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A Warren Buffett Protégée Strikes Out on Her Own

Tracy Britt Cool always knew she wanted to work in business. So, not unlike the star of a high school musical asking Steven Spielberg for a part, she figured she should start at the top.

At 24, fresh out of business school with barely any formal work experience, Ms. Britt Cool mailed a letter to Warren E. Buffett asking the Oracle of Omaha if she could work for him. Soon, his office address became hers, too.

Ms. Britt Cool joined Mr. Buffett’s conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, in the fall of 2009 as financial assistant to the chairman — a title that Mr. Buffett, the chief executive and chairman of Berkshire, made up. She became one of his top lieutenants along with the Berkshire investment managers Todd Combs and Ted Weschler — Mr. Buffett called them “the three T’s” — and one of the company’s few senior female executives.

In early 2020, not long after people began to include Ms. Britt Cool on a short list of potential successors to Mr. Buffett, she left. The move surprised many because Berkshire executives rarely leave.

Now, Ms. Britt Cool, 37, is parlaying her nearly unparalleled access to the mind and methods of one of the world’s most renowned investors to build her own investment firm, Kanbrick. In doing so, she is perhaps the most direct inheritor of a style of investing that Mr. Buffett perfected over many decades and distilled into pithy principles.

Among them: Find companies that have “moats,” or defensible business models. Don’t go outside your “circle of competence,” meaning businesses you don’t understand. And always buy stocks that have a “margin of safety” between what you’re paying for the asset and its intrinsic value.

Ms. Britt Cool is not shy about highlighting her Berkshire experience, although she said her challenge was to acknowledge that pedigree without leaning too obviously on the Buffett connection. But she is clear about what she is not doing.

“I’m not building a Berkshire 2.0,” she said. “I’m building something different using some of the principles.”

She is also quick to establish that Kanbrick is not a traditional private equity firm that buys companies only to sell them a few years later, usually after stripping out costs. Neither is Kanbrick championing cryptocurrencies or risky start-ups in ways that promise to remake the investing world. Similar to Berkshire, the firm wants to buy old-school businesses that are easy to understand and hold them for the long term.

Ms. Britt Cool founded Kanbrick in 2020 with Brian Humphrey, a former executive at one of Berkshire’s companies. Its name is a portmanteau of “Kansas,” where both founders are from, and “brick,” a nod to their notion that great businesses are built brick by brick.

“I don’t ever want Warren to feel we’re trying to ride on Warren’s coattails,” Ms. Britt Cool said in an interview at the offices of Kanbrick in Bucktown, a trendy Chicago neighborhood dotted with boutique hotels and hip cafes serving $6 oat lattes. The firm employs seven people, but three were working remotely that day.

The vibe felt very much like what it was: a start-up.

Kanbrick has done only two deals so far, which Ms. Britt Cool said was the right pace for the firm. The universe of potential acquisition targets, though, is large. Mr. Humphrey said roughly 30,000 businesses in the United States — many of them owned by their founders or families — had annual operating profits between $10 million and $50 million. Those companies may have appealed to Mr. Buffett in the 1980s, when Berkshire was far smaller, but wouldn’t interest the $600 billion colossus it is today.

Ms. Britt Cool won’t divulge how much capital the firm has to invest, but the pool contains funds from her, Mr. Humphrey and a group of investors. She declined to say if Mr. Buffett had invested.

Kanbrick is no Berkshire copycat, Ms. Britt Cool insisted several times. For instance, she has discarded her mentor’s belief that it’s enough to spot companies with good managers and let them run the show with minimal interference. She and Mr. Humphrey plan to be deeply involved with the companies they buy.

The pair did borrow one tradition of Mr. Buffett’s — his annual letter to Berkshire shareholders. His eagerly awaited missives contain thoughts on investing and updates on Berkshire businesses, delivered in an engaging, often humorous style.

Ms. Britt Cool and Mr. Humphrey went for a similar tone in their 2022 letter. “While auctions work great for cattle, we seek to work with owners who view their business as their baby and thus desire a long-term home and partner,” they wrote.

Mr. Buffett declined to comment on Ms. Britt Cool. His assistant, Debbie Bosanek, said the investor, who is 91, was turning down most interview requests. In the past, Mr. Buffett showered his protégée with praise.

“She thinks like I would,” he told his hometown paper, The Omaha World-Herald, in 2014.

