By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 11, 2007 at 5:40 AM
NEW YORK -- It’s been a couple years since Peter and Jennifer Buffett left Milwaukee for Manhattan. With family still on the East Side and the couple still involved in a number of projects here, you shouldn’t be surprised to see them strolling Downer Avenue occasionally.

Buffett, of course, is a son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and is no stranger to OnMilwaukee.com readers, but we wanted to catch up with him to find out what’s happening with his well-funded foundation and more.

A second installment of this interview, which took place in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood in May, will appear later in the week. In that interview, Buffett talks about his music, Radio Milwaukee and more.

OMC: Would you describe yourself as a Milwaukeean?

PB: Well, when people ask where I’m from, I usually say the Midwest, because that covers both homes, in a way. Obviously I was born in Omaha, but when people say, “Where do you come from,” we’ll say Milwaukee. I mean Jennifer was certainly born in Milwaukee, and that’s where I spent a big chunk of my adult life, so we usually say we came here from Milwaukee. That’s usually how it’s referenced is we’re from Milwaukee, yeah.

OMC: Other than the Starbucks on Downer, what do you miss most about the city?

PB: Um, well, I’d say the neighborhood in general.

OMC: Were you guys living on the East Side?

PB: Yeah, we lived on Stowell between Newberry and Locust, and so to be able to sit out on the front porch and watch the leaves change and all that, that’s probably what I miss most.

OMC: What’s your living situation like here? Are you in an apartment building?

PB: Yeah, we’re in an apartment building. We’re renting, and we’re on the 30th floor, of what’s called the sliver tower -- which means it’s a skinny, skinny building. There’s only two apartments per floor, which is kind of cool.  It’s nice that way.

OMC: Do you have a nice view then, presumably?

PB: We have a great view. You can see planes landing at JFK. I mean, we see all the way east and south. A tremendous view.

OMC: But not like the front porch.

PB: Exactly. The nice thing that’s the same is that we walk everywhere, or we take the subway. So that’s nice, but the difference is again, that when you’re walking in Milwaukee … we walked, when we were there, from where Jen’s cousin lives on Kenwood and Lake, right on the corner, kind of a major corner there, but she’s tucked back a little bit, over to the Starbucks on Downer, and just smelling the air, and hearing the sounds, and seeing … it was amazing.

OMC: I’m struck again, coming back to New York, by how, sort of European, maybe, but how very not Midwestern it is in that everybody relies on public transport. That so goes against what the situation is like in Milwaukee. Do you ever see that changing?

PB: Well, only with the price of oil. But it is so accessible here.

OMC: Even that seems like it hasn’t done it.

PB: I know, so far, it hasn’t done a thing. Maybe with as much development as going on Downtown. Because it really is the density that creates services, and it may be that if Downtown gets dense enough, some sort of light rail will finally take hold.

OMC: Right. It still seems to me that it’s that block of people are just determined to block it no matter what.

PB: It’s amazing. I took the subway down here. I mean, it’s incredible.

OMC: You buy your Metro card, and it’s easy.

PB: Right, our neighborhood here is first and foremost about three square blocks around the apartment, because you have everything -- laundry and drugstore, and everything’s really close, but then we’re also a 10-minute subway ride or from anywhere, and that’s a block away. So it really makes everything so accessible, it’s great.

OMC: Do you get back to Milwaukee much?

PB: We were just back. My wife Jennifer’s family is all from there. Jennifer grew up there, so we have personal ties forever -- her mom, dad, her brother, her twin brother -- so, there’s certainly a personal connection there that will also be there. Also, even though I grew up in Omaha, I feel like I really grew up in Milwaukee.

OMC: How long were you there?

PB: Fifteen years. So I was almost there as long as Omaha. I lived there for 18 years until I went off to school. And even though when you’re a kid, there’s a certain element of development. When you’re an adult … I moved to Milwaukee when I was 31 … so from 31 to 46, I was there, and I grew up a whole lot more between 31 and 46 in terms of things I learned about myself, my life, and everything else. So to me, it really feels like home, so I love going back. I can’t imagine ever losing the feeling of Milwaukee feeling like home.

OMC: Does being outside of Milwaukee give you a different sort of perspective on the city? I know it’s only been about two years, but do you feel like it’s different when you go back?

