The Oracle's Favorite Teacher
By Ellen McGirt

(MONEY Magazine) – Close readers of Warren Buffett's most recent annual letter to Berkshire shareholders discovered that the Oracle of Omaha gets ideas from surprising places. For five years, Al Auxier, a professor at the University of Tennessee, has led his finance students on an annual pilgrimage to Omaha for a private Q&A with Buffett. In 2003, Auxier gave Buffett the autobiography of Tennessee native Jim Clayton, founder of manufactured-home company Clayton Homes, as a gift. Buffett liked what he read, and after meeting Clayton and his son Kevin, the company's CEO, he bought Clayton Homes for $1.7 billion in 2003.

When Auxier isn't hobnobbing with legends, he leads a class that participates in the Tennessee Valley Authority Investment Challenge, a real-money stock-picking competition that involves 25 universities. Using the principles of value investing laid out by Benjamin Graham (and espoused by Buffett), Auxier teaches his students to find cheap but promising stocks. "Graham distilled the secret of investing down to three words--margin of safety," he says. Auxier's class has beaten the returns of the S&P 500-stock index for five years straight. The crew's portfolio returned 42% in 2003 and has won, so far, $100,000 in prizes. The group's top holdings now include Cendant (CD) and Honda Motors (HMC). --ELLEN McGIRT