Ms. Britt Cool got early experience while working in her family’s business in Manhattan, Kan.
Shawn Brackbill for The New York Times

When Ms. Britt Cool was around 11, she discovered the laws of supply and demand at her family’s farm stand in Manhattan, Kan. Early in the season, when asparagus was scarce, customers grabbed it at $2 a bunch. In late spring, as the stalks became plentiful, she noticed that they sold more quickly if she dropped the price by 50 cents.

At 13, she recruited her fellow eighth grader Maggie Freeman to work for her at the farm stand, offering $8 an hour — “way more than I could ever make babysitting,” Ms. Freeman recalled recently.

Nearly every Wednesday after school, Ms. Freeman said, she would load and unload produce from the Britts’ truck and arrange it at the farm stand under Ms. Britt Cool’s direction. The produce came from the family’s 200-acre farm, where Ms. Britt Cool’s father, a third-generation farmer, grew more than 40 kinds of vegetables and fruit, from rhubarb to sweet corn.

“She was fully in charge when we were in eighth grade and my parents were barely giving me an allowance,” said Ms. Freeman, who works as a tutor in Phoenix. “I was so amazed at the responsibility she had.”

Ms. Britt Cool discovered early on that she had a “mind for math,” because she could calculate the taxes on a sale at the family’s farm store without a calculator. Reaching the cash register as a 6-year-old was harder — until someone placed an upturned bucket for her to stand on.

By 15, Ms. Britt Cool was president of the local farmers’ market, collecting dues from dozens of vendors. She also recruited several of her friends from high school to work at the market, where she increased the farm stand’s weekly sales about fivefold to $2,500. With her savings, she bought a red Ford Mustang convertible, which she held on to until she moved to Omaha.

“I fell in love with building businesses at the farm,” Ms. Britt Cool said.

On May 19, 2003, The Manhattan Mercury ran a front-page article about Ms. Britt Cool — dressed in a lilac shirt with eye shadow to match, holding a bunch of asparagus. “Harvard bound,” the headline read, noting that the local standout had cobbled together scholarships and aid to attend the Ivy League university, where she majored in economics.

Elizabeth Knopf, who met Ms. Britt Cool during her freshman year through a Harvard organization for undergraduate women interested in business, called her “very driven, very aware of what she wanted.”

Once, Ms. Knopf, along with some friends, visited the Britt farm and saw her classmate’s drive in action. Ms. Knopf recalled how, though technically on vacation, she was woken up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday so they could arrange the produce for the farm stand.

Ms. Britt Cool was on such a tear to get her business education that she entered Harvard Business School at 22, right after college.

Mohit Bathija, an entrepreneur in Chicago, remembers his business school classmate as unassuming — and not someone he would have pegged as having the confidence to start her career by sending an unsolicited letter to one of the world’s most famous investors.

“If you would have scanned through 900 people and said pick out Warren Buffett’s protégée, never would I have said Tracy Britt would be that person,” Mr. Bathija said. “Normally, you’d expect someone with more investing experience.”

Mr. Bathija, who has since gotten to know Ms. Britt Cool better, said he often used her as an example when talking to younger entrepreneurs: “You never know. Why not take that chance, write to that person? What’s the worst that can happen?”

Ms. Britt Cool wasn’t a complete stranger when she asked Mr. Buffett in 2009 if she could spend a summer working for him. She had met him three times while a student, including on trips arranged by Smart Woman Securities, an investing group for women she had founded at Harvard. When he called her in response to the note to say she should look him up if she found herself in Omaha, Ms. Britt Cool didn’t hesitate.

“What do you take to a meeting with a billionaire?” Ms. Britt Cool wondered as she prepared to stop by Mr. Buffett’s office. In the end, she decided on some corn and tomatoes from the farm as a nod to their shared Midwestern roots.

Ms. Britt Cool stood out at Berkshire’s quiet, modestly furnished headquarters in midtown Omaha, where only a handful of — mostly male — executives sat. As a blond, blue-eyed woman of 25, she worried about how she might come across. Her solution was to always be put together, wearing a suit when the occasion called for it, and “do the work, come prepared, read up.”

“The culture at Berkshire is very difficult for young people,” said Robert Miles, who has written several books about the firm. “It’s not a culture of coddling you or training you,” he said. “But she got a first hand look at what Berkshire does.”

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Ms. Britt Cool’s Berkshire years had a make-it-up-as-you-go-along quality that provided fertile training. Over the decades, Mr. Buffett bought dozens of small to medium-size companies, including Benjamin Moore, Dairy Queen and the running-shoe company Brooks. He also bought NetJets, which sells ownership shares in private jets. But as Berkshire grew, with gigantic insurance operations and a railroad, some of these companies became too small to merit Mr. Buffett’s attention.