PB: Well, yeah, sort of. Although, you know, I always felt so strongly that it was so full of potential, and had realized a lot of it, but a lot of the people of Milwaukee didn’t necessarily know it. There’s that classic thing about Milwaukee …

OMC: That’s the Milwaukee disease.

PB: Yeah, exactly. And I think it does live, certainly, to some extent, and so coming at Milwaukee from an outside situation, you know, from San Francisco, and loving it then, and realizing that there was this sort of Milwaukee disease, I don’t have so much of a different feeling when I’m gone, because I recognized it the whole time being there, and realized this is a great place, but it is incredible to go back and see the development, the continuing development.

OMC: It seems like it’s changing quickly.

PB: Yeah, it really does … it’s quite noticeable, what’s going up and what’s changing, and it’s great. It’s great to see.

OMC: It sounds like you are adjusting to New York life.

PB: We are. I tell everybody that it’s easier to live here than to visit, because you visit here and you just think, “Oh my God, how can anybody live here?” I mean, that’s what I used to think. There’s so much going on, and your time is so compressed, but when you live here, again, you realize that every thing’s a couple blocks away, and what isn’t a couple of blocks away is phenomenal in terms of what you have access to. So it was very easy to adapt, actually. Except we really do, and especially Jennifer, really misses the green, birds, nature.

OMC: Are you guys planning to stay?

PB: We’ll stay here for a while, for sure. I don’t know how long we’ll be here, but we’ll be here a while. It’s a good time for us to be here, and we recognize that, and really love that part of it.

OMC: When you’re here, do you run into Milwaukeeans a lot? Today, a the Starbucks on 87th and Lexington, I ran into someone I know from South Milwaukee. It’s not the first time I’ve been in New York and ran into Milwaukee people.

PB: I mean, I’ve done it right here… I ran into some Milwaukee people just a few blocks away. It was a while ago, but it does happen occasionally. Jennifer’s done it too where she’s walking down the street and runs into a couple of friends, so yes, it does happen. Which is really bizarre, when it does.

OMC: What’s the foundation’s focus?

PB: We’re still developing our mission areas. What happened was that we were doing a lot in Milwaukee and doing some things nationally, and the foundation was much smaller, and then my dad did this thing, that I call “the big bang.”

OMC: Which everybody talks about…

PB: Right. Which was a year ago, so we suddenly got to be much bigger.

OMC: And that, for the readers who don’t know, is that your father, Warren Buffett, gave each of the children …

PB: He gave each of the children a billion dollar foundation, individually.

OMC: Not a billion dollars to you the children.

PB: No, no, definitely not! Key distinction, most definitely!

OMC: He didn’t hand you a billion dollars.

PB: Not at all. I take no salary from the foundation. We didn’t get the money for sure. So, it’s money to give away. Then he gave a huge amount, $31 billion, to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

OMC: Right, which is the other thing everybody talks about.

PB: Yep. So, it was an amazing thing that he did, but it’s a huge responsibility, obviously. So, first of all, we hired two people that we knew very well and trusted implicitly to be our executive director and a woman, Divinia Troughton, to be our head of Research and Grants. So Bob Dandrew came on as executive director, and he’s really experienced in the philanthropic world, and said we’ve got to have a strategic plan here. We have to know how we’re going to do it. We can’t hire anyone until we know how we want to operate. Very important thinking before we just start throwing money out the door.

OMC: Is he a Milwaukee guy, or is he a New Yorker?

PB: He’s a New York guy. He was my program officer for “Spirit: The Seventh Fire.” He actually oversaw that show and that program for the Rudolph Steiner Foundation. So we really did know him quite well and worked closely with him. So, we have for the last year, and we’re almost done, really, we’ve been talking to a lot of people, listening to a lot of people, learning a ton about what’s going on out in the world, and how we want to operate and what we want to focus on. We know we have two very broad areas and of course the radio station came up before all of this happened, but it fits very nicely in our mission. One of them, and these are, like I said, very broad at this point.

