Personal Finance

Warren Buffett, rock star
A mosh pit of millionaires -- MONEY's Jason Zweig reports from the Berkshire annual meeting.
May 1, 2004: 11:24 AM EDT
By Jason Zweig, MONEY magazine

OMAHA (CNN/Money) - Leave it to Warren Buffett to figure out how to combine America's two greatest passions about money: making it and spending it. Who but Buffett would have the nerve to kick off his annual shareholders' meeting in a jewelry store?

By 3 p.m. Friday, hundreds of happy Berkshire Hathaway shareholders were milling about the 20,000-sq. ft. sales floor of Borsheim's, the phenomenally successful jewelry emporium that Berkshire owns in a shopping center on a side street in Omaha.

At one entrance, shareholders lined up to buy Berkshire Hathaway memorabilia ranging from a deck of cards ($5) and set of 3 golf balls ($10) to a matching pair of bobbleheads (Buffett and vice chairman Charles Munger) for $30.

Deeper into the store, husbands leaned in awkward clusters against the walls, talking hockey and baseball as they waited for their wives to finish what some shareholders jokingly call "spending a share or two."

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"Last year we said we'd give them an hour," one man said, rolling his eyes when asked when his wife might finish over at the earring counter. "We forgot to give them a time limit this time."

His buddy immediately snorted, "Forget it. This isn't a sprint, it's a marathon." When a reporter asked their names, the first man said, "Just call us the jewelry widowers."

The CEO of Borsheim's, Susan Jacques, said that last year, the store did 8 percent of its annual sales volume during the three days of the Berkshire annual meeting. This year, with Berkshire's stock up a third from its price at the 2003 meeting, she expects to do at least as well.

Friday morning, said Jacques, a woman was admiring a $100,000 piece of jewelry. "I don't know if I can get my husband to go for it," she said wistfully.

"But remember that each of your [Berkshire] shares has gone from $70,000 to $93,000 since last year," Jacques coaxed her. "We have to think of this piece in the proper perspective. It's only the increase on less than five shares."

Early in the afternoon, the woman returned to the store with husband in tow. Ka-ching!

Several thousand sardines

By 7 p.m. Friday, several thousand shareholders were sardined into Borsheim's, and the surrounding walkways of the mall had become a mosh pit of millionaires.

A long line formed with people standing two abreast, and shareholders scurried to join the end of the line before they even knew what it was for. It turned out it was the line for the buffet tables.

Although hundreds of people had to wait up to 45 minutes for the line to inch up to reach the food, no one complained. Shareholders piled tiny plastic plates high with cheese cubes, chicken wings, pineapple chunks and Swedish meatballs, then stacked three to four plates atop each other and went off to pop the morsels into their mouths with toothpicks.

"It's amazing what millionaires will do for a free snack," cackled one.

Everywhere, "Berkshire buddies" were reuniting, using cell phones and GPS devices to locate each other in the swarm.

Kevin Truitt, 51, a mortgage broker from Chicago, quickly hooked up with his friend George Pappas, a 54-year-old IT specialist who lives in Omaha. They met at the Berkshire meeting five years ago, hit it off, and their mutual friendship keeps both of them coming back.

"It's like a religious experience," said Truitt. "Everyone here, from Buffett and Munger on down, has the right attitude and values: honesty, integrity, decency. People here are the way you'd like everybody to be in life."

Doug Deitchler of Lincoln, Neb., and John Shows of Blandon, Miss., served together as military attorneys in JAG court during the Vietnam War. Deitchler, who owns some B shares, and Shows, who is an A-share holder, hadn't seen each other since 1977. They decided that Buffett's meeting would be the perfect place for a reunion.

Doug's wife Susan was not only glad to see Shows again, but also brought along all eight members of her investment club, which owns B shares. She and Doug have come every year since 1999.

"It's a party," she said. "Warren and Charlie are like a comedy team. They teach and they have fun. I don't know much about investing, but who else would I want to learn from but Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger?"

Who's next?

For many shareholders, one cloud hovers over the festivities: succession. A recent article in Barron's, which speculated on who will succeed Buffett when he dies, was a hot topic of discussion by the jewelry cases and in the food lines.

Steve Sweet, a fireplace and stove retailer from Kansas City, put it this way: "The problem is that if Buffett beats the market by four or five percentage points a year for the next five or ten years and then he dies, the stock is instantly going to drop what, 30 percent? 35 percent? And then you give back all the extra return he got for you."

Did the succession question worry Doug Deitchler and John Shows? "Yes!" Shows shot back. "We're both estate lawyers, and we know succession is the biggest problem any business faces."

Buffett, 73, and Munger, 80, are on record saying that Buffett who is in robust health and has no plans ever to retire -- will eventually be succeeded by one of four senior Berkshire executives.

(As Buffett put it in this year's annual report, "The primary job of our directors is to select my successor, either upon my death or disability, or when I begin to lose my marbles. . . . The real discussion [at Berkshire board meetings] . . . centers on the strengths and weaknesses of the four internal candidates to replace me.")

The Kremlinology of this future succession has been intensely debated by Berkshire watchers. (While no one outside the company really has a clue who will succeed Buffett, that hasn't stopped pundits from pontificating.) Among the rumored candidates to wear Buffett's shoes:

Ajit Jain, head of Berkshire's reinsurance operations;

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Corporate Governance

Marc Hamburg, Berkshire's chief financial officer;

O.M. ("Tony") Nicely, chief executive officer of GEICO, the big insurer owned by Berkshire;

Lou Simpson, GEICO's chief of equity investments;

David Sokol, CEO of MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a Berkshire affiliate that owns and operates electric utilities and natural gas pipelines;

Rich Santulli, CEO of NetJets, which arranges fractional ownership of corporate aircraft.

On Saturday, when Buffett and Munger will take questions from shareholders for more than 5 hours, the succession issue is sure to come up. Buffett, who deflects and defuses the toughest questions with his twangy wit, probably has a pile of classic one-liners already uncorked and ready to let fly.

He'll need a good supply; his loyal followers are feeling edgy, and we can expect them to press him on this issue again and again.  Top of page

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