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The Book of Buffett

Tampa businessman Bob Miles is as astonished as anyone at how some innocent postings on an Internet message board changed his life:

Getting invited to billionaire Warren Buffett's surprise 70th birthday party. Trading e-mails with GE icon Jack Welch. Being paid to speak at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. And holding autograph sessions for a new book hitting bookstores around the country this month.

"It's kind of a surreal experience," Miles said. "I kind of backed into this whole thing."

It started three years ago with an online posting _ actually, 101 online postings.

At the time, Miles ran his own business booking trade shows and conventions, primarily in the Midwest. But his passion was investing, and his hero was Buffet, who had grown into a legend by investing in undervalued, often unglamourous, stocks that paid off big.

Using the online moniker of "SimpleInvestor," Miles began logging on to the Motley Fool Web site (www.fool.com) and participating in online discussions on the message board for those interested in Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett's holding company. One day, SimpleInvestor, a.k.a. Miles, wrote that he could name 101 reasons to own Berkshire stock. And he began to list them _ one a day over the next 3{ months.

Encouraged by requests for a print copy of "101 Reasons to Own the World's Greatest Investment," Miles put his postings in a book format and took copies with him to Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting in Omaha. His big break came when he set up shop at an Omaha Dairy Queen (one of the many businesses owned by Berkshire Hathaway) the Friday night before the annual meeting.

Buffett showed up at the Dairy Queen unannounced and posed for photos with the fledgling author.

A publisher from New York was in the Dairy Queen entourage and quickly signed Miles to a two-book deal: a hardcover reprint of the 101 reasons and then a book about Buffett's top managers.

The second book, The Warren Buffett CEO, is arriving in Tampa Bay area bookstores this month. In it, Miles offers insights culled from conversations with chief executives of companies partly or wholly owned by Berkshire Hathaway: Geico Insurance's Tony Nicely, Chuck Huggins of See's Candies, Don Graham of the Washington Post, Jeff Comment of Helzberg Diamonds and more than a dozen others.

The 400-page treatise has a common theme: Buffett leaves the management of his acquired companies in place because that's one of the reasons he bought the businesses in the first place.

"The biggest story is Buffett goes out and buys these CEOs and he's never lost one of them" to a competitor, Miles said. "There's never a layoff and there's never any synergy where they ask one of the (acquired) companies to buy another one of them."

Buffett, 72, has parlayed decades of savvy investing into an eclectic empire that includes such businesses as Benjamin Moore Paints and, his latest acquisition, Fruit of the Loom. He is the biggest outside investor in companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and American Express Co.

During the dot-com bubble, Buffett was roundly criticized because his aversion to high-tech stocks led to Berkshire Hathaway underperforming the market. Berkshire rebounded when the dot-com bubble burst.

However in its most recent earnings report, released Friday, Berkshire said it lost $679-million, or $445 a share. That compares with net income of $797-million, or $523 a share, in the third quarter a year ago.

Berkshire cited a $2.28-billion charge for pretax insurance losses on Sept. 11, including $1.7-billion in losses at General Re and $575-million at Berkshire Hathaway's Reinsurance Group. Still, observers think Berkshire is well positioned for the long run when reinsurance companies such as General Re (which Berkshire Hathaway bought in 1998) start to benefit from higher insurance prices and tighter coverage terms.

There are dozens of Buffet books on bookstore shelves, but not many of the authors get the tacit approval of The Big B.

Miles said Buffett neither forbade nor encouraged his army of CEOs from talking with him. Many did, including the one Miles tags in his book as Buffett's likely successor: Rich Santulli, founder and CEO of Executive Jet Aviation. The fastest-growing subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway allows executives from different companies to share corporate jets.

Miles snagged Buffett for an interview and the famed investor later called him for a 45-minute chat on the phone. Miles attended Buffett's birthday party and went to Las Vegas to meet with Berkshire Hathaway execs.

Buffett declined an interview for this report. "But he said he does think that Bob Miles did a very good job on the (new) book," said Debbie Bosanek, Buffett's personal assistant.

Miles, 46, has the air of a personable but unassuming middle-aged businessman. He's neither a professional investor nor a professional author, which is why he thinks Buffett responded so positively to him.

"I'm just a passionate shareholder that sat down and wrote a book and caught the eye of the only guy to become a billionaire by investing in the stock market," he added.

Buffett knew about Miles before the admirer-turned-author realized it. According to Miles, Buffett read the 101 reasons on the Motley Fool message board before they were turned into a book.

Among Buffett insights Miles garnered:

+ The famed investor plays bridge online at okbridge.com under the pseudonym T-bone. He's a fairly good bridge player, according to Buffett's online partner.

+ Buffett could fall back on another career if his investing gig doesn't work out. "He could be a stand-up comic," Miles said. "We were at lunch and with his stream of consciousness (jokes), he just had me on the floor."

Miles won't disclose how much he's made so far. But in one indication that he struck a lucrative nerve, the first book is now being translated into Japanese.

Miles' publisher, John Wiley & Sons, is lining up book signings, including one Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble at 213 Dale Mabry Highway N in Tampa and another Wednesday at Borders at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg.

_ Information from Bloomberg News and the Associated Press was used in this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at harringtonsptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

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