Buffett the cartoon gets real with kids

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Money-wise character brings folksy manner, credibility

March 09, 2006|By RICHARD VERRIER | RICHARD VERRIER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- The Oracle of Omaha is Tinseltown's newest animated hero.

But, at least in Warren E. Buffett's crystal ball, he still has no future here.

"I can't afford to go Hollywood," he said. "There's no money in this stuff."

If anyone knows the value of a dollar, it's a guy with 40 billion of them. Which is why the world's second-richest individual decided to become a cartoon character to teach children financial responsibility.

Working pro bono, Buffett will play himself in a 13-part DVD series, The Secret Millionaire's Club, produced by DIC Entertainment Corp. of Burbank, Calif. The 75-year-old grandfather provides the voice for an animated version of himself who offers his wisdom with the kind of down-home delivery that has made Buffett a folk hero to investors.

"An educational approach to money and investing struck me as a very good idea," Buffett said in an interview. "People do form behavior habits very young on matters of money. I get calls every day from people who are in a financial hole."

In the series, Buffett offers advice to a group of children who want to raise money to ward off an unscrupulous developer aiming to shut down a youth center in Buffett's hometown of Omaha, Neb.

To raise money for the center, the children auction some valuable baseball memorabilia they discover in the attic of the club. After paying off the club's mortgage, they turn to Buffett for advice on what companies they should invest in.

Not surprisingly the stories, aimed at children 8 to 12, reflect many of Buffett's own investment preferences. The kids invest in an ice cream franchise and a candy store. Buffett's holding company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., owns International Dairy Queen Inc. and See's Candies Inc.

His skepticism toward risky technology stocks shows up in another episode, when kids pull the plug on investing in a company fraudulently claiming to have invented a self-charging battery.

The series also teaches basic principles of managing money, especially avoiding debt, a pet subject of Buffett's.

"The American public is in love with credit cards," he said.

DIC Chief Executive Officer Andy Heyward approached Buffett about the project about six months ago.

"Our company is focused on education programs for children, and we felt this is an area that has not been addressed," he said. "When you talk about teaching kids financial literacy, he's the gold standard. He brings a credibility that doesn't exist anywhere else."

Buffett has known Heyward since the early 1990s, when DIC was a unit of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., in which Berkshire Hathaway was a large investor. Heyward led a buyout of DIC after Capital Cities/ABC was sold in 1996 to Walt Disney Co.

Buffett asked Heyward to assist one of his charities, a children's theater in Omaha. Heyward not only helped develop stories for the theater, but he also began using local actors to record voices for his company's cartoon characters, which include Trollz, Inspector Gadget and Strawberry Shortcake.

Buffett soon tapped Heyward to produce humorous cartoons for Berkshire Hathaway's annual meetings. In last year's show, a takeoff on The Wizard of Oz, Buffett played Dorothy while Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates - his good friend and the only person on Earth richer than Buffett - played the Scarecrow.

Heyward also gave Buffett a small part as James Madison in the DIC series Liberty's Kids, which was shown on PBS.

The Secret Millionaire's Club will begin production this month, with Buffett and other characters recording their voices in Omaha. DIC is negotiating with a home video distributor for the series, which will cost about $4 million to make and premieres this fall, Heyward said. One of the two authors of the series is a University of Connecticut finance professor who is an expert on Buffett's "value investing" approach.

Although the project was led by Heyward, Buffett made some key suggestions, including nixing one story idea that had the children winning money in a lottery.

"The last thing in the world I want to do," Buffett said, "is to encourage kids to play the lottery."

Richard Verrier writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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