the mail-order brokerage Americraft.

In 1969, the de Beaumonts moved Brookstone out of their barn and into a warehouse in Peterborough, N.H. In 1979, the company’s sales topped $22 million.

Carol Massoni of Beverly, Mr. de Beaumont’s granddaughter, recalled learning his business wisdom. “I spent so many nights at their dinner table eating, conversing, and having a sip of wine. It seemed better than any MBA,’’ she said. “Pete would always tell us, ‘Enjoy what you’re doing, and do it well.’ ’’

The de Beaumonts were married 40 years. Mary Deland died in 2001. They both left their bodies to the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Besides Massoni, Mr. de Beaumont leaves his stepdaughters Joan Kopperl of West Stockbridge and Kathleen McAllister of Arlington, Vt.; his stepson, Edward Kelley of North Fayston, Vt.; and seven stepgrandchildren.