They came from places like China, Canada, Sweden, New York, Nashville and Sioux Falls, South Dakota — and that was just in one small bunch standing first in line before 4 a.m.
Others in the throng of 38,000 that converged downtown for the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting included a 13-year-old Toronto kid seeking get-rich tips; a retired Federal Express worker whose held shares since 1971; and an investor who once paired up with another to pay $650,100 for a charity lunch with the Oracle of Omaha.
Though the common lure was cult-like attraction to the fourth-richest man in the world, many were first-time meeting-goers concerned about fulfilling a wish to see Warren Buffett, 83, and Charlie Munger, 90, before the feisty financial duo is no longer at the helm.
“It's one of those bucket-list things,” said Hal Westbrook, who flew in from Oregon with wife Vicki and friends Kathy and Dan Brattain. The Brattains said they've listened to their friends' Omaha stories for years and finally jumped on a private jet to come.
Said Seth Haskell, a tax lawyer from Minneapolis: “Warren and Charlie are getting kind of old. I don't know how long they're going to be doing this.”
David Isserman of St. Louis also is a longtime shareholder attending his first annual meeting with his fiancee and father.
“I can read filings and reports, and I do,” said Isserman, who owns a cosmetics company. “But we're here for the experience.”
Many shareholders, like Debbie Dugdale, who said she lives just a few houses from Buffett, were there to shop. In minutes, Dugdale had her arms filled with discounted underwear and a full-length dress from the Fruit of the Loom booth.
Still others, like Maulik Nagri, a native of India now living in Boston, were watching their pennies. Nagri said he was sharing a hotel with three other guys. He laughed and said he spent more last year in See's candy souvenirs than his stocks were worth.
“This year, I'm flying coach. I booked three months in advance; we're sharing a car.”
Nagri, a corporate finance manager, is among the “at least half” of Berkshire shareholders who Buffett said have less than $15,000 worth of Berkshire stock, yet want to participate in the event. Buffett made the remark in light of what he said amounted to price gouging by area hotels.
“They are not rich people,” Buffett said of many of his shareholders. “If they're spending airfare and everything else, even $1,000 on the meeting, it's real money to them.”
In an unscientific sampling of about 20 shareholders or shareholder couples, about three-fourths said in interviews that their Berkshire Hathaway stock was worth more than $15,000 worth of shares.
Ludvig Rosenstam of Sweden, 25, said he's a lifelong fan of Buffett's and his debut at the annual meeting was worth the expense. “I never thought I'd be here,” he said. “And overall the prices are cheaper than in Europe, so ...”
Other standout moments Saturday:
His 2:30 a.m. arrival has become a tradition.
Jeffrey Bates, a financial adviser from Nashville, was first to line up Saturday at the CenturyLink Center's west entrance.
Bates, attending his 14th annual meeting, hosts a group of clients each year at the Berkshire event. He likes them to hear Warren Buffett's philosophy, which Bates adheres to. And he wanted the 23 clients to have premier seats in the auditorium, which prompts him to rise way before the sun to claim them.
“People who come to us have already made a lot of money,” Bates said. “Wealthy people need to understand how to retain wealth.”
Those in Bates' group range in age from 25 to late 60s, hail from five states and are staying at the downtown Magnolia. They'll rest a little before moving on to Nebraska Furniture Mart and then dinner.
In the spirit of the back-and-forth commentary that shareholders get from Democrat Buffett and Republican Charlie Munger, Bates asks his group to talk about themselves and their views at dinner.
“It can be a lot of fun hearing the issues through different lenses.”
William Green, an international journalist from London, has traveled the globe.
But it's Omaha that his teenage son views as exotic when dad told him he'd be here this weekend for the Berkshire meeting.
“There is an exoticism and mystique to Omaha,” Green said. “Here we are, seeing two of the great minds of our era.”
Green said he was in town with friend Guy Spier, a Zurich-based investor who, along with another investor, bid $650,100 in 2007 to dine with Warren Buffett. That was for a fundraiser.
