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What is it like to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska?
Attending the 2013 Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting was one of the best experiences of my life. It was a lollapalooza! I may be forever thankful to my dear mother who demonstrated good sense in insisting that I go to Omaha during a time when other commitments were on the verge of putting the trip on the back burner. Maybe it was her motherly intuition that led her to believe that this could become an inflection point in my life. In what may serve as context, I want to acknowledge that Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet are two of my heroes.
I will tickle two birds with one cotton ball by providing an answer to this question and a sort of personal journal that pens my experience on this trip for the first time. Here are some of the highlights of my weekend in Omaha.
Partly in the spirit of value investing, I was intent on making my first trip to Omaha as cost effective as possible. Accordingly, as a non-shareholder a month or so removed from the meeting, I tried to get my hands on credentials for the meeting on the cheap, bought my flight tickets months in advance, booked a room through Airbnb, packed light to avoid baggage charges, and was unsuccessful in convincing a few of my business oriented friends in coming along. I invited these friends in part because I likely would have enjoyed their company and thought they might gain something of value from the experience, but mostly because it would have allowed us to share some of the expenses, such as taxi and room charges. Nevertheless, as much as I care for my friends, traveling alone would not have been a problem since I was looking forward to this trip. I give credit to Rick – one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and a man who is currently about as business oriented as Charlie Munger is subtle – for traveling with me to Omaha. After all was said and done, taking a friend resulted in a savings of 22% from the total cost of my trip.
We arrived in Omaha around 6pm, and there was snow on the ground. I was breaking my virginity on a few fronts in that I was anticipating traveling to this part of the country for the first time and knew that the hour of truth was approaching in the guise of my first Airbnb experience. For the uninitiated, Airbnb is to real estate what eBay is to merchandise. For the curious, our foray into this world was positive. We were greeted with friendliness, good conversation, and the warm embrace and physicality of two gargantuan poodles – I didn’t know that they came that big, as these turkeys looked like the offspring of a French poodle and a Tyrannosaurus-Rex. We didn’t see a Michael Myers mask or butcher’s knife casually lying around the house, nor did we see an odd looking door that might lead to a torture chamber downstairs. Rick and I decided to stay in and rest for the remainder of the evening. As a side note, before our trip I’d been informed that two brothers from Germany, also in town for the Berkshire Hathaway meeting, were flying in from Germany and would be staying in the same house as us.
Our host served us continental breakfast, having offered it to us in advance for a nominal fee. We followed this with a cab ride to Creighton University for a value investing panel. While on Creighton’s campus, we happen to make the equivalent of the navigational mistake made by Christopher Columbus when he sailed up the Hudson River looking for a passage to India. We were more lost than Adam on mother’s day. We asked several students for directions, but none were able to help. Luckily, we ran into a friendly woman who went as far as taking us to her office in order to try to help us. It turned out that she knew our Airbnb host, who was once a Creighton faculty member. We were pleased by the serendipity of it all.
With correct instructions in hand, we made our way to where the value investing panel would be held, Creighton’s college of business, and wasted no time in looking for a place to eat. We ate at a sports bar within the college of business and each had a chicken and bacon burger, with avocado, on wheat bread. This burger’s taste was reflective of our hunger, coupled with our rudimentary handle of the art of fine dining, or how amazingly scrumptious it was, or both. Regardless, it is now synonymous with a visit to Omaha’s Creighton University and was a culinary highlight of the trip.
The value investing panel is organized by a group of Creighton students who are in a portfolio management class that manages a real life portfolio of around $4 million. We were able to speak to a few of the students, sat in for the panel, comprised of four or five value investors sharing their views on investing and the economy, and were graciously treated to complimentary booze and snacks.
