Omaha is 'absolutely wonderful,' says Berkshire's Combs
Todd Combs could do his job from almost anywhere.
Hired in 2010 as an investment manager to back up Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Combs brought his wife, April, to Omaha to see whether they should move from Connecticut. They made the move.
Buffett said Omaha made a good impression on April. “When she saw it, she felt good about it, and she feels even better about it now.” Moving to Omaha brought “a very distinct improvement in the whole family's life,” he said.
For Combs, being in Omaha full time and working just down the hallway from Buffett gave him a chance to “learn by osmosis.” His thinking and reading time has zoomed. “Omaha is a perfect place to be able to do that. You can work in absolute isolation.”
Combs had actually visited Omaha to attend meetings of Berkshire Hathaway's shareholders, but he hadn't gotten much of an impression of the city because he was focused on Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger.
This is Berkshire Hathaway week in Omaha. An estimated 35,000 people are expected to attend the investment company's annual shareholders meeting and to gather for other events, both official and unofficial.
On Omaha.com Saturday: Live coverage of the meeting, including photos, video and a 5 p.m. chat with World-Herald reporter Steve Jordon.
Monday through May 11
>> Borsheims shareholder discounts*
Tuesday through May 6
>> Nebraska Furniture Mart shareholder discounts*
>> Value Investor Conference (pre-registration required), 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, University of Nebraska at Omaha's Mammel Hall, 67th and Pine Streets
>> 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., 5k packet pickup, Peak Performance, 519 N. 78th St.
>> 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., World-Herald book signing, “The Oracle & Omaha,” lobby, 14th and Douglas Streets
>> 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Value Investing Panel, Creighton University College of Business, Harper Center, 20th and California Streets
>> 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Yellow BRKer Group, Doubletree Hotel, 16th and Dodge Streets
>> 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Distinguished Author Reception and book signing (free Dairy Queen ice cream for shareholders), UNO's Mammel Hall, 67th and Pine Streets
>> 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Borsheims cocktail reception*
>> 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., CenturyLink Center open*
>> 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Brooks Running Co. 5k packet pickup, CenturyLink Center*
>> 8:15 a.m., drawings at microphones for questioners*
>> 8:30 a.m., Berkshire movie, CenturyLink arena*
>> 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., annual meeting, with one-hour lunch break at noon*
>> Noon to 4 p.m., NetJets display at Signature Flight Support, Eppley Airfield General Aviation*
>> 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., Berkshire Big Time Cookout, Nebraska Furniture Mart*
>> 8 a.m., Berkshire Hathaway “Invest In Yourself” 5k
>> 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Borsheims brunch*
>> 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., (reservations required) Gorat's Steakhouse, 4917 Center St.
>> 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., (reservations required) Piccolo's Steakhouse, 2202 S. 20th St.
Future annual meetings
>> May 3, 2014*
>> May 2, 2015*
* Berkshire shareholders only
“It was such a buzz hearing those guys,” Combs said in an interview, his first since joining Berkshire. “They gave a foundational perspective for investing. That's why people go there.”
Once he agreed to work for Buffett, he said, his Midwestern side kicked in.
His parents and grandparents were from small-town Illinois, and his parents moved his family to the Sarasota, Fla., area to help with his childhood asthma. They brought along what he calls Midwestern values, the “positive stereotypes” of the nation's midsection.
Combs, a graduate of Florida State University, said loving the Midwest is like being inoculated. “It either just takes or it doesn't.”
Friends, school, the Fairacres neighborhood — it's all come together for the Combs family. Combs called Omaha an easy town to live in. “You get what you see, and you see what you get. Omaha's been absolutely wonderful for us. I can't think of a better place to raise kids.”
People here, he said, “do genuinely care about their fellow man. There's no playing games. You have to be here, to see it and really understand it.”
One day his wife was pulling up to the Starbucks drive-through at 72nd and Dodge Streets at the same time a woman in another car was headed in from the opposite direction. April waved the other woman on with a smile, and when she got to the window found that the other woman had paid for her drink.
Another time, Combs was waiting in line at Wohlner's grocery at Midtown Crossing when the person in front of him came up a dollar short. Combs handed the clerk a dollar, and the other person accepted it but wanted Combs' address to return the dollar.
He finally got away without giving his address. “It's just classic Omaha.”
Commuter admires 'terrific town'
Ted Weschler is a commuter to Omaha, not a full-time resident, for his job as a money manager for Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
“Omaha is a terrific town,” Weschler said. “The unemployment rate is low. Yes, if you live here, it's easy to say you have this issue or that issue. But if you look at the key attributes that define livability, you're easily in the top 10 percent.”
But Weschler still has his office above a bookstore in Charlottesville, Va. He and his wife, Sheila, and daughters live on a 104-acre farm where they moved into the home of their dreams in 2011.
And he also works in Omaha several days most weeks, staying within walking distance of Berkshire's headquarters at Kiewit Plaza, 36th and Farnam Streets. His Berkshire desk is a few doors down from Buffett's.
“My immediate reaction was, why, this is an easy town, very likable, and very friendly people,” Weschler said in a World-Herald interview, his first since joining Berkshire.
“I remember noticing how much concrete there is in this town,” he said. “It's funny. I studied a business once in the general paving sector. People who really plan long-term use concrete. People who are more short-term use asphalt.
“The fact that concrete is so prevalent in Omaha, it stayed with me. People must really plan long-term there.”
Weschler said he likes Omaha's “vibrant economy” and active arts community. “You have family-friendly enterprises. There aren't many cities in the world that have those kind of performances and have people who want to give back to the city to create institutions like that.”
He finds it an easy commute to Omaha. “I just love it. You land at the airport and it's a quick shot into downtown. It really could not have been easier.”
Weschler's family came to Omaha on a recent holiday for a “blitz of the city,” including stops at Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, a Runza restaurant and, the family's favorite, First National Bank's downtown display of bronze pioneer statues.
“The girls are enormous fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder and 'The Little House on the Prairie.' This was kind of the embodiment of the book,” Weschler said. They were enchanted by the sculptures' “combination of history and whimsy,” with some of the buffaloes seeming to pass through downtown buildings.
Weschler said he expects to continue traveling to Omaha to keep in close contact with Buffett and learn about “the people and the culture of the company.”
The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
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Editor's note, April 29, 5:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong location for the Berkshire Hathaway headquarters near 36th and Farnam.