For complete coverage of the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, including stories, video, photo galleries and a chat with World-Herald Buffett guru Steve Jordon, visit Dataomaha.com/Berkshire.
Saturday was Green's first Berkshire meeting, and he summed it up as a cultural experience: “I want to see the scene, the phenomenon of the Berkshire Hathaway meeting, why this is such a big deal.”
Some go fishing. Some hunt or watch baseball.
Ryan Pritchard of Minneapolis and his four buddies get together each year for a guys' weekend with Warren Buffett.
Pritchard, 29, looks for tips at the meeting that he can use in the automotive industry. “I use it more as a leading indicator. It seems that whatever Mr. Buffett says happens.”
The old classmates make time also for cigar bars, Scotch and — if they are feeling able on Sunday — the 5k Run. But they don't go home without “forgiveness gifts” for wives or girlfriends.
Last year, Pritchard shopped for an engagement ring. This year, it's furniture.
“We spoil them with Berkshire swag.”
HOLDING A SPOT
Tia Valery was waiting in the dark in front of the CenturyLink Center at 3 a.m. — and she wasn't even going to the meeting.
The 20-year-old student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha said she had learned, through Craigslist, of a California guy seeking someone to hold a spot in line.
He told her he would come before the doors open, switch places and thus be in position to nab a good seat in the auditorium.
Her prize for sitting in the morning chill, with a blanket and box of cereal: $100.
Two friends came with her, but they retreated to their car to sleep.
Shortly before 7 a.m., Valery got a call and stood up to wave to the man. The crowd by then had just started to move inside. The Californian she called Daniel had missed his opportunity to be among the first in, but he still got in ahead of most.
Brandon Taylor of Richmond, Virginia, saw a familiar face Saturday in front of the CenturyLink Center at 4:30 a.m.
He had met James Ward of Toronto a year earlier around the same time and in the same spot. In a small-world experience, the two picked up where they left off, chatting about investments, Buffett's philosophy, what each has done in the year prior.
Taylor, a financial adviser, said it's the like-minded people, the investment wizards, the chance of bumping into billionaires, that are part of what keeps him returning.
Last year, he said, Bill Gates sat nearby as Taylor was having dinner at a downtown hotel. So when he can, Taylor books his hotel in the center of activity downtown.
“It's a small price to pay for the Woodstock of Capitalism.”
ASK A QUESTION
It was Steve Johnson's ninth shareholders meeting, but this one was different.
The business librarian from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had submitted a question and was hoping a journalist would read it during the annual meeting.
“I might have come off as patently naive,” he said. “But that's OK, that's how you learn.”
Johnson said he always picks up a valuable tidbit or two on his Omaha trips, but this year liked the anticipation of hearing if his question would be heard. He wanted to know Buffett's strategy for when intrinsic value exceeds market price.
“When you do something like this, it just makes the experience so much more meaningful.”
Grant Elpers likened the Berkshire annual meeting to sitting in a pew on Sunday.
“It's like going to church,” he said. “They don't really say anything new every year, but it's reconfirming.”
Elpers, a financial adviser from Garden City, Kansas, and wife Polly, a nurse, don't tire of listening to Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett. And they expect they'll leave Omaha with a few nuggets of new information.
Also in the spirit of church, the couple and his mom, Kim, are accustomed to leaving their coats and bags of merchandise on auditorium seats while they stock up on more goods from vendors. They say they've never lost anything, and say there is a widespread trust among shareholders.
People go to the meeting to pick up investment tips, Polly said, not someone else's property.
Andrew Holm, 13, may have been at his first Berkshire meeting but he already knew the golden rule.
The teen from Toronto, sporting a suit jacket and gelled hair, was in Omaha with his dad, Greg, and grandpa, Gordon. The elder Holms were at their 15th consecutive annual meeting together.
Said Andrew: “I'm trying to learn some rules about investing and to take those rules and become rich.”
He said he already knew top rules, having learned them from his hero, Buffett.
Andrew rattled those off: “Rule No. 1, Do not ever lose your principal. Rule No. 2, Do not ever forget Rule No. 1.”