Next on the agenda was a visit to Berkshire’s jewelry store, Borsheims, where a shareholder cocktail reception was slated to be in full effect. We faced one minor obstacle, however, as we arrived to Borsheims. We didn’t have credentials. I mistakenly left all of them in my luggage at our temporary home, which was not just around the corner, not foreseeing that we would need them this evening. The idea of a cost effective trip to Omaha was beginning to go out of the window faster than an elbow-propelled flower pot from a high-rise, I thought, since I would now have to incur taxi charges that could have easily been avoided had I simply been more attentive. Disappointed in my aloofness, I told Rick to join me on a taxi ride to get our credentials that would unequivocally come out of my pocket. Before doing so, Rick insisted that we try to speak to security or someone else about our problem, since maybe there was something that could be done. We approached security, they checked my book bag to make sure I wasn’t a menace, and one of the security guards asked for my ID and called a sort of Berkshire Hathaway shareholder services hotline. The people on the other line looked for my name on the shareholders list, found it, and the security guard issued us temporary credentials. Rick’s resourcefulness couldn’t have come at a better time, and I was impressed, though not surprised, that Berkshire would plan ahead for this.
The setup to this party was two-pronged. There was a big tent where food was served and live music performed, and the area of Borsheims, which included sections of the shopping center in which Borsheims was situated, where people schmoozed and were given the opportunity to drink on good ol’ Warren and Charlie’s tab. The area of the shopping center where the drinks were being distributed by the bartenders was incredibly packed with people. Thousands upon thousands of people cluttered together trying to get drinks, which at first glance appeared as inconceivable as trying to pick up a bald headed man by the hair, yet Rick and I, in the midst of this sardine can mob march towards the bartenders that went on for a good half hour, managed to walk away unscathed with our maximum of two free drinks in hand. We stepped away from the bar area and congestion and found a spot in front of what appeared to be a toy store where we could sip our drinks and have some conversation. I asked a random stranger to please take a few pictures of us, and it turned out that this gentleman was a reporter for the associated press. He took the pictures and interviewed us for an article.
Since we were planning on waking up early the following morning, we left the party around 11pm and took a cab home. As is sometimes the case, I did my best to engage with our driver and learned that he was from West Africa, as were seemingly most of the taxi drivers that drove us around Omaha that weekend. He came across as a nice guy. As we arrived to our destination, I was in the process of closing the car door when he told me that I’d left my wallet on the seat. He said it point blank, with virtually no hesitation, as if returning wallets to careless fools like me were part of the unbroken code of Omaha taxi driving. I’d brought more cash on this trip than needed and hadn’t diversified its whereabouts. All of my money, not to mention credit cards, ID, practically everything, was in that wallet. It’s one thing to conceive of the kindness and selflessness that lies within the souls of some of our brothers and sisters from around the world, but it’s quite another to experience it first hand, so out of the blue, so raw, which quite frankly left me inspired and warm-hearted.
My alarm clocks became colicky babies around 3am. The big day was here. I called the taxi driver that drove us home the previous night, and as he was driving us to the CenturyLink Center, where the Berkshire meeting would be held, I decided to pick his brain as to what led him to tell me about my wallet. Basically, he said that it was the right thing to do, and that he once returned a purse to its rightful owner that contained several thousands of dollars. As we arrived to CenturyLink Center, we exchanged pleasantries, he asked for my email address to stay in touch, and Rick and I were on our way.
There were already some people, but not too many, in front of the doors that we’d targeted for our entrance into the arena. Once positioned in line, we stood about fifteen feet from the doors, which would open at 7am. It was chilly. Many people in line were wearing a winter hat of some type, few were having prolonged conversations, and Rick listened to music on his iPhone while I used his same phone to review the most recent Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder letter.
