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Meet Warren Buffett's Wannabes: The 'Brown Buffett' and 'Oracle of San Quentin'

02/26/2015 | 07:47pm US/Eastern
By Anupreeta Das 

A Sri Lankan-born venture capitalist wants to be the "brown Buffett." Rapper and entrepreneur Jay Z called himself the "black Warren Buffett." There are Buffetts of Tanzania, India and Spain--and a convicted murderer known as the "Oracle of San Quentin" because of his reputation for stock-picking prowess inside the California prison.

Since 2005, the phrase "the Warren Buffett of" has appeared more than 450 times in news reports. There is a Warren Buffett of gambling, wine, Irish property, fishing, barges and jewelry merchandising. And no geographic area seems too small for a Buffett, including at least one apiece in Kentucky and Memphis, Tenn. (A female Mr. Buffett is hard to find, though.)

As the returns of the world's most famous investor have swelled, so has the number of people who lay claim to Warren Buffett's name.

The 84-year-old billionaire is chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., based in Omaha, Neb. Since taking control of the company in 1965, Mr. Buffett has produced an overall gain of 693,518% through the end of 2013, trouncing the S&P 500's increase of 9,841%.

Saturday's release of Mr. Buffett's latest annual letter to shareholders will mark 50 years since he wrote the first one, and more people than ever hang on his every word. Berkshire expects about 40,000 people at the annual meeting in Omaha, in May, its largest turnout ever.

"We're all Warren Buffett followers now," says Guy Spier, who paid $650,100 with another investor in a charity auction to have lunch with Mr. Buffett in 2008. Afterward, Mr. Spier wrote the book "The Education of a Value Investor" about his evolution from a greed-driven hedge-fund manager to a patient investor in the Buffett mold.

Mr. Buffett pays little attention to the buffet of Buffetts, ranging from acolytes of his buy-and-hold investment strategy to name droppers to people who somehow remind someone else of the billionaire.

"I'd like George Clooney to be the Warren Buffett of Hollywood," he says.

To some non-Buffett Buffetts, any comparison to the man who helped transform Berkshire from a struggling textile mill to a sprawling holding company with about 330,000 employees, is the highest form of flattery.

They would "like to be in the pantheon of great businessmen and icons," says Lawrence Cunningham, author of Berkshire-related books such as "How to Think Like Benjamin Graham and Invest Like Warren Buffett."

There are so many Buffett wannabes that a lawyer for Berkshire filed an application in 2006 to trademark his name. The effort was partly a response to websites, many of Chinese origin, that sprang up using Mr. Buffett's name to pitch their services, according to people familiar with the matter.

The lawyer later dropped the trademark push, deciding it was too much of a hassle.

Prem Watsa, the chairman and chief executive of Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., a Toronto company that owns insurers, restaurants and other businesses run in a decentralized, Berkshire-like style, is known as the "Warren Buffett of Canada."

"There's only one Buffett, and he's in Omaha," says Mr. Watsa, shying away from the comparison. Yet he built Fairfax, a word play on "fair and friendly acquisitions," into one of Canada's largest companies through acquisitions, just like Mr. Buffett, whose big takeovers include railroad BNSF in 2010.

Mr. Watsa, 64, says he first learned about Mr. Buffett's way of doing things in the mid-1980s when a friend explained the concept of "float" in insurance. Berkshire's chairman used float, or money collected from insurance customers as premiums that don't have to be paid out until later, to fund Berkshire's expansion.

Like his idol, Mr. Watsa writes a shareholder letter used as a pulpit to weigh in on global financial issues and lure investors to the annual meeting. Messrs. Buffett and Watsa each named their son after legendary value investor Benjamin Graham.

Activist investor Sardar Biglari is such a devotee of Mr. Buffett that the letter he sends shareholders of Biglari Holdings Inc. mirrors Mr. Buffett's in its font and tone, right down to the first-name reference for Biglari's vice chairman, as Mr. Buffett does for his partner at Berkshire, Charles Munger.

Guo Guangchang, called China's Mr. Buffett by media outlets, began studying Berkshire in 2006 after he read about Mr. Buffett's investing history. As head of conglomerate Fosun Group, Mr. Guo tries to follow Mr. Buffett's focus on fundamental asset values, rather than market fluctuations.

"At most, we are Warren's apprentice in China," Mr. Guo wrote in an email.

Last year, Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist and former Facebook Inc. executive, told a Silicon Valley audience that he wanted to be "the brown Buffett." The 38-year-old technology investor says he was outlining the vision for his fund, Social + Capital Partnership, when a fellow investor told him it was "starting to look like Berkshire."

Mr. Palihapitiya, a Sri Lankan-born American, soon began devouring Mr. Buffett's annual letters. "Now I've become obsessed with it," he says.

Jay Z included the billionaire's name in the 2003 song "Threat" as a rebuttal to critics who begrudge the rapper's success. "You lookin' at the black Warren Buffett," the song says. A representative of Jay Z couldn't be reached.

Some of Mr. Buffett's name-droppers don't practice what he preaches. Weizhen Tang, who called himself a "Chinese Warren Buffett" in a LinkedIn profile, was convicted in a Canadian court in 2013 of defrauding customers in a $50 million Ponzi scheme. He is appealing from a penitentiary near Toronto.

The "Oracle of San Quentin," otherwise known as Curtis Carroll, has called Mr. Buffett one of his idols because of Mr. Carroll's interest in picking stocks and tracking financial markets.

Hedge-fund activist William Ackman is a regular at Berkshire's annual meetings and says Mr. Buffett is a mentor. Mr. Ackman was inspired to take Pershing Square Holdings Ltd. public last year after studying Mr. Buffett's move to convert Berkshire into a holding company.

"He's been my professor, and you pay attention in all of the lectures," Mr. Ackman says.

David Benoit contributed to this article.

Write to Anupreeta Das at anupreeta.das@wsj.com

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