Over the coming months, we’re really going to drill down into what the specifics are. One of them is community building -- how to bring people together over various issues or around certain things and the station is a perfect example of that. You wouldn’t necessarily think, “How could we potentially improve race relations, education -- a variety of issues in the community? Well, let’s start a radio station. And let’s have it be focused on music.” Well, that doesn’t seem to make sense until you start to see, hopefully in the next year or so, how the station starts to address local issues and bring them up, but not in a typical talk radio thing.

So, we’re trying to find various ways of bringing that sort of thinking into the kind of work we do. Again, right now, very broad, kind up here stuff, and then we’ll zero in how we do it.

OMC: So at the moment, the foundation is not really functioning yet as a foundation, more as planning for a future as a functioning foundation?

PB: Well, it’s definitely planning for the future, but we will have disbursed probably $20 million this year. So we are actually doing stuff. A good example, because we didn’t want to not do anything, a lot of them were ongoing, or a lot of them were smaller and got bigger, but the best example of what we’re doing that encompasses everything we’ve talked about here is a project in West Africa. So we go in there with a partner organization, the International Rescue Committee, the IRC, very well respected, and we go into a region, West Africa, with a focus on Liberia. It’s about educating returning refugees from this post-conflict setting, training teachers, rebuilding schools, all the things around education. And Liberia is run by the first woman President in Africa, and so you’ve got sort of the community aspect, the female aspect, you know, all this stuff, and we also want to be known in working in partnership with organizations that do great work. So, in other words, instead of…

OMC: You’re not looking to go it alone.

PB: Right. We want to work with experts, and we’re railing against what I call philanthropic colonialism. Where people go in and say, “We know how to solve your problem.” When I went to Liberia, which was the first time I’ve been to Africa, a couple months ago, you really see what is ultimately really obvious, and that is, the people know the problems they have.

You know, you don’t have to go in and tell them how to solve, or tell them “this is what’s wrong,” or “this is how you solve it,” because they know the problems, and they know the solutions that are needed.

OMC: Which doesn’t mean they have the resources to solve them.

PB: Right, you set the stage, and let the things happen that need to happen. We’re really not only trying to figure out what to do, but how to do it. You know, really think about operating, and trying to change maybe some of the institutional thinking that’s been around in the foundation of the world for a while.

OMC: You’re not just saying that this is going to be in the United States, or somewhere else -- you’re looking globally?

PB: Yep, and that’s another thing. A lot of people say, well, are you going to work domestically or internationally, and I say, I’d rather find great solutions around big problems and see if we can help solve them, you know. So it will be wherever we find… ultimately, good leadership is sort of what it gets down to.

OMC: Is it, on a slightly different topic now, difficult to be a Buffett?

PB: Mmm-hmm. Like never before!

OMC: Do people have misconceptions about who you are and what you have? Do people treat you differently?

PB: It’s funny, because, um, until we moved here, I never, it never really affected me. All the time in Milwaukee and before, I was doing the music, people thought well, “maybe he’s related to Jimmy Buffett,” but it just never seemed to be an issue. I was always kind of surprised when it came up as an issue.

OMC: Was that sort of a Milwaukee thing? Do you think they didn’t care?

PB: I think it was, at least to some extent. Yeah, they didn’t care; it wasn’t something they thought about; I was doing the music and that’s what I was known for. Since I came here … I called my dad in the first month or so and said, “This is crazy! You’re like a rock star in this town, and I’m like a rock star’s kid or something.” It’s like if your dad was a president, and you lived in Washington, former or current; because this is the financial capital of, essentially, the world.

OMC: So you’re getting invites to parties?

PB: Oh man! We could be busy all the time.

OMC: Do you go to the parties?

PB: Well, occasionally. We really have to be careful because we ultimately know why we’re invited, depending. And then, when my dad made the announcement, it took it to like, times a thousand.

OMC: Presumably The New York Times article didn’t help that.

PB: Yeah, right, yeah. So it started with being weird just because I’d never really had the feeling of being so important before, and then, like I said, multiples of weird when the announcement came out, because then suddenly, people couldn’t, sort of what you’re saying, differentiate between me and my dad, and the billion dollars, and this whole thing. I mean, we were just in a negotiation for potentially buying an apartment, and we had to tell them, “Look, we are not what you think we may be.” And the guys were great. They said, “We know the story, we get it. We understand that.” We can’t just go in and throw money all over the place. If I was 25, I think I’d be a mess, potentially, here, because you wouldn’t know how to differentiate, and would get sort of seduced by it.

