Contest turns kids, teachers into Berkshire Hathaway shareholders

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Posted: Monday, May 20, 2013 12:00 am

Matthew Meyer's new product could have helped Warren Buffett when he was a kid.

So could the entrepreneur kits developed by Spencer Sabharwal and his sister, Kennedy, and their cousin, Sawyer Beeker.

But while Buffett isn't a kid anymore, the Matthews, Spencers, Kennedys and Sawyers of today have plenty of time to turn their ideas into businesses that, someday, could rival Buffett's investment company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. of Omaha.

“The kids were terrific,” Buffett said Monday after getting sales pitches from five individual and three team finalists in a nationwide contest related to the Secret Millionaires Club, an animated series that teaches children about finances. “They're all winners.”

Buffett, who voices his cartoon character in the series, didn’t pick the winners, announced Monday at a luncheon at the Embassy Suites hotel in Omaha’s Old Market.

But he backed up his praise by pledging to give 10 shares of Class B stock in Berkshire to each student and the teachers who coached them. That’s about $25,000 worth, altogether, at today’s price. The winning individual and team also received $5,000 from the contest.

Buffett gave shares to the finalists in last year’s contest, which was the first, and this year surprised those in attendance by adding the teachers to the gift list. “It just came into my head,” he said. “The amount of effort that teachers invest in these students is amazing.”

The finalists, flown to Omaha for the contest conclusion, were chosen from about 4,000 entries. About 100,000 classrooms received materials explaining how to turn ideas into businesses. A panel of judges selected the winners from the finalists.

Nine-year-old Matthew of Cincinnati, the individual winner, developed Right-Write, a system for improving handwriting that includes a wristband with a fabric attachment that holds the fingers in the correct position. It also helps with using chopsticks, forks and other utensils, said Matthew, who is home-schooled by his mother, Elizabeth.

Buffett said his handwriting was so poor in grade school that his grandfather paid him to write a practice letter once a week but soon gave up hoping that his penmanship would improve.

The team winners — Spencer, 16, and Kennedy, 13, of Lexington, Ky., and cousin Sawyer, from Liberty, Ky. — are marketing their Kidtrepreneur Kits for $14.95 each, aimed at children from ages 6 to 14. (Buy all four quarterly kits for $49.95 and save.) Teacher Una McCarthy was their coach.

“They’re way more advanced than I was at that age,” said Buffett, whose childhood ventures involved buying six-packs of Coca-Cola for 25 cents and selling the bottles for 5 cents each.

The cartoon series is produced by A Squared Entertainment of Los Angeles. The contest is sponsored by Fairholme Foundation, a Miami educational group funded by Fairholme Capital Management.

Bruce Berkowitz, founder of Fairholme Capital, said Fairholme Foundation will spend several million dollars this year and in the next two years as the contest sponsor. He said his company follows the same investment principles as Buffett.

“Any program that can help young people learn about Warren Buffett and how to live is a good program,” Berkowitz said. Besides investing, he said, Buffett teaches lessons about “how to behave well.”

The finalists’ ideas also include a swimming pool safety warning system by Alexis Pollitto of Colts Neck, N.J., and a bedbug exposing device by Max Wallack of Natick, Mass. Runners-up received $500.

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

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