Berkshire Hathaway was a small textile company in Rhode Island. As many other textile companies it was struggling due to cheap labour competition elsewhere. Warren Buffett had already invested in the company before realising that it was headed for the worst. He was about to sell his stake when he felt irritated by an underbid from the managing director, then he decided not only not to sell his shares but to invest until gaining control, sacking the CEO and completing what he later referred to as his worst investment mistake he ever made…
Today Berkshire is a very different outfit: a big conglomerate, with over 130 billion USD in revenues, with a big insurance arm, dozens of operating companies and large investments in securities. Warren Buffett, his current CEO, regarded as the best investor ever.
Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting (BRK 2011, for this year’s event) is an extraordinary event, widely covered by press and attended by over 30.000 investors and relatives.
I explained in a previous post how I became interested in investing and when and why Luca and I became shareholders of Berkshire, now I want to give a small account of my experience in my baptism in the Woodstock for Capitalists (pictures below)…
… on Thursday 28th April Luca and I picked a rental car in Chicago, from where we would drive 800km to Omaha, Nebraska, with a stop over in Des Moines. Early in the afternoon Friday 29th we arrived at our hotel in Omaha, where the receptionist informed that there was a package waiting for us: our credentials for the weekend (thanks Debra!).
The event is not restricted to just the shareholders meeting, it is composed of a series of events covering the whole weekend. Let me describe them.
Cocktail at Borsheims. On Friday evening several buses would pick shareholders up from an infamous mall to bring us to Borsheims, the group’s jewellery shop. In front of the shop there was a big tent with live music, drinks and food. The shop was open, with re-doubled staffing to attend shareholders in eventual sales (as Buffett says “what better occasion to propose to your girlfriend than at BRK shareholders meeting?”).
Shareholder meeting on Saturday morning. The meeting started at 8:30am, doors opened at 7:00am and Luca and I arrived at 6:45am when there was already a huge queue. The meeting is held at the Qwest Center, a big convention center, which has room for exhibition and a sports indoor arena where the meeting is held. The exhibition area is packed by stands selling all kinds of goods from the group subsidiaries: boots, construction tools, books, sports wear, insurance… anything at a nice discount for shareholders. What better place to go shopping than to your own shop at a discount? To open the day some very funny videos and commercials were displayed. One featuring cartoons of Buffett, Munger and Schwarzenegger as Governator was especially welcomed.
Q&A session. Most of the meeting, until about 15:30 in the afternoon is a questions and answers session. This is when everybody wants to test and listen to the insights from the “Oracle of Omaha”. They made room for approximately 60 questions. Half were selected by 3 journalists from the thousands sent in by shareholders and the other half were drawn just before the meeting from volunteering shareholders in the floor.
This Q&A session is the most widely event reported by media. If you have read anything about the meeting, it was most probably said there. Instead of me telling here again what’s that was said, let me just refer to my first and second favourite accounts from other sources.
Charlie T. Munger. He is the vice chairman of the company and doesn’t get nearly as much coverage in the media as Buffett, however Warren has for him the highest regard. Munger has written a book, “Poor Charlie’s Almanack”, which is a treasure of wit and wisdom (and heavy as a brick).
At the meeting he is sitting side by side Warren all day during the meeting, looking half asleep and eating candies. Every now and then he replies with a “I have nothing to add” whenever Warren asks him for comment, except for a few times when he gets to give his point. That point goes without cosmetics straight to the issue at hand: “Much of the present crisis was caused not so much by evil but by stupidity”, [on financial projections] “seeing them in paper or in a screen makes some people believe they’re something serious”, “It seems both parties are competing to see which can be the most stupid. What it’s worse, they’re topping each other”, “Insurance is a difficult business: there are many temptations to be stupid… like in banking”…. after hours of this is when Warren came with his “If there’s anybody we’ve forgotten to insult, pass a note up and we’ll get to you.”
Business meeting. Just as a reminder I will say that this was a shareholders meeting. I hadn’t been in any other before though I had seen some either by streaming or podcast. Luca had attended one of EADS. At BRK the shareholders meeting itself lasted… 20 minutes? Reports, directors for the next year, etc., were voted in a matter of seconds. The only issue which took longer was a proposal to get all subsidiaries to report their carbon impact anticipating eventual legislation. Several shareholders took the word for and against and it was finally turned down… this is America.
Picnic at the Nebraska Furniture Mart. Once the shareholders meeting was finished, we all headed for NFM to enjoy a very professionally organized picnic as well as to visit the furniture shop (largest one in North America). This is another BRK subsidiary founded by Mrs. Rose Blumkin, a strong woman who emigrated from Russia at the beginning of the XX century and started the business at her place, and after a disagreement with Warren went on to open a new business well into her ‘90s, being involved in the operations until shortly before her death at 104.
Brunch at Borsheims. On Sunday morning shareholders could go back to the jewellery shop to have a brunch while shopping, playing bridge or chess, seeing the performance of a magician, etc… It sounds all fine for a Sunday morning plan, the singularity comes from that jewels were sold by Warren Buffett himself, you could play bridge with or against Bill Gates, the chess game was against US champion, etc.
Lunch at Gorat’s. On Sunday two steak houses in Omaha closed doors for shareholders of BRK. Luca and I booked a place in both; one for lunch, the other for supper. Both are Buffett’s favourite places and this is why he recommends them (not being part of the group). Food was wonderful, just too much for us to finish everything.
Dinner at Piccolo’s. This would be our last event in the weekend. We had finished lunch just 5 hours before and were not really hungry. In fact, we were not hungry at all, but we went on with the plan. While we were having our burgers, Warren and Bill came in with their entourage to have dinner at a table 2 tables away from ours. It felt awkward to say the least but this how we closed our BRK2011, our first.