Since I’m in the process of rehabilitating my legs and thus can’t run like the dickens, I remember asking Rick if he felt open and capable of carrying out the following instructions: when the doors open, run as safely and fast as you can to try to get some of the best seats in the house. He did not object and appeased any lingering fears that I may have had, fears that were brought about by a few tales that I’d come across, unlikely to be of the apocryphal variety, which indicated that a stampede into the arena was likely. Around 6:40am, catching many of us off guard, the doors opened and Rick began to run in a fashion that would have made Forrest Gump blush. Overall, this moment was surreal, amusing, as many of us resembled awkwardly civilized animals as we tried to quickly make our way through the doors without knocking down and killing anyone, and you could see the excitement, raw emotion, and restraint in acting like total buffoons in the faces of those who apparently felt that the exhilaration that came from beating out a few thousand other people to a coveted seat within Church Berkshire was second to none. Security guards kept telling people not to run, so as to avoid potential injury, but the sound of speeding loafers and heart rates may have muted these instructions. I was speed-walking, snapped a few pictures, and noticed that most of the people around me were walking as if they badly needed to use the bathroom, jogging, or running. I finally entered the arena and a sea of seats, nearly 18,000 of them, engulfed my periphery. I noticed that the hot ticket items were the seats closest to the stage on the ground level. I saw the stage, which had the desk and chairs that Warren and Charlie would occupy for nearly six hours, and at least three huge projection screens located above the stage. These big screens would be used to showcase the movie and to give all in attendance a closer look at Warren and Charlie throughout the proceedings. I soaked in the moment, took a few pictures, and looked for Rick, whom I located relatively quickly. He managed to nab two seats in the ninth row of the ground level.
It was around 7am when I first arrived to my seat, and the action within the arena would start at 8:30am. As I looked toward the stage, I noticed that Warren and Charlie’s desk sat underneath microphones, sodas, bottles of water, and a big box of peanut brittle. I was fairly surprised how effortless it was to put the hour and a half that followed to good use. This free time gave me the opportunity to use the restroom, eat breakfast, as we were treated to complimentary continental breakfast from some of the concession stands in the arena, buy a Panera Bread lunch ticket, and make conversation with some of the people around me. It may be worth mentioning that I did much of the aforementioned while Rick saved my seat. We were in synch in saving one another’s seat whenever either one of us wanted to leave his unoccupied, since it was clear that we might lose them to the many seat hunting vultures that were roaming the perimeter of the ground level. Maybe placing a jacket or a book on them would have done the trick, but we didn’t want to take any chances; arguing with someone over a chair was the last thing we wanted to do.
As time elapsed, I could sense the excitement and positive energy in the arena. Many of those around us were in a festive mood, as if happy hour were right around the corner, and conversation was rampant. I was delighted to be in my seat, with Rick, and thankful that we were close to the stage. I looked at the itinerary for the day in order to plan accordingly, if need be, and noted that the movie would start at 8:30am, the meeting at 9:30am, there would be a one hour break for lunch at noon, and the meeting would end at 4pm. Before the movie, there was a moment when a group of people gathered near the front of the ground level to see and take pictures of some of the VIP guests, namely Berkshire Hathaway board members, as they arrived. This is when I first saw Ajit Jain and took a picture of him. Additionally, ten minutes before the start of the movie, the voice that we have come to associate with movie trailers loudly announced to all in attendance that the movie would start in ten minutes. That was pretty whimsical. Pre-recorded footage of Warren, requesting that all in attendance not take pictures or video while the movie or meeting were in session or risk confiscation of equipment or dismissal from the meeting, appeared on the big screens. Warren’s message, at least to some degree, was a corollary of copyright law. Taking pictures during breaks, when the movie and meeting were not in session, was fine.
As far as of the basic arrangement of the people involved in the meeting was concerned, Warren and Charlie were seated on an elevated stage, a group of journalists were seated to their far right, and another group of journalists, along with a black sheep, were seated to their left. The black sheep was a short seller, and I understand that this was the first time during a Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting where one of the panelists was a short seller. This person’s questions were all bearish in character. The journalists, short seller, and random people at the many interspersed microphone posts throughout the arena, took turns asking questions to Warren and Charlie, who had no advance knowledge of the questions. The questions asked by the journalists were chosen among those emailed by shareholders.
Here are some of the highlights of the movie and meeting.
- the movie start with a cartoon segment of Warren and Charlie as judges on “Dancing with the Stars.” The unimpressed judges, who at times fell asleep or were playing on their smartphones, decided to teach the participants, all of whom were characterizations of some of the well known Berkshire Hathaway brands, a lesson or two by breaking it down to Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”
- an appearance by Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show.”