OMC: So you’re very careful about it, you’re leery about it.

PB: Definitely. I mean, again, within months, Jennifer turned to me and said, “Well, as long as we know that everybody wants something, we’re fine.” And sadly it’s sort of true.

OMC: It’s sort of like winning the lottery and all of the sudden the phone is ringing off the hook.

PB: We realized that even on the foundation level, if both of us show up at something, people think we’re interested, because we’re both showing up. And well, no, we both just wanted to come, and then you realize that you’re sending some signal.

OMC: You’re past the age where that’s seductive.

PB: Right. Mostly. I have to say, occasionally, “Oh cool, we get to go to this party,” or we get to meet somebody we normally wouldn’t meet. I’d say instead of seductive, it’s more fun, you know. If you have to pay a price on one side by being guarded and questioning people’s motivations, you might as well win on the other side by occasionally meeting somebody fun or going to a party. On balance, I’d certainly take it, you know. It’s not awful, but it is a little strange.

OMC: Well, one coworker wanted to know what it feels like to be the son of the richest man in the world, assuming that he is the richest man in the world.

PB: Second.

OMC: Yeah, second. Right. Was he that when you were growing up?

PB: No. See, that’s a critical thing, because a lot of people think that.

OMC: Were you in college when that happened?

PB: Yes, and beyond then, actually. I did not grow up that way at all. Even though he was probably making a lot of money relative to anyone else in Omaha at the time, we didn’t live like it at all. I mean, he still lives in the house I grew up in. I remember driving around in a Volkswagen when I was a kid. He graduated to a Lincoln Continental at some point, but that’s about as extravagant as he would ever get. My parents were both so egalitarian and humanitarian that we just never had any indication that we were any different than anybody else.

OMC: Does that figure in when you’re thinking about the foundation and things you want the foundation to do? Does the fact that it’s his money and the way he thought, does that figure into it?

PB: It has to. Certainly, who my parents were and are, definitely figures in.

OMC: Well, and obviously that affected how you are, who you are.

PB: Yeah, right, yeah. And that’s the thing.

OMC: Do you consciously think about that when you’re thinking about stuff for the foundation?

PB: No, I think it’s just in there. I mean, it’s a reflex. So I would say, not consciously, but it’s always at work. Because it is how I grew up. My mom and I used to joke about how, just being normal, we would get points from people. People would think, “Oh my God, it’s amazing, you’re normal.” Well, yeah. It’s a lot easier as far as we’re concerned. But people continue to really surprise that we’re normal people.

OMC: Is it that thing where people sort of become … famous people say, “Well, I didn’t change. The people around me changed.”

PB: Yeah, right. We’re still getting used to that that might be happening, and we’re not necessarily noticing all of the time, and every once and a while we do. We’re really lucky that way. I’m lucky that way. I grew up with great parents, and really great values. My dad really didn’t hit it big until the mid ‘80s, and I was way out of college by then. And because I had my own career, people would never hire me to write music based on who my dad was. Or if they did, if I didn’t write the right kind of music, I’d be fired, because I’m trying to...

OMC: You didn’t have much pull in the industry that you were aware of.

PB: No, and frankly, music doesn’t lie. You can get a couple of gigs, maybe, if your dad is some famous composer, but you don’t automatically become… And, so the fact that my dad was in a completely other world -- that helped me tremendously. That music didn’t lie, and I was making it truly on my own. Plus the other question that’s asked a lot which is related to it is, “Gee, isn’t your dad disappointed that you didn’t’ go into business or finance” or “isn’t that where you belong?” My dad and I do the same thing -- he does what he loves, I do what I love. It’s as simple as that, and that’s the way he would look at it and it makes for a much easier relationship. Thank god, because if he was wondering when I would finally grow up and make it in the world. That would be awful. He knew I was loving’ it when I was 20.

OMC: Well, with a Grammy and everything else, who’s to say you haven’t made it in the world?

