At Berkshire meeting, See's candymaker outshines Warren Buffett

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Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2013 12:00 am

Yes, there are some things Warren Buffett can't do — at least not as well as a See's Candies specialist who has been on a sweet job for 42 years.

Victoria Melena, who counts See's as her first and only job since moving to the U.S., gave Buffett a quick lesson last weekend on how to dip and decorate pink coconut-filled bonbons.

The See's counter was one of the Berkshire Hathaway CEO's first stops in the exposition area that is part of the company's annual shareholders meeting. As usual, his presence drew a throng of spectators, many of whom contributed to a sellout of the 6,000 boxes of chocolates stamped with Buffett's photo.

Altogether, See's had 12,000 pounds of candy on hand.

Buffett managed to pull off a pretty good dip but fell short of perfecting the signature “S” swirl on the bonbon's face.

Melena, a bonbon dipper for 15 years, became a celebrity in her own right. The woman who can make 25 bonbons in five minutes — that's dunking the coconut in pink fondant and perfectly swirling the S on top — was in such demand that See's managers had to make sure she took breaks throughout the day.

It was Melena's first time at the Berkshire meeting, and See's first time featuring a bonbon dipper.

“I might have been nervous if I knew there would be such a crowd,” said Melena.

As it turned out, she didn't have time to get shook up. “I like doing this,” she said, smiling.

Helping the homeless

It's not too early to prequalify for bidding in the Glide Foundation's annual “lunch with Buffett” eBay auction at

The winning bid — usually in the millions — yields a private meal with Buffett, with the proceeds going to the San Francisco charity that has helped homeless people for 50 years.

In 13 years the auction has raised nearly $15 million. Bidding starts at 7:30 p.m. on June 2 and ends at 7:30 p.m. June 7, both Pacific Daylight Time. Bids start at $2,500, and eBay provides donations and volunteers for the event.

The Rev. Cecil Williams, Glide's founder, said the winning bidders and Buffett's participation “provide unconditional support to our neediest neighbors and help people regain control of their lives.”

Another good run

One of the last finishers in last Sunday's Invest in Yourself 5K race, the most energetic part of the Berkshire shareholder weekend, was Omahan Richard Orr, who shuffled across the finish line with a walker and quickly settled into a wheelchair pushed by his daughter, Barbara.

Orr crossed an earlier finish line in Omaha, at the 1977 Omaha Marathon, making him a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. He ran the Boston race, passing easily over Heartbreak Hill because it reminded him of some of Omaha's hills, and finished 3,105th, with a time of 3 hours and 21 minutes.

In his latest race, he completed an abbreviated course, received a finisher's medal, wrapped up in a blanket against the 45-degree temperature and shook hands with well-wishers.

Free course on giving

Warren Buffett's sister Doris has passed along her love of philanthropy to her grandson, Alex Rozek. It was Alex, you may remember, who proposed to his fiance, Sarah Krueger, during the 2009 Berkshire meeting.

Now, Alex and his partners have arranged interviews with his great-uncle, along with sports legend Cal Ripken Jr., journalist Soledad O'Brien and ice cream magnates Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, to complement lessons in a free online course on philanthropy.

The course, titled Giving With Purpose, lets students determine where to donate money from the Learning by Giving Foundation, established by Doris Buffett. Six classes, starting in about a month, will offer tools and strategies to help people invest charitable dollars effectively.

Preregistration is open here. There's a video about the course on YouTube under Learning by Giving. The project uses Massive Open Online Course technology, which provides open access and lets students interact live with instructors and each other.

It's the online version of courses that the foundation supports at more than 30 colleges and universities, based on a philanthropy program at Northeastern University.

“There are thousands of people with the energy and ideas to make a difference.” Doris Buffett said. “This course teaches them how to give effectively and provides the capital to make it happen.”

Low rates helpful

Berkshire is taking advantage of low interest rates by issuing $1 billion in bonds to pay down existing debt.

How low?

Half the bonds will pay 1.3 percent a year for five years and the other half 4.3 percent for 30 years. They replace bonds with a 4.6 percent rate.

On $1 billion borrowed, each lower percentage point saves Berkshire $10 million a year.

'Cult of Buffett'?

John Addis wrote in the Age of Melbourne, Australia, that the recent long Berkshire weekend had elements of a religious festival with Buffett as guru.