- a GEICO commercial that featured a loquacious camel that was giddy about “Hump Day.”
- a segment from “The King of Queens” in which two of the show’s main characters argued over a bottle of ketchup.
- an appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger where he rejected the idea of Warren playing his villain in the next installment of “Terminator,” only to have this segment end with a clip from “The Office” as the inspiration for the selection of Charlie Munger as the next Terminator villain.
- a real life clip, which I believe is shown every year and served as somewhat of a counterbalance to all of the hoopla up until this point, of Warren testifying before Congress about the Salomon Brothers scandal a few decades ago. The clip ends with Warren saying, “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred a reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”
- a spoof of a television show about drugs, “Breaking Bad,” that I’d never heard of. Rick is a fan of this show and nearly shed a tear of happiness when he noticed it on the screens. This skit ended with Charlie reclining in his office chair, after having received notice from Warren that he had closed a deal to buy the brilliant creation of two guys in the peanut brittle business, and enjoyably and emphatically declaring, “Brittle, bitches.”
- Real life cheerleaders cheering on the ground floor isles as a rendition of Y.M.C.A., with B.R.K.A. as its understudy, paid homage to the managers of Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio companies.
The audience laughed and clapped during much of this.
The topics of discussion included:
- a breakdown of Berkshire’s first quarter earnings, which according to Warren weren’t quite as good as they looked
- housekeeping announcements related to the weekend festivities
- Berkshire’s recent relative underperformance
- the competitive advantages of some of Berkshire’s companies relative to that of their competition
- Berkshire preserving its culture beyond the tenures of Warren and Charlie
- fairness of the Heinz deal
- Ajit Jain’s new insurance strategy
- GEICO’s plan to not adopt a technology similar to that of Progressive’s snapshot
- Twitter and recent SEC changes on the dissemination of information
- the short seller’s contention that Berkshire has paid too much for certain businesses, with its recent index fund returns serving as the result
- the US dollar’s continuance as the reserve currency
- the relationship between corporate profits and GDP
- potential Berkshire reorganization post Warren and Charlie
- ongoing Fed stimulus
- the effect of historically low interest rates on Berkshire’s portfolio of companies
- a possible commercial insurance acquisition
- the significance of unregulated currencies such as Bitcoin
- a comparison related to the business models of Herbalife and Pampered Chef
- the argument that Warren’s successor may not have access to the types of lucrative deals that he has entered into, particularly during times of distress
- the notion that Berkshire may have at times attempted to persuade others into selling their businesses to them
- the sustainable competitive advantages of Berkshire Hathaway, in layman’s terms
- insights into Berkshire’s railroad business
- Harley Davidson investment
- Warren and Charlie’s relationship with their investment managers as it relates to sharing stock ideas
- how Warren organizes and prioritizes, if at all, his personal goals
- justification for Berkshire’s continued investment in the newspaper industry
- insights into what business leaders can focus on to remain competitive
- Berkshire’s cost of complying with the affordable care act
- solar power
- the importance of timing in Berkshire’s historical performance
- Warren and Charlie respond to a question from a 30-year old from the audience on what they would tell themselves if they could communicate with the version of themselves from fifty years ago
- rationality in insurance pricing
- the price trend of the reinsurance business
- women in the boardroom
- discussion of recent “too big to fail” subjects, and Berkshire’s possible inclusion into this category
- Warren’s alleged lack of research intensity relative to earlier years, coupled with a stronger emphasis on the game, rather than the score
- quantitative metrics in judging stocks in general
- macroeconomic forecasts
- what Fruit of the Loom can do to fend off a strong competitor
- early Buffet Partnership annual shareholder letters
- influential books
- substantial improvements, or lack thereof, in the economics of the airline industry
- Berkshire’s intrinsic business value as measured by the price-to-book multiple
- Charlie moving to Omaha to be closer to headquarters
- the effect of climate change on the pricing of insurance
- discussion on the price of carbon
