Billionaire Charlie Munger, real estate lawyer and investor, dies at 99

Sidekick to Warren Buffet worked as a developer and dabbled in architecture

Charlie Munger Dies at 99
Charlie Munger (Getty)

Billionaire Charlie Munger, a real estate attorney who became a nearly 60-year sidekick to Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, has died. He was 99.

The Los Angeles investor passed away Tuesday at an unidentified California hospital, shy of his 100th birthday on New Year’s Day, CNBC reported. 

“Berkshire Hathaway could not have been built to its present status without Charlie’s inspiration, wisdom and participation,” Buffett said in a statement.

In addition to serving as Berkshire vice chairman, Munger was a real estate attorney, chairman and publisher of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a member of the Costco board, a philanthropist and amateur architect.

Munger was vice chairman of Berkshire and one of its biggest shareholders, with stock valued at about $2.2 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. His overall net worth was about $2.6 billion, according to Forbes.

Buffett credited Munger with broadening his investment strategy from favoring troubled companies at low prices in hopes of getting a profit to focusing on higher-quality but underpriced companies. 

The Nebraska native was the right hand to fellow Nebraskan Buffett, who said he never made a major investing decision without consulting Munger. Together, they grew Berkshire Hathaway into a global powerhouse.

Berkshire, with more than $1 trillion in assets, owns such companies as See’s Candies, insurance company Geico, the BNSF railroad, Fruit of the Loom and Dairy Queen. The company owns residential brokerage Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices.

Charles Thomas Munger was born on Jan. 1, 1924, in Omaha to Al and Florence Munger. His father was a lawyer; his grandfather had been a federal judge.

Without having finished college, Munger graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1948, then moved to California to practice real estate law.  

He soon linked up with Franklin Otis Booth, a member of the founding family of the Los Angeles Times, to develop real estate. 

Among their early developments was a lucrative condo project on Booth’s grandfather’s property in Pasadena. 

“I had five real estate projects,” Munger told Dean Scott Derue of the Michigan Ross Business School. “I did both side by side for a few years, and in a very few years, I had $3 million [to] $4 million.”

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In 1978, he became vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. A melding of the minds with Buffett focused on value investing, in which stocks are picked because their price appears to be undervalued based on the company’s long-term fundamentals.

“All intelligent investing is value investing — acquiring more than you are paying for,” Munger once said. “You must value the business in order to value the stock.”

He had a keen eye for architecture, but a not-so-keen eye toward design, according to critics.

Munger donated hundreds of millions of dollars to top-tier schools, including the University of Michigan, Stanford University and Harvard Law School, often requiring them to accept his building designs, even though he was not formally trained as an architect.

During the construction of a science center at Los Angeles’ Harvard-Westlake prep school, where Munger had been a board member for decades, he ensured that the girls’ bathrooms were larger than the boys’.

“Any time you go to a football game or a function there’s a huge line outside the women’s bathroom. Who doesn’t know that they pee in a different way than the men?” Munger told The Wall Street Journal in 2019. “What kind of idiot would make the men’s bathroom and the women’s bathroom the same size? The answer is, a normal architect!”

He also tried to create a massive dormitory, dubbed Dormzilla, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But after nearly two years of controversy, the school scrapped plans for the controversial dormitory funded and designed by the homespun billionaire. The $1.5 billion dorm by the sea had few windows, leading critics to compare it to a jail, a Soviet hotel complex or worse. 

“It’s all horseshit,” Munger told The Real Deal. “It’s ridiculous.”

The real estate attorney, who founded Los Angeles-based law firm Munger Tolles & Olson after launching his career in real estate, also appeared to sour on real estate.

“A lot of real estate isn’t so good any more,” Munger told the Financial Times in April. “We have a lot of troubled office buildings, a lot of troubled shopping centers, a lot of troubled other properties.

“There’s a lot of agony out there.” 

Munger owned an estate in Pasadena and a relatively modest home in Hancock Park in Los Angeles. In 2021, he bought a 4,700-square-foot home in the gated Sea Meadow community he’d helped develop three decades ago in Montecito for $11 million.

— Dana Bartholomew

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