The bold move that won a Chinese suit-maker Warren Buffett’s lifelong loyalty

Warren Buffett loves his suits the way Jimmy Buffett loves margaritas.
Warren Buffett loves his suits the way Jimmy Buffett loves margaritas.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor at the head of Berkshire Hathaway, has about 20 suits by his count. All were custom-made for him, and all by one Chinese company, Dalian Dayang Trands, which has been outfitting him for a decade thanks to a bold introduction made by its founder, Li Guilian—or Madam Li, as she’s known.

Buffett talked about his wardrobe and his first encounter with Li in an interview with CNBC’s show “Squawk Box” yesterday (Feb. 27). A viewer asked how many suits Buffett owned—he had bet his wife Buffett had fewer than five—prompting Buffett to recount the story of how he met Madam Li:

He would be right except for the fact I met a woman in China many years ago, Madam Li, and I arrived at the hotel at 11:00 in the morning. Immediately two guys jumped in the room a couple minutes later, I didn’t know what was going on. They started sticking tape measures around me and everything, then they showed me a book with a whole bunch of samples and said, “Pick out a suit. Madam Li wants to give you one.” I never met her and picked out another. Then I met her …

She just started sending me suits. I was thinking of opening up a men’s clothing store for a while. Everyone would have to be my size. I literally have—certainly have close to 20, and they were all made by Madam Li.

That meeting occurred in 2007, while Buffett was in the port city of Dalian in northeastern China for the opening of a metals factory acquired by Berkshire Hathaway. Madam Li’s salesmanship was undoubtedly aggressive, but it worked.

Since getting his first suits, Buffett has been an outspoken fan, giving Dalian Dayang Trands the sort of publicity it couldn’t buy. Buffett even recorded a video message for Madam Li for her company’s 30th anniversary in 2009, and has invited her to Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders’ meeting.

He has said previously that Li refuses to charge him, and when “Squawk Box” co-anchor Becky Quick asked if he couldn’t afford his own suits, he replied, “Not if we don’t have to buy them.” We have reached out to Buffett and Dalian Dayang Trands to confirm he still receives his suits as gifts and will update this post with any reply.

Li’s business also outfitted Bill Gates at times, according to Buffett. The pair make for a very different clientele from when the company began: Li, the daughter of a farmer in rural China, used to make clothes for her local community on a single sewing machine. “At the beginning, we were a small countryside outfit,” she once told CNN. “Our goal was to make sure poor peasants had enough clothes to wear. We made simple shirt sleeves, shoulder pads and work trousers, which people wore in the countryside while they worked.”

She and her staff learned suit-making in Japan, and over the years have developed Dalian Dayang Trands into a multinational business with thousands of employees—and at least one very big fan.