- the probability that Berkshire might invest a portion of its funds in a firm that specializes in short selling
- Warren and Charlie’s views on supporting an administration that has put this country in a lot of debt
- Benjamin Moore’s competitive position
- portfolio allocation strategy
- the effect of the sale of Berkshire stock for charitable purposes on Berkshire’s stock price
- domestic versus international investment opportunities
- advice for someone starting an investment fund
- Ajit as Warren’s possible successor
- the effect of low interest rates on insurance companies
- IBM’s moat
- Berkshire’s approach in its early years when investing a much smaller amount of capital
- emerging markets
- the likelihood that we’re currently in another housing bubble
- Euro-zone investment opportunities
- social media
- identifying fraud in financial statements
- investment opportunities in Africa
- inherited wealth
- stock splits
In making a few hodgepodge observations about the meeting, I’ll start off by stating that people from all over the world seemed to have flown in to Omaha for this, and I noticed a larger percentage of people in their 20s and 30s than I anticipated. Regarding the meeting itself, the arena was mostly full during a good portion of the multi-hour question and answer section. Warren answered most questions first and usually deferred to Charlie to see if he had anything to add, which he sometimes didn’t. Warren and Charlie looked well and were mentally sharp. This Q&A portion was followed by a much shorter and less popular, since people began to file out of the arena, corporate governance segment. Even though Warren’s jaw’s exercise during the meeting involved more than just talking, I found it amusing to conjecture that if drinking Cokes and eating peanut brittle were sins, Charlie would be on death-row. As was the case before showcasing the movie, a group of people gathered near the front of the ground section of the arena to take pictures of some of the luminaries in attendance, as they exited the arena’s main floor.
Rick and I had some time to spare before heading to Berkshire’s Nebraska Furniture Mart Big Time Cookout. That could only mean one thing, but two words: peanut brittle. After the impressive psychological shellacking in the form peanut brittle brainwashing that sweet toothed folks akin to me were subjected to at the hands of Warren and Charlie during the meeting, it was time to take my zombie-like self to the nearest See’s Candy location. We found the exhibition area where Berkshire’s companies were displaying their wares, and I asked a woman with a big See’s Candy bag about the location of the See’s booth. I was determined to get there quickly.
It was all gone. They were out of peanut brittle. It was neither Y.M.C.A. nor B.R.K.A, but rather O.U.C.H. I couldn’t believe it. I surmised, See’s Candy running out of peanut brittle is similar to Apple running out of iPhones, Toyota running out of sedans, or airport food establishments running out of creepy crawlers. Is Candid Camera still in production? In all seriousness, it wasn’t that bad. See’s hadn’t run out of a chocolate covered version of their classic peanut brittle, which was fundamentally the same stuff that Warren and Charlie were masticating throughout the meeting, but covered in chocolate. I bought a box of that, a box of something else that piqued my interest, and looked forward to having my first piece of See’s chocolate covered peanut brittle later on. We continued to look around the exhibition area, Rick bought a pair of socks with caricatures of Warren and Charlie on them, and we spoke to a gentleman who had just purchased a pair of sneakers from one of the booths and was looking forward to serving a healthy dose of competitive dust in the following day’s Berkshire Hathaway 5K. We wouldn’t be participating in this event since we figured there was more value in sleeping in rather than paying money to run for a cause that we didn’t understand.
Rick and I took a complimentary shuttle from the CenturyLink Center to Nebraska Furniture Mart that gave us the opportunity to talk with others who had attended the annual meeting. It was fun. We finally arrived at Nebraska Furniture Mart and located a big tent outside where all of the action was taking place. While standing in line, we took a picture with the GEICO gecko, and proceeded to pay a pittance of a sum for a meal that included a pulled pork sandwich, chips, a cookie, and a drink. We each ate about four of these combos, which shouldn’t come as a surprise when one figures that the meat-to-bread ratio in these sandwiches was in line with value investing principles, or maybe I’m just the antithesis of a well measured eater, and we reasoned that devouring the proverbial elephant at our feet constituted a good value proposition since we planned to go to a movie theater to watch a few boxing matches during the evening.
