By Jann Holland
Vice President, Marketing & Communications
A 2003 Breech Hall of Fame inductee, Carol Junge Loomis was a leading business writer for many decades. She has been described by the New York Post as “a legend in financial journalism” and was once said by the chief financial correspondent of the New York Times to have been an “inspiration.” Her enormously successful career as a financial journalist included six decades as a staff member at Fortune. Starting as a writer for the Drury Mirror during her college years, she went on to receive four lifetime achievement awards, write about hedge funds when nobody knew what they were, and chronicle the amazing rise of a young investor named Warren Buffett.
Loomis knew from a young age that she wanted to be a writer. In 1947, she became the seventh student in her family to attend Drury. Loomis transferred to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, graduated from there in 1951, and became a reporter at Fortune in 1954. In 1962, she got her break when the managing editor of Fortune asked her to begin writing for a new investment column the magazine was starting. That was a big deal at the time because men dominated the writing staff of Fortune, with women confined to assisting them. Loomis proved herself and, in 1968, was elected to the magazine’s Board of Editors.
During her time at Fortune, Loomis authored groundbreaking stories such as “The Jones Nobody Keeps Up With” (April 1966), which profiled hedge fund pioneer A.W. Jones; “An Annual Report for the Federal Government” (May 1973), which resulted in the institution of a formal U.S. annual report that is still published today; “Behind the Profits Glow at Aetna” (Nov. 1982), which both exposed how that company was manipulating earnings and prompted an SEC investigation; and “Why Carly’s Big Bet is Failing” (Feb. 2002), which dissected Carly Fiorina’s stumbling performance as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
Loomis has won 28 awards for her work. Among them are her lifetime achievement awards, including the Gerald M. Loeb Award, the Women’s Economic Round Table award for print journalists, Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Award (of which she was the first recipient) and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. In 1980, Loomis received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Drury. In 1991, Drury presented Loomis with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, and in 2003, she was inducted into the Drury University Breech Hall of Fame.
We had the honor of talking with Loomis recently as she reflected on her more
than 60 years at Fortune Magazine.
Confidence and a strong work ethic are two of your hallmarks; to what do you attribute your mettle and tenacity—genetics or environment?
I came from two very strong families: the Case family of six kids, who all attended Drury, and my father’s family in Cole Camp, Missouri whose ancestors were German immigrants. Germans are known to be very hard workers. So, I came from the right kind of work ethic.
Confidence—better play that down. I don’t go into every project with confidence. I am sort of a lifetime learner. If I study hard enough, my confidence builds, so I do a lot of research. I’m unusual among most Fortune writers in that I like to read the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) filings that every publicly-owned business has to make. When you read these, you begin to learn a lot about the company. I also ask the company I’m writing about to send me the last 10 annual reports so I can read the CEO’s letters. I read about the fits and starts of strategies, and that can be very revealing. After reading all the SEC data and all the other information I can get my hands on, I can have a good interview. The person you are speaking with is complimented by how much you’ve learned and knows that you are not going to waste his or her time. Fortune uses a lot of quotes to enliven stories and picks up interesting terminology that the interviewees use. A successful interview builds my confidence. Then when I have to sit down and write—all the confidence disappears. But, I’ve always had good help from my editors.
I became known as a fanatic about accuracy. That was partly because I started at Fortune at a time when the researchers were totally responsible for accuracy, so you just couldn’t slough off any detail.
Who was your mentor and what was the most valuable thing he/she taught you?
Dan Seligman was my mentor. He was the editor of an investment column that I was asked to begin writing for, and he became a good personal friend. He taught me all that I didn’t know about writing. One of the early lessons: I had written something that was quite pompous. He wrote in the margin, “NO. Be idiomatic.” That was valuable advice, and to this day I believe my writing is more idiomatic than what most other financial writers produce.
How did your time at Drury impact your career?
I was a small town kid—a big fish in a little pond. My high school class had 36 students, and I was the only one who went to college. So I was pretty naïve about a lot of things. Drury was the right kind of atmosphere to introduce me to a bigger world. I acquired a really good foundation of learning. My favorite professor was Dr. Meador, who taught economics and political science. He was very inspirational and also memorable.
I was a fairly good clarinetist, and I also played the piano a tiny bit. I played clarinet in the band in Cole Camp and at Drury. Some people in my hometown said they were surprised that I didn’t major in music.
You have covered huge stories throughout your career, many of which have upended business and politics. What story are you most proud of and why?
It’s a hard question to answer. It’s like asking you which is your favorite child. Among my favorites was “How the Terrible Two-Tier Market Came to Wall Street” (July 1973). That won an award, and it was a memorable story. Later, in 1994, I wrote a story about derivatives called, “The Risk That Won’t Go Away.” Derivatives were an unknown then, so the first thing you had to do was explain what they were. And, I must say, they are a risk that has never gone away. The first story I ever wrote about Warren Buffett was in 1988 titled, “The Inside Story of Warren Buffett.” One funny piece was “Confessions of a Female Commodities Speculator.” Hillary Clinton had speculated in commodities and done well. I poked fun at Hillary and my own losing experiences in silver. My boss wanted to take out the word “female” in the title, and I successfully resisted that. I especially liked the artwork for the story. The illustration was a picture of Hillary morphing into me. In 1999, I wrote about five survivors of the Holocaust who had come to the U.S. as boys or very young men. Each had gone on to make a lot of money, and each became a $1 million donor to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. I wrote about their experiences in Europe and then in the U.S.