“There's something stomach-churning and perhaps, in an investing sense, costly about such veneration,” wrote Addis, a director at Intelligent Investor who has never been to Omaha and has no plans to go. “I hate crowds and there's nothing that investors get from the meeting not available online, except the experience of being there, which, of course, is the point.

“Omaha is to investors what Lourdes is to Catholics. The very act of attending inducts you into the cult and confirms the extent of your belief, whether you like it or not.”

That's a danger, he wrote. “In adopting a guru, one abdicates a sense of autonomy and self-reliance, skills crucial to investing success. This isn't Buffett's fault. In fact, he goes out of his way to prove his fallibility.”

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Hero worship dispenses with healthy skepticism, he wrote. “To be a successful investor you need to think independently and correctly, a phrase Buffett regularly trots out. That means the last thing you should do is join the cult of Buffett.”

A limit to DaVita

Berkshire agreed not to buy more than 25 percent of DaVita HealthCare Partners Inc., a national network of medical infusion clinics.

Berkshire investment manager Ted Weschler has been buying DaVita stock for Berkshire since joining the Omaha investment company last year, totaling about 14 percent of the company, Bloomberg reported.

Weschler and DaVita President Javier Rodriguez signed a “standstill agreement” last week, a document often intended to clarify whether an investor wants to acquire controlling interest in a business. Some have speculated that Berkshire wants to acquire all of DaVita's stock, which artificially inflates the price of its shares.

DaVita legal officer Kim Rivera said Berkshire is a “supportive investor with a long-term view.”

98.6% approval

Buffett finished next to last in voting by Berkshire shareholders for the company's board of directors, but still received 98.6 percent approval from those who voted their shares “yes” or “no” for him, according to the count filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Buffett's 696,566 votes finished just ahead of Thomas Murphy's 695,404 but behind top vote-getter Stephen Burke's 705,479. Burke also received the fewest “no” votes, 869, compared with Buffett's 9,783 and Murphy's 10,944.

Murphy, retired chairman and CEO of Capital Cities/ABC, joined the board in 2003. Burke, a director since 2009, is executive vice president of Comcast Corp. and CEO of NBCUniversal.

No. 2 finisher with 705,418 votes was Meryl B. Witmer, the newest of the 13 board members. She is a managing member of the Eagle Capital Partners investment firm.

Shareholders rejected a proposal by a shareholder for Berkshire to set pollution goals for its companies, with 8.2 percent voting in favor, 84.7 percent opposed and 7.2 percent abstaining, the SEC filing said.

Nine more givers

The Giving Pledge, launched by Buffett, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, to encourage wealthy people to agree to donate at least half their wealth to charity, now has 114 signers, including nine newbies.

The latest officially announced: businessman, British political leader and Crimestoppers founder Lord Ashcroft; Sara Blakely of Atlanta, founder of apparel line Spanx and the pledge's first female billionaire; Joe Craft, CEO of coal producer Alliance Resource Partners; Eagle River Inc. CEO Craig McCaw and his wife, Susan, the president of COM Investments and former U.S. ambassador to Austria;

Stephen M. Ross, founder of Related Companies and owner of the Miami Dolphins; Paul Singer, founder of trading firm Elliott Management Corp.; Mark Stevens, managing partner of S-Cubed Capital, and his wife, Mary, a trustee of Santa Clara (Calif.) University; Tad Taube, president of Koret Foundation; and Taiwanese financier Samuel Yin, who said 95 percent of his wealth would go into a charitable trust.

Students know fitness

Among students attending the stockholder meeting were five winners of a school wellness program, Fuel Up to Play 60, sponsored by the National Dairy Council, the National Football League and the GenYouth Foundation.

They met Buffett and talked about their entrepreneurial ideas to improve fitness and nutrition.

The winners: Lily Ayotte of Milford, N.H., for after-school healthy cooking classes; Lashon Bonaventure of the Bronx, N.Y., for organic growing and cooking workshops; Emma Buchanan of Glade Spring, Va., for monthly health and fitness classes; Kaylene Khosla of Pueblo, Colo., for a grade school recreational sports league; and Josh Miller of Maple Grove, Minn., for a weekly 30-minute exercise program.

World-Herald staff writer Cindy Gonzalez contributed to this report.

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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