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***In today’s tumultuous world, there’s still a place you can count on where everyone will welcome you with open arms: the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. It’s counterintuitive that a group of capitalists offer such warm camaraderie, but these are no ordinary capitalists.
“The Warren Buffett Shareholder,” as I dub these investors in my new book with Lawrence (“Larry”) Cunningham, are sui generis — like no other. Over a decade of attending the meeting annually, I’ve gotten to know this unique breed.
The first year I went, what struck me immediately was the pervasive spirit of inclusion — not a snob in the bunch. What impressed me more and more as the years went on was a genuine openness to ideas and an ethic of learning.
Last year, my husband, Larry, and I decided to collate the experiences of fellow Berkshire meeting-goers in a book. We wanted to answer this question: Why do 40,000 people go to Omaha year after year?
We invited contributions from dozens of prominent members of the Berkshire community — investors, managers, authors, journalists and professors. We asked for reflections on what the meetings have meant to them, what they mean to Berkshire, momentous events that have occurred and what to expect in future meetings.
We thought of it as a group memoir, an archive of the past and a rationale for continuing the tradition. The enthusiasm to participate was overshadowed only by the unique insights that each essayist offers. While I had my own views of what the meeting was about, this group of writers gives the event a whole new meaning.
Above all, attendees come to Omaha in search of something. The first time Georgetown University professor Prem Jain attended, for example, he came seeking answers to his research question about Buffett’s success. A student of business, Jain focused on operating cash flows and profit margins. But the answer, which he found only after attending for several years, was Buffett’s excellent judgment about people, his uncanny ability to identify exceptional leaders.
People, it turns out, are Berkshire’s most valuable asset. While the success of Berkshire Hathaway has made many people extremely wealthy, that is not the reason people come to the meeting. The main reason, we found, that Berkshire shareholders flock to Omaha every spring is the other people.
Shane Parrish, of the blog Farnam Street, says he returns to be surrounded by people who remind him of the better person he constantly aspires to be. He calls the annual ritual an “oil change for the soul.” Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal sums up the driving spirit of the Berkshire meeting as fulfilling our fundamental human desire for togetherness, not feeling alone.
The Berkshire managers who contributed to our book — Tom Manenti, Tony Nicely, Bruce Whitman and the late Sam Taylor (written by Phil Terry) — love the meeting, but for other reasons. They enjoy engaging shareholders, but relish time with fellow Berkshire CEOs. They praise Tracy Britt Cool, the Berkshire executive who created a CEO roundtable during the meeting weekend where Berkshire managers meet to exchange ideas and best practices.
When you look at the stage during the Berkshire meeting, you do not see the CEO surrounded by other officers and directors, as at other meetings, or alone. Instead you have Buffett seated casually alongside his best friend, Charlie Munger. The two have been friends — partners, as they say — since 1959 and set a fine example for the rest of us on the value of friendship.
It’s a lesson Berkshire shareholders get, as our contributors regale us with the many momentous chance encounters at the Berkshire meeting that have led to lifelong friendships — this is where Tom Gayner met Chris Davis 30 years ago — some nurtured principally through the annual meeting in Omaha.
Omaha friendships form and grow through the many social events throughout the meeting weekend. Buffett and his team for decades have enticed shareholders to take in a baseball game on Friday night, a barbecue Saturday evening or a steak dinner Sunday. His disciples since created book signings at Dairy Queen, speaking events at every hotel in town and panel discussions on Omaha’s university campuses.
Over the decades, small gatherings have blossomed into major events, and our writers explain how the many ongoing traditions started and why they are important:
- Three decades ago: Markel Corporation hosted a brunch for six people that now draws more than a thousand; Ike Friedman first opened Borsheims to shareholders, and the store now generates more revenue during the meeting weekend than in the whole month of December (they can count on me every year!).
- Two decades ago: Bob Miles started a book signing event that has mushroomed into two days of seminars and summits; Whitney Tilson began throwing an annual party so no one would feel left out; John Petry and Joel Greenblatt gave out free books to launch the Value Investors Club.
- One decade ago: Mario Gabelli started an annual dinner that entertained more than 500 recently; Charlie Tian began hosting an investor’s retreat, aptly titled Guru Focus, to share ideas; and John Wingender debuted the Creighton University Value Investing Panel that welcomed another 500 guests.
Authors connect with their readers, whether coming or going at the airport’s Hudson bookstore or visiting Omaha’s fabled Bookworm shop. Writers have been inspired to write their next book here: Karen Linder’s “The Women of Berkshire Hathaway” grew out of her conversations at the meeting with Berkshire’s female CEOs, and Jeff Matthews compiled his numerous dispatches from Omaha into a book.
For me, I remember vividly the first year I attended and our lively discussion with a stranger, as Larry recounts in the book:
After parking the car at Borsheims, a man came up to us to ask about the brunch. He was carrying The Essays and Stephanie immediately asked if he liked the book. “I’ve read it three times. It’s the best one.” I smiled and put out my hand “I’m Lawrence Cunningham. Pleasure to meet you.”
“You’re Lawrence Cunningham?” Shaking my hand vigorously. “All I can say is thank you. Thank you for this book. Thank you.” After that, we spent 30 minutes in the parking lot speaking about the meeting and his adventure to get there from India.
Every author in our book comes seeking fellowship, the friendly association of those with shared interests. The idea perfectly captures why we gather in Omaha every year. Many of our authors illustrated the theme — from joining the line into the meeting in the early morning to gathering for a recap over drinks at the Hilton Hotel bar.
It is these strong friendships and time-honored traditions that will sustain the meeting and the quality of ownership at Berkshire. The Warren Buffett Shareholder should not be taken for granted, however; it is this group that lets Berkshire be Berkshire. Warren has shown the shareholders the respect they deserve, and they have returned the favor. These shareholders are partners in the future of the company. They believe in the many unique things about Berkshire culture compared to other large American companies: decentralized organization, autonomous managers, opportunistic acquisition strategy, permanent ownership of acquired companies and a very long time horizon.
Committed to the company’s values, Berkshire’s longtime shareholders are part of its fabric, on clear display every year here in Omaha during Berkshire weekend. In our book, best-selling author Robert Hagstrom puts it poignantly when relating the events he attends during the weekend. As each comes to an end, he laments, “nobody wants to leave.” Which is precisely why we all come back, year after year.
Stephanie Cuba, a real estate consultant in New York City, is the co-editor, with her husband, Lawrence Cunningham, of “The Warren Buffett Shareholder: Stories from Inside the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting,” a new book on sale at the Berkshire annual meeting.
‘The Warren Buffett ShareholdeR’ EXCERPTS