That gave Ms. Britt Cool a chance to learn about business operations in real life. With Mr. Buffett’s blessing, she traveled to the offices of various Berkshire subsidiaries, meeting with their chief executives and using what she heard to spur connections between different executives.

In 2014, shortly after she turned 30 and was pregnant with her first child, Ms. Britt Cool became the chief executive of Pampered Chef. The company’s direct-sale model — a version of a classic Tupperware party — meant that people gathered socially to possibly buy a $30 waffle pan or food chopper. Berkshire had bought the Chicago company in 2002, and revenue and profit were flagging. Customers had moved online, but Pampered Chef’s business had not, so only about a tenth of its sales were digital.

Her immediate mission, to get “the right people in the right roles within the right culture,” took two years, including installing Mr. Humphrey as chief financial officer. By the time Ms. Britt Cool left in 2019, she said, digital sales were above 50 percent, including through the company’s network of sellers.

In a statement, Doris Christopher, the founder of Pampered Chef, called Ms. Britt Cool a “thoughtful and decisive leader” with clear vision.

Lawrence A. Cunningham, an emeritus business law professor at George Washington University, said, “Tracy did a good job helping with succession at various Berkshire subsidiaries, especially NetJets, and a great job pinch-hitting when turning around Pampered Chef.” She also shared Mr. Buffett’s “folksy common sense,” he said.

Mr. Buffett called her a “fireman”in a 2020 interview with The Wall Street Journal. “Anything I’ve assigned her, she’s done a first-class job on.”

Ms. Britt Cool occasionally drove him around town, and the two enjoyed weekly dinners at Piccolo Pete’s, an Italian steakhouse that was one of the billionaire’s go-to spots in Omaha.

“He liked it when people didn’t put him on a pedestal,” she said.

In 2013, when Ms. Britt Cool married Scott Cool, a corporate lawyer, Mr. Buffett walked her down the aisle, knowing that she had lost her father. When she told him in late 2019 that she planned to start her own firm, Mr. Buffett was supportive. He told her, Ms. Britt Cool said, that it reminded him of when he parted ways with his mentor Benjamin Graham — the famed value investor — in the 1950s to pursue his own career.

Drew Van Pelt, a former chief executive of Larson-Juhl, a picture frame maker owned by Berkshire, said Ms. Britt Cool had cleverly positioned Kanbrick as the antithesis of private equity — just as Mr. Buffett did with Berkshire.

“The No. 1 reason people don’t want to sell to P.E. is: Who are these jerks?” said Mr. Van Pelt, a business school classmate of Ms. Britt Cool’s whom she recruited to Larson-Juhl. “That’s very much the opposite of her style.”

In 2020, the firm bought a majority stake in Thirty-One Gifts, a company that sells bags and housewares through a network of sales consultants. Cindy Monroe, the company’s founder, had followed the turnaround engineered by Ms. Britt Cool at Pampered Chef and was hoping for something similar.

In June, Kanbrick struck its second deal, buying a majority stake in Marine Concepts, which patented a system that simplifies the process of covering boats.

Ms. Britt Cool, a firm believer in the power of relationships, is also building connections — and perhaps a pipeline of future acquisition targets — with entrepreneurs by hosting training programs and events. In 2020, her firm launched an accelerator program called Build With Kanbrick, inviting leaders of midsize companies to apply for a three-month course on expanding their businesses.

Davis Smith, the chief executive of Cotopaxi, an outdoor clothing retailer, attended the course last year after one of his investors mentioned it. He called it a “mini business school for C.E.O.s.” The program’s focus on the nitty-gritty of moving beyond the start-up stage was valuable, he said, especially because Ms. Britt Cool shared her experience running Pampered Chef.

During the pandemic, Ms. Britt Cool and her husband — whom she met in the elevator of her residential building in Omaha — moved to Nashville with their three children, ages 7, 4 and 2. She was able to balance the demands of a young family and a new firm, she said, because Mr. Cool stepped into the role of primary parent.

“He spends a lot of time with our kids, which gives me flexibility,” she said.

Ms. Britt Cool doesn’t think success is inevitable, but she refuses to entertain the notion of falling short. Growing up on a farm, she said, forced her to accept hardship and adversity.

“I try to stay humble, to learn and grow,” she said by phone recently. “If I do those things, there won’t be failure.”

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