PB: That’s the thing. It’s the same thing as far as he’s concerned. So, the whole, sort of, overwhelmingly rich dad thing doesn’t even play into it. And he, when I called him, by the way and said that almost two years ago -- this is so weird, he goes, “Oh yeah. I hadn’t really thought about that. You know, it’s sort of like you’re a Rockefeller or something, because there’s never been a Buffett that’s lived in New York before.”

OMC: You were the first one.

PB: But it was dawning on him that it would be a big deal. He doesn’t think that way, and a friend of mine said, “Yeah, the difference is that they’re legend and you’re myth.” And I thought, that is so true, because Rockefeller’s literally etched in stone, and Buffett’s this mysterious guy from Omaha. So I’m the first living, breathing version of it that’s walked the streets of New York. I have to say, too, that it’s funny when he visits, because he’s recognized everywhere. It’s really funny.

OMC: So do you have a good relationship with your dad? You get along?

PB: Yeah, we always really have. I mean I think, for me, it sort of gets back to the music again. I’m very lucky that I didn’t have any great expectations of him being anything other than who he was. In other words, my dad’s insanely focused, and was always reading and thinking about finances. He wasn’t out in the backyard playing baseball.

OMC: Was he so focused on that as to the exclusion of his family?

PB: No, no! And he was always home at the same time; he was always at the dinner table; we always knew where he was; we always knew what mood he was going to be in and the older I get, talking to friends -- that’s a huge gift!
So, I never, and because I had the music and my own world to go into and my own life, I was never wishing he was somebody else. So we’ve never that sort of had that angst-ridden “Why weren’t you there for me” or “Why couldn’t you be this or why couldn’t you be that,” which people have with all sorts of fathers with no regard.

OMC: Whether or not they’re the second richest man in the world.

PB: Right. We’ve always had a good relationship. I’ve been really lucky that way.

OMC: We’ve talked about the foundation, about music, everything else. What do you want your legacy to be? How do you think people will, I mean, you’re young, don’t get me wrong. Someday you’ll no longer be here, and if people are going to remember Peter Buffett, what do you think they’ll remember you for? Will they remember you for the music? Will they remember you as the son of the second richest man in the world? As Jimmy Buffett’s (non) cousin?

PB: Right. Well, it’s funny, because my dad has this legacy as an investor, an amazing investor, and suddenly with his gift, he’s got this whole other thing, having given the largest philanthropic gift, ever. So, he’s gone down in history now, twice. Now, I don’t expect to go down in history, necessarily, but in terms of the people that would remember me, I hope also I guess that it’s double sided. There’s the music side, and I hope that whatever exists long after I’m gone, if nothing else than in a landfill, then it’ll exist!

OMC: Or in boxes in the basement.

PB: Exactly. That’s a joke actually. The record company said I’d have a million-seller. They’re right; I have a million in my cellar! Um anyway, but also on the philanthropic side. Not, you know, there’s going to be people to give away more money, certainly, but more for the way we do it. I would like to be remembered for the way we operate philanthropically. That has yet to be seen, of course, how that will be. I would be certainly just as proud of that, as I’m trying to bring creativity and some insight, or different approaches, to that world, like I would bring to music. You know. Very different form. So either one would be good. It would be great if it was both.

OMC: Yeah. Well, it sounds like that if you, even if you, are off the radar as a philanthropist in the United States, it sounds like that there are probably people in Liberia who would remember you for a while.

PB: Yeah. And I would say already.

OMC: Maybe that’s good enough.

PB: It’s a pretty great thing. That’s ultimately a better reward, for sure. Personally, it feels good to put music out in the world for people to relate to and connect to, but there’s no question when you see the faces of Liberian kids and realize that you could potentially turn that kid’s life around. Absolutely. It is amazing, and there’s so much hope there. We flew into Monrovia, capital of Liberia, a million and a half people, at nine or ten o’clock at night. Dark. Look out the plane, and there’s like ten lights on in the town. And there’s a million and a half people.  It’s like looking down on Milwaukee and seeing nothing. And yet, you meet the people and see the people and have of the people are under 18, and they’re really hopeful, and entrepreneurial, and exited about what life could potentially bring, and how to make their lives better, and it’s really incredible.   

So, yes. In the big picture, there’s no question. That’s the thing you hope you can bring, or leave behind.
Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.