The arrangement underneath the tent consisted of a table where people paid for their food, various tables from which the food was distributed, live music, a man and a woman who were dancing to the delight of a good portion of the crowd, and a number of stand-up tables where guests could eat and drink while enjoying the music and dancing. I expected to see more people at this BBQ, but certainly didn’t mind the change of pace since walking in large crowds had been our modus operandi up until that point in Omaha. One factor that may have contributed to the perceived shortage in attendance is that it was so cold that Frosty jumped into a furnace. To me, it felt no more than twenty degrees Fahrenheit, and this comes from a person with years of northeast living and working experience under his belt-less trousers. However, locals did tell me that it was unusually cold for the time of the year.
We walked to Nebraska Furniture Mart where a customer service representative was kind enough to allow Rick to charge his phone while we looked around the store. Once the phone had charged enough, Rick used his phone’s internet to help him make a few calls to determine where we could find a good deal to watch the boxing matches, specifically the live broadcast of a fight involving who most boxing experts consider as the best boxer on the planet today, the world’s highest paid athlete in 2012, Floyd “Money” Mayweather. Over an hour into the boxing show, I decided that it was time for an apocalyptic taste bud moment. It was chocolate covered peanut brittle time. I tried to quietly open the box, noticed that each bar came individually wrapped, similar to some energy and granola bars, and stealthily grabbed three out of the eight bars, one for me, and two for two women that I sat next to and had been talking to. Rick, who has no sweet tooth to speak of, wasn’t interested in peanut brittle or preliminary boxing matches, and so positioned himself snugly in the upper-most row of the theater where he lay there in nap mode. In short, this chocolate covered peanut brittle was one of the best things that I’d ever tasted. I kid you not when I say that the woman seated next to me asked, “Where did you get this? This is awesome.” I had to temper my enthusiasm in wanting to give the women another bar or in eating too many myself, since I had folks back home that I wanted to treat and wasn’t sure if I’d have the opportunity to buy more.
With less than two minutes to go in the 12th and final round of the Mayweather fight, something happened that utterly tickled my value investing bone. While the audio of the boxing match was fine, the screen turned completely black and remained so for the rest of the evening. Thankfully, this didn’t happen during a bout that was up for grabs going into the last round. It wasn’t even close, as Mayweather was dominating his opponent, and ultimately nothing of consequence happened during the blackout. Nonetheless, while many in the crowd became indignant at this development and expressed their disapproval by yelling impetuous and profane remarks, I was able to easily comfort my bewilderment and minor disappointment while licking my chops at the thought of a refund. Alas, we didn’t receive a refund but a free pass for any upcoming movie or boxing event, redeemable at any AMC theater throughout the country.
Fast forward an hour or so, the fights were over, and as I lay in bed at approximately 1:30am it dawned on me that – from the early morning rush into the arena, to the anticipation, the movie, the shareholders meeting, seeing Warren and Charlie live for the first time, the conversations, the BBQ, the boxing show, the peanut brittle, and the fact that I was able to experience this along one of the special people in my life – this was without a doubt one of the best days of my life.
We woke up around 11am, got ready, spoke to our host for a bit, and called a cab. As we waited outside for the cab, Rick and I became acquainted with a stray dog of an inquisitive nature. He went on, “You guys smell like good small-talk. I’m new in town. That Buffett character, I heard he employs a gecko. What are your thoughts on a drop dead gorgeous of a specimen like me getting a gig with him?” His gumption made it hard to demur.
We arrived at Borsheims for what the itinerary referred to as a shopping day and brunch. The setup was the same as that of Friday evening’s, minus the bar. We immediately proceeded to the tent to get something to eat and then to a nearby seafood place since the brunch fare wasn’t to Rick’s predilection. I was instructed by a staff member of the seafood establishment to please eat my food outside, which I was fine with after having inquired about the veracity of such a policy. All of a sudden, as I was nonchalantly tearing into my Berkshire sponsored roast beef and other goodies, I heard what amounted to someone yelling at me in Spanish, and it was the gentleman that told me to eat my food outside – who happened to be a manager and partner of the restaurant. He now held the door open for me and humorously and rhetorically inquired as to why I hadn’t informed him that I was from the Dominican Republic. Rick had befriended him, which may have happened rather seamlessly after they discovered that they were both originally from Cuba. We spoke to this gentleman as if we were part of his family for about an hour, he didn’t charge Rick for anything, presented us with free dessert, and we each took a picture with him and one of his business cards.
