A friend invited me to attend the Berkshire-Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha earlier this month where the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffet and his partner Charlie Munger spent over five hours drinking Coca-Cola and eating See’s Candy while answering an array of questions on economics, business, and politics.
For many of those attending (40,000 this year) from across the world, this is their annual pilgrimage to ask questions and gain insight from who many might say are the wizards of the business world. Plus, the $1ice cream bars from Dairy Queen, which they own, are a nice little incentive.
What is refreshing is that unlike many of today’s business and political leaders, Warren and Charlie’s answers aren’t canned statements and have no clichés or platitudes. They don’t pull any punches, just straight answers and pearls of wisdom. It’s probably why so many make this annual trip, why so many listen to what they have to say, and why so many trust what they say.
After spending a day listening to questions and answers, and observing people throughout the arena and exhibit hall, I came away with eight takeaways:
1) Asking a question can be better than giving your opinion.
What’s a large business or political get together without someone deciding to make their own long-winded statement. Rather than asking a question, a lady from Germany decided to express her opinion at length on the atrocities with the capitalistic system. Obviously those attending were there to hear Warren and Charlie and not her. She would have been much more effective had she asked a specific and direct question on her concerns — labor, environmental, etc. — with capitalism and getting a response from them.
2) Just because you are right doesn’t mean you should do it.
This was from Charlie Munger and I have to admit it has taken me sometime to understand what this means. Then it hit me; sometimes we say things or write something that although we may be right are better left unsaid or not written. Charlie is a fan of Benjamin Franklin and he has often said that thinking aloud has gotten more people in trouble. In our social media age where everyone has and shares their opinion instantly, and it seems without a great deal of thought, maybe you’re better off not sharing it.
3) Reach for higher branches.
They’ve already picked the low hanging fruit when it comes to acquiring companies and opportunities. Therefore, when opportunities are hard to come by you need to reach for higher branches.
4) We miss some things, but not them all.
Over the years, Warren and Charlie have pretty much stayed away from technology companies and what many may consider the new economy. How did they miss investing in Google and Amazon? They both repeatedly spoke of how they missed investing in Amazon, but spoke very highly of Jeff Bezos. Their acquisitions have typically been with companies and products they know and understand. More importantly is the management and the culture of the company. Like many things in life, you’re going to miss some things, but not them all, and they have no regrets on what they missed.
5) All businesses have problems.
How about Wells-Fargo; no place is perfect or without problems. The issue isn’t about business or organization having problems; they all do. The issue is when the person in charge finds out about the problem and when the person in charge corrects the problem.
6) What is your greatest threat?
This was the most difficult question for them to answer; but they thought weapons of mass destruction would bring the greatest harm to Berkshire-Hathaway. I disagree, the greatest threat to their company like many others is “succession.” What happens after these two long-term leaders are no longer in charge? When will this transition take place? How will the next generation of managers lead the company and will the culture remain the same or change? Will they be trailblazers? What changes will they make?
7) You’ve got to have a little fun!
It started with a little entertaining movie on ‘Becoming Warren Buffet’ which is a mix of commercials for companies Berkshire-Hathaway owns along with funny videos featuring Warren and Charlie and a host of celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis, Susan Lucci and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The point is that it’s alright to have a little fun.
8) Just some odds and ends:
Companies today have an obsession and are focused on stockholders and short-term results. Companies need to have a broader obligation to their workers, customers and community.
In the 1960s, taxes for businesses accounted for 2 percent of GDP; today that figure is 4 percent. Health insurance on the other hand accounted for 4 percent of GNP in the 1960s and today is 17 percent. Taxes aren’t the issue; the issue is health care costs.
“A capitalist system will always hurt some people.” They went on to point out that we are a very rich country and can help people. Warren and Charlie indicated that capitalism is not necessarily good for everyone, but as my friend Kim replied, “just most everyone.”
Why Warren and Charlie would invest in Story City?
I’ll give you some reasons.
First, they own an energy company and Story City owns an electric company. They made a number of comments and spoke highly of alternative energy. There’s a wind turbine repair company in Story City — NextEra Energy. We also have two wind turbines located just north of the corporate limits.
How about transportation. Warren likes to own a railroad and they are investors in a number of airlines. We don’t own a railroad or airline, but we do have an antique carousel. It doesn’t go anywhere, but does go around and around and up and down.
Warren and Charlie said they could, “Do a very, very big deal tomorrow.” Story City might not be able to do a “very, very,” but we’re willing to “do a very big deal today” with the right partner.
One of their very first acquisitions that they love to promote is See’s Candy. Story City has family owned American Packaging Corporation that produces packaging material for a variety of businesses and products including — candy. And, we have a Dairy Queen.
I think Charlie Munger said it best, “A lot of other people are trying to be brilliant and were just trying to stay rational.” Sounds a great deal like Story City.