Warren Buffett: The people’s Businessperson of the Year
By Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter
FORTUNE — In a battle for business dominance, would you side with a colossal tech titan or a time-tested sage?
Amazon’s (AMZN) Jeff Bezos and Berkshire Hathaway’s (BRKA) Warren Buffett were the last two leaders standing after a little over two days of voting for Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year’s reader’s choice award, a March Madness-style online contest in which Fortune’s staff foisted some of the burden of choosing 2011’s best in business on all of you, our readers.
You chose Buffett.
Your votes made for some interesting match-ups throughout the contest. For instance, a final four face-off pitted Amazon’s Bezos against an insurgent Christine Day (who ousted Google’s Larry Page from the race in Round 3), the CEO of Lululemon (LULU), a clothing store chain that sells high quality (and high-priced) women’s athletic wear. To be sure, there is a fast-growing market for good-looking spandex attire, and Lululemon’s stock price has increased by over 60%, year-to-date.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is no stranger to growth either, which is particularly impressive given the online retailer’s size: Amazon was among Fortune’s fastest-growing companies this year and it is No. 78 on the Fortune 500. While recent spending on warehouses and technology has cut into its profits, the online retailer achieved a significant milestone this past May: for the first time, it sold more electronic than print books, certainly a victory for the e-commerce pioneer.
Amazon released its widely anticipated Kindle Fire tablet this week in the United States. So far, the device has received mixed reviews from techies, but it’s bound to steal market share from Apple’s (AAPL) dominant iPad. The Fire costs $199, less than half the price of the cheapest comparable Apple tablet.
Of course, it’s hard to compete with Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, who has held business icon status for decades.
Not that the two executives are actually in competition. In fact, they’re friends. Back in 1999, Bezos heard Buffett speak at Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley summit about how many investors lost money on the automotive and aviation industries, both over-hyped sectors at one point. Bezos saw the parallel in the dot-com world and used Buffett’s words as motivation to work harder. “We still have the opportunity to be a footnote in the e-commerce industry,” Bezos told Fortune.
Bezos’ efforts have paid off. “I probably would have voted for him,” Buffett told Fortune.
Bezos has Buffett’s confidence in part because he is so good at one of the most simple and important parts of smart business: ensuring that customers enjoy their experience with the company. “You can’t do anything about what’s happening in Europe, but you can do something about what your customers feel,” Buffett says, a piece of advice he frequently offers to business students.
Buffett has recently made big investments in Bezos’ tech territory, an industry that he has mostly avoided. This past week, Berkshire Hathaway disclosed that it had made a $10.7 billion purchase of 64 million shares of IBM (IBM), and that it has also made smaller investments in Intel (INTC) and DirecTV (DTV).
Buffett has been on a bit of a stock-buying spree this year. In fact, he spent $20 billion on stock purchases during the three months ending in September 30, which happened to be the worst quarter in U.S. stock history, amid uncertainty over European debt and the aftermath of the U.S. credit downgrade.
Many took those investments as a sign that the economy was set to improve, which is something that Buffett believes.
“I got out of school in 1951,” Buffet says. “In that time, I remember hearing all these people saying we’re going to run into recessions, and I’ve been hearing it ever since. But this country works. It doesn’t work for everybody as well as it should, but compared to anything else the world has ever seen, it’s astounding.”
When asked what could have set him apart as a businessperson this year, after a lifetime of sound investments, Buffett says that the publicity surrounding his opinion on the U.S. tax situation could have played a part. He published an op-ed in the New York Times this summer arguing that America’s super-wealthy should be paying a higher percentage of their income in federal taxes than they do now. After the piece ran, the Obama Administration named its own tax proposal — slightly different from the one that Buffett outlined — after the billionaire.
And that is a level of street cred that even the most prominent online retail guru cannot challenge. Bezos may be on fire, but the Oracle wins in the end.