As we made our way through Borsheims, we noticed a large group of people near the end of the store that was dangling tablets and smartphones in the air. We moved closer, casually squeezing our way through the crowd, and noticed that Warren was there selling jewelry. Security guards and a red carpet type of rope separated the onlookers with cameras from the people who were buying jewelry from Warren. I later learned that an appointment to buy a certain dollar amount of jewelry is what essentially separated us from them, and I could see that pictures and handshakes were part of the deal. As I stood in the crowd, on my tippy toes, while contouring my neck in all sorts of snake-like directions in order to get a better view, it all began to feel somewhat surreal. The people around me were excited, focused, all while jockeying for position and raising their camera gadgets high in the air and taking a gazillion shots to increase the probability of getting at least a decent shot of the wild and exotic Omaha money making jungle beast with the gray suit and red tie. Interestingly, it felt as if I were on a safari.
After Warren had proven that selling jewelry wasn’t beyond his circle of competence, we continued to venture and noticed some people playing ping pong. We then saw a small crowd surrounding chess Grandmaster Patrick Wolff, who was playing chess with a handful of people at the same time. We continued walking until we arrived at somewhat of a dead end in the section of the mall where we were in, which led me to focus on a neat water fountain while Rick went up some stairs to see what was going on. All of a sudden, Rick, whose picture is in the dictionary under easygoing, loudly called me and was flailing his arms as an indicator that I quickly come upstairs. I took his cue and found a group of people surrounding Bill Gates. Security guards and a red carpet-like rope clandestinely protected Bill from the eagerness of the spectators. Even so, Bill could have easily sat on a chair at the bridge table that awaited him, but instead came toward the crowd to sign autographs and take pictures.
As we exited Borsheims and tried to figure out our next move, we saw a woman wearing a psychedelic Warren Buffett tee-shirt that caught our attention. She was wearing the short sleeved tee-shirt, which we later found out was inspired by Andy Warhol, over a long sleeved pink sweater. Rick complimented her on the tee-shirt, asked if he could take a picture of it, and she said yes. We spoke to this gregarious woman for a short while, had a swell time, and were left aghast when she literally took the shirt off of her back and gave it to me as gift, whereas Rick had to settle for a compliment about his light eyes.
The last item on our to-do list for the day was a visit to Gorat’s Steakhouse, one of Warren’s favorite restaurants. We had a reservation for 4:30pm and knew through scuttlebutt that Warren was expected to be there around 6pm. As we arrived, a staff member asked if we preferred to wait to be seated by ourselves or were willing to take an immediate table with a pair of strangers. I picked the latter. We were seated alongside two brothers from New Jersey, also in town for the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting, who were a pleasure to talk with. It was cool to see that Gorat’s had a “Warren Buffett Frequently Asked Questions” section on their menu, with references to what Warren usually eats, where he usually sits, and whether he tips well. For kicks, I ordered what Warren was said to usually order, a 20-oz. t-bone steak, hash browns, and a cherry coke. I threw in a piece of red velvet cheesecake for good measure. I enjoyed it all.
A few tables away, we noticed that several tables were empty and seemed to be reserved in what was a dead end section of the restaurant. I figured that’s where Warren and his people would sit. We saw Susie and Howard Buffett, two of Warren’s three children, and I don’t know much about Susie, but I do know that Howard is currently on the Berkshire Hathaway Board of Directors and has been hand selected by Warren as the person who is practically in charge of determining whether the person who succeeds him as CEO is a good fit for the Berkshire culture. If a mistake is made in this selection, Howard is said to have authority in ameliorating the situation.
