After following investment expert Warren Buffett’s straightforward advice for several years, Ellen O’Brien of Tisbury decided to send him an admiring note, along with a little advice of her own. To her surprise and delight, just six days later, she received a handwritten reply from the Oracle of Omaha himself.
“I am walking on air,” Ms. O’Brien told The Times in a phone conversation, after receiving the note on April 12 from the man she describes as her “all-time hero.”
She wrote to Mr. Buffett on a special card handmade by Shilo Henriques. Shilo is Chris Ellis’s daughter. Mr. Ellis is Ms. O’Brien’s boyfriend.
Ms. O’Brien told Mr. Buffett how much she and her father had admired him over the years. As a stockholder in Berkshire Hathaway, the diversified investment corporation chaired by Mr. Buffett, Ms. O’Brien said she took his advice and invested some of her profits in herself, to start her own Vineyard Haven home-based, online floral business, MV Florist.
But, Ms. O’Brien was not writing only about her own enterprise. She was concerned about Mr. Buffett too. Knowing that Berkshire Hathaway owns Coca-Cola stock and that Mr. Buffett drinks about five Cokes a day, Ms. O’Brien also told him about a recent Princeton University study that proved high fructose corn syrup, used to sweeten Coke, was more fattening for male rats than sugar. Ms. O’Brien urged Mr. Buffett to ask his wife Astrid to buy him Coke made in Mexico that is sweetened with sugarcane instead, “because I want you to live for a very long time.”
“Hi Ellen,” Mr. Buffett wrote in reply. “Your note made my day. Thanks! And good luck with the flower business.”
Mr. Buffett’s notepaper was printed with a sketch of him under the heading, “Not a recent likeness,” with an explanatory note at the bottom, “For obvious reasons.”
Ms. O’Brien’s two sons, Matthew, 26, and Eric, 24, happened to be at her house, when the Oracle’s note arrived. They shared in her excitement.
Her advice to Mr. Buffett about switching to sugarcane-sweetened Coke actually resulted from a lighthearted challenge by a person who communicates with her on the Berkshire Hathaway message board on Motley Fool, an online investment advice service.
“He double-dog dared me,” Ms. O’Brien said, adding with a laugh, “So then, when I told him I got a written response back, he was so mad, he said, ‘I should have written him myself.'”
Ms. O’Brien, age 58, wasn’t always interested in business and finance, however. In college, when her dad tried to tell her about Mr. Buffett’s advice, she didn’t listen.
But, later she subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and starting reading books about business.
After her father died and she inherited some money, Ms. O’Brien said she decided to show her patriotism on September 11, 2003, by buying an “A” share of Berkshire Hathaway stock through Ted Desrosiers, a local Vineyard Haven stockbroker who was with Smith Barney at the time and is now with LPL Financial.
“So I bought the stock, really knowing nothing about the company,” Ms. O’Brien said. “But over these past seven years, I’ve really delved into Mr. Buffett and the company, and I just love it.”
She has read all of Mr. Buffett’s books, plus others about business by Benjamin Graham, an American economist and professional investor, and Charlie Munger, the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.
Ms. O’Brien marveled that Mr. Buffett, who was ranked by Forbes magazine as the richest person in the world in 2008, donated Berkshire Hathaway class B shares worth approximately $30.7 billion in June 2006 to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Ms. O’Brien also is impressed that Mr. Buffett gives all of his advice for free. “The annual report he writes every year, people collect and analysts read,” she said. “But basically he started writing that to his sisters, Doris and Bertie, so that’s the way it reads. It’s so easy to understand. And his point is, it should be. If it’s not, run the other way.”
Ms. O’Brien took a circuitous route to her floral business. She first came to the Island in 1974, after graduating from Boston University. She worked at the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank. She left to attend law school at Northeastern University and returned to Martha’s Vineyard for a cooperative program. She then met and married Heikki Soikkeli, and practiced law for about 14 years at Reynolds, Rappaport and Kaplan, in Edgartown.
After the couple’s two sons were born, Ms. O’Brien worked about seven years as her husband’s office manager at Soikkeli and Company, which specializes in the design and construction of custom homes.
After they divorced, Ms. O’Brien worked at Morrice Florist in Vineyard Haven. That job inspired her to attend Rittner’s Floral Design School in Boston.
After doing floral arrangements for parties and weddings, she decided it would be too expensive to operate her own shop, so she started a website business, MVflorist.com, about a year ago.
In addition to handling FTD floral orders for Martha’s Vineyard, Ms. O’Brien provides florist services for events, ceremonies, and celebrations, sells houseplants and helium-filled balloons, makes weekly flower deliveries to hotels, businesses, and private homes, and rents floral display equipment.
In addition, Ms. O’Brien sells Fair Trade certified roses wholesale to Cronig’s and at a low cost to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital gift shop. The roses are grown in Ecuador, on farms that treat workers fairly and don’t use harmful chemicals, she explained.
What advice has been helpful to her as a small business owner? Ms. O’Brien said that Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger believe in being lifelong learners, being able to grow and change, and figuring out what your competitors aren’t doing.
She also follows Mr. Buffett’s advice to keep debt low, pick a product within her circle of competence, avoid technology that might change next year, and practice good management.
Ms. O’Brien’s business has grown so that she hired her first employee, Christina Agnew, this week, to help with wedding floral arrangements.
“So I went from lawyer to office manager to florist/investor, growing my stocks and growing my gardens,” Ms. O’Brien said. “A lot of women don’t do this, but investing is fun, and following your companies and being involved in your companies is fun.”
And in the meantime, she has Mr. Buffett’s note, now framed, to remind her of how fun it can be.