How to obtain the equivalent of an MBA during a long weekend at the “Woodstock of Capitalism”
Over the years, I have read all four editions of Warren Buffett’s essays, edited by Lawrence Cunningham, Cunningham’s book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett, and Carol Loomis’ Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2013. Also, I read and then re-read Alice Shroeder’s bestseller, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. That said, I have never owned stock in Berkshire Hathaway nor have I had any contact with either Buffett or Charlie Munger.
There are more than 40 contributors to this volume. The information, opinions, and insights they provide will help those such as I who have never attended a Berkshire Annual Meeting (and/or related events) to understand and — yes — appreciate how much those several days in Omaha mean to attendees personally as well as professionally. Their reminiscences of Meetings past are especially enjoyable as well as informative. As with Buffett’s Letters, many of the contributors emphasize what they (and I) view as important business lessons that are best revealed within the narrative, in context. One non-spoiler: Buffett, Munger, and the Berkshire shareholders place a MUCH greater value on character than they do on ROI. I hasten to add that, for decades, demanding the former has consistently maximized the latter.
As Larry and Stephanie note in their brief but substantial Preface, the contributors “take us with them through the numerous events of the days before and after the Meeting, from Thursday to Sunday, including book signings, talks, panels; summits, seminars, conferences; and receptions, dinners, and group outings.”
Here are four brief excerpts that suggest the thrust and flavor of the narrative:
o “Why do so few investment firms educate and treat their clients [the way Berkshire does]? ‘It’s a joke, isn’t?’ answers Buffett, adding that fund managers and brokers ‘don’t judge their success by investment results. They judge it by how much they can gather in assets. So they don’t want the shareholders to think of themselves as owners. They want them to think of themselves as customers.'” Jason Zweig, “You’re Not Alone” (Pages 11-16)
o For many years, Jim Ross met Charlie Munger’s plane from LA to Omaha. “One year while we were walking up the concourse, I noticed flecks of paint on the hands of Charlie’s wife, Nancy. I asked if she painted. She said, ‘We painted the master bathroom last night. Charlie didn’t like the color.’ I said, ‘The night before the Annual Meeting, you’re repainting the bathroom?’ Charlie, who was walking swiftly ahead of us, called over his shoulder, ‘Why hire it out, when you can do it yourself?'” Jim Ross, “Calling Charlie Minger” (71-76)
o “I invested and, like most investors, being careful to verify, I felt compelled to attend my first Annual Meeting. I was moved when an elderly lady took the microphone and said, ‘Mr. Buffett, I only own one B share. May I ask a question?’ Buffett answered, ‘Ma’am, between you and me, we own half the company. What’s your question?’ I knew this was my kind lf manager, my kind of company, and that I was among my kind of shareholders.” Robert P. Miles, “Accidental Impresario” (83-87)
o “The questions [asked at the Meeting] “are surprisingly substantive and insightful, whatever their source…As they answer questions, Warren and Charlie combine the postures of managing partners reporting to their audience about the things they need to know for financial success and to live a good life. While they address a great variety of questions with simple, example-filled explanations, they follow a basic rule of not conveying information that would destroy or diminish proprietary advantages Berkshire may possess.” Robert E. Denham, “The Shareholders You Deserve” (171-174)
With an informality they prefer and one certainly appropriate to the Berkshire community, Larry and Stephanie are to be commended for brilliant editing of the original material they obtained, and then, the equally brilliant presentation of it within an eminently sensible framework.
They and countless others help to ensure that, in Warren Buffett’s words, Berkshire’s Annual Meeting is “designed with an eye to reinforcing the Berkshire culture, and making it one that will repel and expel managers of a different bent. The culture grows stronger every year, and it will remain intact long after Charlie and I have left the scene.”