Berkshire Hathaway event celebrates what makes firm special

OMAHA, Neb. – Berkshire Hathaway’s idiosyncrasies were on display this weekend, as tens of thousands of people filled an arena to listen to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger talk business for several hours Saturday at the conglomerate’s annual meeting.

No other company can match the crowds who attend Berkshire’s meeting, the 51-year-tenure of its top two executives or its eclectic mix of businesses. Though attendance was down from last year’s 50th anniversary meeting when more than 40,000 attended, it still dwarfs any other corporate meeting.

In an adjoining 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, Berkshire subsidiaries such as See’s Candy, Fruit of the Loom and Geico insurance sell their products as executives chat with shareholders.

Buffett told shareholders that some of the keys to successful investing are avoiding envy and costly fees. The investor said it’s important not to try to copy others who profited in a company’s initial public offering or claimed a lottery jackpot.

“You don’t want to get envious of somebody who bought an IPO or won a lottery. You have to do what makes sense to you,” Buffett said.

That kind of advice — and Buffett and Munger’s willingness to take almost any question — are part of what keeps people coming back to the meetings. Bob Shanahan returned for his second Berkshire meeting so his son, Tim, would have a chance to attend while the 85-year-old Buffett and 92-year-old Munger are still leading the company.

“You never know how much longer they’ll be around,” said Bob Shanahan, who lives in Castle Rock, Colorado.

It didn’t take much convincing to get Tim Shanahan to make the trip. He is studying finance at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and has looked up to Buffett for several years,

“For someone my age, he’s a good hero to have,” Tim Shanahan said shortly after snapping a quick picture of Buffett touring the exhibit hall.

Shareholder David Parr said eventually replacing Buffett has to be a concern for Berkshire shareholders because of his age and remarkable talent, but he’s confident that Buffett has a good plan in place and has a knack for choosing good people.

“His investing is not about a magic formula. It’s about him,” said Parr, who is from Superior, Wisconsin. “If it was a formula, everyone would be doing it.”

In presidential politics, Buffett has long supported Democrat Hillary Clinton, so one shareholder asked what might happen to Berkshire if Republican Donald Trump were elected.

“That won’t be the main problem,” Buffett said before reassuring shareholders that Berkshire would prosper regardless of who is elected. He said U.S. businesses will continue to adapt and thrive.

“No presidential candidate or president is going to end that,” he said.

Though Berkshire won’t release its full first-quarter report until next Friday, Buffett offered a preview of results. The company’s profit grew 8 per cent, largely because of the way it had to account for its Duracell acquisition on paper, but profits fell at its BNSF railroad and at its insurance units.

Buffett warned shareholders that Berkshire’s size — more than 90 companies and investments — will make it difficult to continue delivering exceptional returns.

“We had to forgo superior results for satisfactory,” Buffett said. “We’re quite happy with the satisfactory result.”

Buffett takes a hands-off approach to managing all the companies Berkshire owns, allowing the individual CEOs wide latitude unless he’s aware of a problem that needs his attention. He also encourages managers to focus on building the long-term strength of their brands.

Benjamin Moore paints CEO Mike Searles said running a Berkshire subsidiary has been a pleasant change after a career of working for public companies that focus heavily on each quarter’s results.

“The way Berkshire runs its company, it’s all about two things: the future and ethical performance,” Searles said. “The culture is so long range.”

One of Berkshire’s latest acquisitions, Precision Castparts, received an intense welcome to the company when Buffett visited its booth displaying the aviation parts it makes.

Dozens of shareholders surrounded Buffett and Precision Castparts’ CEO with their phones in the air to try to snap a picture, while security guards created a bubble around the executives.

The attention was a bit more intense than Precision Castparts executives were used to from industrial trade shows, but Jay Khetani said joining Berkshire has been great so far. Instead of drafting a quarterly earnings report and preparing to deal with questions from investors, Precision Castparts executives can focus on running the business, Khetani said.

A group of environmentalists tried to make an impression on Buffett with their resolution urging the company to write a report on the climate change risks Berkshire’s insurance units face. Shareholders overwhelmingly rejected the resolution after Buffett argued that climate change won’t hurt its insurance companies because they generally reprice their policies annually.

“It doesn’t mean we differ on the importance of climate change to the human race,” Buffett said.

The meeting gave the environmentalists and Nebraskans for Peace a prominent platform even if the resolution failed. Climate scientist Jim Hansen urged support of a fee on fossil fuels to discourage their use.

“As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest energy, we will continue burning them,” Hansen said.



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