Personal Finance

Folksy fun at Buffett meeting
The faithful flock to Omaha for Q&A with investor. Rock star Buffett sings, shows off boxer shorts.
May 1, 2004: 11:37 AM EDT
By Jason Zweig, MONEY magazine

OMAHA (CNN/Money) - The excitement ran high this morning as more than 16,000 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders converged on the Qwest Center in Omaha for Warren Buffett's annual meeting.

By 6:30 a.m., at least 200 shareholders were already gathered, restlessly waiting for the main doors to open. From the press box, six floors above the auditorium level, we heard a sudden metallic roar at 7:00 a.m. sharp and hundreds of shareholders, some in their 70s, came sprinting through the doors to dive for seats in prime spots near the front of the hall.

Security was intense everyone had to wear their admission pass, a plastic credential card, on a lanyard around their neck. Dozens of security officers were stationed in and outside the convention center, and rumor had it that a SWAT team was positioned on the roof.

Stephen Jersky, 29, came all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa, to hear Buffett and vice chairman Charles Munger, "because they tell no lies."

"I credit Warren and Charlie with fueling my interest in investing," said Jersky, who has owned Berkshire (BRK.B: Research, Estimates) B shares since 1999. "People forget that investing is about more than simply companies. It's about the wider world we live in, and [Buffett and Munger] give me a window into all that.

"Most investors think of stocks in terms of computer-generated excel spreadsheets, but Warren and Charlie take a much broader view," he said. "I can learn a lot from them about the character of good managers and what makes or breaks a good or bad business."

Pumping up the crowd

The crowd, pumped up by Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac pouring through the auditorium's speakers, rustled when "the movie" began: a cartoon of a tractor moving across an animated landscape that led up to interviews with shareholders from last year's meeting discussing when they arrived to wait outside to get in.

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"I got here at 3:15 [a.m.]," said one. "One o'clock," said another, as a rooster crowed for effect on the banjo-inflected soundtrack.

To the tune of "Take me out to the ball game," plucking at his ukelele and warbling in his stringy voice, Buffett sang on the movie: "We are glad you're here at our meeting. Be sure to check out all your wares. . . . For it's buy, buy, buy all you see at the Berkshire show."

The movie (produced by Buffett's daughter, Susie) then went into sci-fi mode, taking the audience forward to the year 2104, when Microsoft was about to take over Wal-Mart and Starbucks to form MicroWalBucks, a "strategic alliance" to take over the world.

In a pastiche of PlayStation and Saturday morning cartoons, Buffett and Munger, dressed in Fruit of the Loom undershirts and boxers, battled Arnold Schwarzenegger to bust up the alliance. The Warrenator and the Charlanator ended up defeating the Terminator by splattering the windshield of his monster truck with a can of Cherry Coke.

The rest of the movie cut back and forth from animated shorts and satiric features to commercials for Berkshire Hathaway products and services -- Dairy Queen, Larson-Juhl picture frames, Dexter shoes, Nebraska Furniture Mart, GEICO insurance, Acme bricks, Helzberg diamonds, and on and on.

Reminding people about right and wrong

Buffett's agenda was clearly twofold: to remind shareholders of all the products and services they could buy, and thereby help support the stock price; and to remind them how different Berkshire is from the typical company.

In a pointed swipe at the obscenely lavish mahogany boardrooms of most corporations, Buffett gave a guided video tour of a recent renovation of Berkshire's headquarters, complete with a lingering look at the company's tiny kitchen and the potted plants.

In a wicked parody of Wall Street, an actor portraying "Peter Burke, CEO of Global Century Investments" took questions from customers of his brokerage firm.

An actress playing an investor asked Burke, "Why were your brokers telling people like me to buy" overvalued stocks during the Internet bubble?

"Obviously," said Mr. Burke, since Global Century was convinced that stocks were sure to crash, "you have to convince somebody to buy them."

The investor, totally deadpan, answered, "Thank you for your honesty."

Warren Buffett
Berkshire Hathaway Incorporated

With this parody, Buffett skewered the way Wall Street pretends to talk straight but consistently misleads investors -- and made his own statement about just how honest an investment leader needs to be.

The movie ended with a takeoff on "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," with these lyrics:

"When Nasdaq's down, you'll never frown... It's the real thing... Berkshire, that's the way it should be. What the world wants today, Berkshire Hathaway."  Top of page

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