Tell us about serving as a panelist on the presidential debates.
It was Ronald Reagan debating in Baltimore against the third-party candidate, John B. Anderson. Jimmy Carter refused to show up. He did not like the idea of a third-party candidate. My memory was that I was the first questioner and that my 13-year-old son was in the audience.
What’s your advice for working mothers?
I felt like nothing was ever quite finished: neither my job nor my children and certainly not my house. It’s very hard. It’s certainly helpful to have a husband who does his share. If you want to try to do it all, you have to realize that you won’t at times feel happy about one thing or another.
If your beat was higher education, what topic intrigues you the most?
I will be honest with you; I think it’s whether colleges like Drury will make it. I think it’s a tough world for them. Whenever I get a chance, I talk about that. I have a friend on the board at Carleton, and we talk about the tier that it and Drury are in. It’s going to be hard.
Your award-winning career has focused on longform journalism. I’m not finding you in the 140-character Twitter space.
No, I’m not on Facebook, and I’m not in the Twitter space. There is something called longform.org. They do audio interviews with people, and I did that recently.
Since your retirement, what financial exposé would you have wanted to cover?
It would be tempting to write about the Valeant Pharmaceuticals controversy that has arisen because it is a multi-faceted story. Many people are involved, some of whom I know.
How did your friendship with Warren Buffett begin?
I met Warren Buffett in 1967. It was through my husband, John Loomis, who has always worked in a Wall Street job. In the ’60s, John was an institutional salesman for Faulkner Dawkins and Sullivan, and his territory was in the Midwest. He read a small article about Warren that intrigued him, so he wrote Warren a letter and asked if he could please come in and see him. Warren agreed to meet, and he liked John enough to invite him to have lunch across the street. That was an interesting happening because Warren usually didn’t pay much attention to securities salesmen. John mentioned that I worked for Fortune, and Warren was immediately interested, because he has said that if he hadn’t been an investor he probably would have been a journalist. Next, when Warren and his wife came to New York, they asked us to have lunch. When John came back from his first meeting with Warren, John said, “I think I have probably met the smartest investor in the country.” I probably rolled my eyes like wives do when their husbands overstate things. But then when I met Warren, I realized that John was absolutely right.
Later, Warren was asked by the SEC to advise them on how companies could improve their communication with shareholders. Though he was already doing a good job with his annual letter to shareholders, he beefed it up more and asked me to look at it. I think I suggested changing an “a” to a “the.” That was all I had the courage to do. But I’ve edited the letter now for 40 years, always pro bono. It’s a challenging job, but a wonderful job to have.
Who wins your bridge games more often, you or Warren Buffett?
He’s better than I am. We play online every Monday night with two friends from California. You can tell that Warren’s better than I am because on Okbridge.com you compete against all other players on the site, and his score is significantly higher than mine. We are both above average, but he’s definitely better.
What would you title your autobiography?
I don’t know. I would try to put the words “a lot of luck” in the title because I had a lot of luck in getting to where I did. Timing is everything. When I went to be interviewed at Fortune, the chief of research who would have normally been the person to interview me was gone on a leave of absence, and her assistant really liked me. I’m not sure her boss ever would have. So that break was huge.
What advice do you have for Drury students?
Study hard. Learn as much as you can. Think of it as just one chapter in a lifetime of learning. Enjoy the college of life. You will make most of your long-term friends in college. Nan Ganyard is among my very closest of friends, and I met her at Drury.
When you get out of school, look for a job with an employer that you admire and would like to stay with. Make the most of every opportunity. There’s still so much to learn once you’re out of school.
1947: Attended Drury University
1951: Graduated from University of Missouri’s well-known journalism school
1954: Began working at Fortune as a researcher
1956: Promoted to “middle of the book” stories
1958: Promoted to assistant chief of research, a job in which she supervised the new Fortune 500
1962: Authored her first longform article, “You May Be Missing a Bet in Bonds”
1963: Assigned to an investment column that Fortune was just starting
1966: Authored “The Jones Nobody Keeps Up With,” which profiled hedge fund pioneer A.W. Jones
1967: Met Warren Buffett through her husband, John Loomis
1973: Authored “An Annual Report for the Federal Government,” which resulted in a U.S. annual report that is still published
1976: Appointed to the Advisory Committee on Federal Consolidated Financial Statements
1977: Began editing Warren Buffet’s famous annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders
1980: Served as a panelist at the Reagan-Anderson Presidential Debate
1982: Authored “Behind the Profits Glow at Aetna,” which exposed how that company manipulated earnings, a matter that next prompted an SEC investigation
1989: Authored “The $600 Million Cigarette Scam,” which told a story of channel-stuffing
1993: Awarded the Gerald M. Loeb Lifetime Achievement Award
2000: Awarded the Women’s Economic Round Table award for print journalists
2000: Authored “AOL + TWX=???,” in which she forecast that the AOL Time Warner merger was headed for trouble
2001: Awarded Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Award Covered merger between HP and Compaq under leadership of Carly Fiorina
2006: Awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers
2012: Published Tap Dancing to Work, a best-seller book that collected and expanded 46 years of Warren Buffett articles in Fortune.
2014: Wound up more than 60 years at Fortune and retired as Time Inc.’s longest-serving employee