The seats in the Buffett section began to fill up quickly, and then out of nowhere, as I was succumbing to the ecstasy of my cheesecake, Warren entered the restaurant and waived in our direction. Come to think of it, my guess is that giving his shareholders something to do while increasing the sales of one of his favorite restaurants is one of the main reasons that he eats at Gorat’s on this day. I was accepting of the fact that approaching him was out of the question since I’d been informed in advance that this visit was personal in nature, meaning he wouldn’t address a crowd or do anything Berkshire related. However, even if the opportunity of meeting and taking a picture with him had presented itself, which I probably would have embraced, there’s a part of me that wouldn’t have wanted to ask him for anything; after all, he’s a person who has contributed tremendously to my life by providing me with a rich source for vicarious learning. In a situation similar to this, it’s only natural to at least consider what I could do for him, not so much the other way around. After paying for our meal, Rick and I could have hung out around the bar area, which was suggested to us, and who knows what might have happened, but I saw that as overkill, and so we left.
Prior to hailing a cab, we walked around the block from Gorat’s to reflect on the day and noticed many vehicles that contained what resembled undercover police officers. Warren was undoubtedly well protected. After our walk and having been approached and searched by one of the cops, we were on our way home. Later that night, as we were in our room watching a sports related documentary, our host called us to her art gallery to finally meet the brothers from Germany. I found it humorous that for the better part of a week Rick and I came close to continuously missing these guys. We enjoyed our conversation with the brothers, who came across as pleasant and intelligent.
We awoke earlier than we would have preferred, as our host served breakfast around 8am. We ate breakfast, conversed, and took a parting picture with our host and her husband. As Rick and I were in our room contemplating the future, the Germans came in to say goodbye and were kind and detail oriented in giving us each a gift, a nicely wrapped large piece of chocolate with the name and contact information of their investment company. Who knew that chocolates and business cards had been in a serious relationship? A few hours later, we said our farewells to our host, who was kind in giving me a book list, and her husband. We instructed our cab driver to drive us by Warren’s house and Kiewit Plaza, where Berkshire Hathaway has been headquartered for decades, and we got out of the cab in both locations to take a few pictures and absorb the moment. We saw others doing the same. Finally, it was time to go to the airport and reminisce and realize that if this weekend had been any better, it would have landed us in trouble.
With this experience under my now belted pants, assuming that the schedule remains intact, I would consider the following for next year:
- Stock up on See’s Candy’s peanut brittle.
- Register for a two day value investing seminar in Omaha that I recently found out about, supposedly on the Thursday and Friday before the meeting. Although I’m unaware of specifics, I was informed that there is a charge for this.
- Assuming that sitting as close as possible to the stage on the day of the meeting remains a priority, find an effective way to save seats. This will allow us to keep our seats while giving us the freedom to visit the exhibit area before the meeting, and eat lunch together. Before the meeting, some of the activities at or near the exhibit area include: a newspaper tossing challenge against Warren, souvenir and memorabilia shopping, and a tour of the exhibit area in which the media and random people tag along with Warren. This latter item may take place during lunch-time, though.
- Leave the meeting promptly in order to take one of the last shuttles transporting people to Signature Flight Support where NetJets will display several aircraft.
- So long as I understand and support the cause, participate in the 5K on Sunday morning.
- To the extent that there are enough meeting credentials, bring as many friends and family as possible.
- Find out about Borsheims schedule for Sunday. In past years, these activities have included: Warren and Bill Gates playing ping pong and bridge, the chess Grandmaster playing several opponents at the same time while blindfolded, and a magician who is said to entertain throughout the day.
I want to end this by sharing a picture that I took at the Omaha Airport on our way to Florida. This picture is emblematic of Warren and Charlie, for they are men who have dared to be great by doing something, living their lives to its true potential, that’s within everyone’s reach. Regardless of the hand one’s been dealt with in life, there is usually a gap between what one can accomplish and what one actually accomplishes, and I see Warren and Charlie as prime examples of the diminution of this gap. This is one of their greatest gifts to humanity.