- Rick Wilking/Reuters
- This weekend, Warren Buffett will once again host thousands of shareholders who flock to Omaha for a chance to listen to him answer questions for several hours and maybe get to ask one.
- The annual pilgrimage had more modest beginnings in the lunchroom of one of Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries.
- Steve Jordon, a reporter of 50+ years at the Omaha World-Herald, records how the meeting exploded to become an extravaganza in The Warren Buffett Shareholder: Stories from inside the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting.
During the first weekend of May, thousands of people from around the world will swarm Omaha, Nebraska to hear Warren Buffett answer questions for more than seven hours, and splurge on products made by Berkshire Hathaway’s businesses.
But Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders’ meeting was not always a carnival.
At the first meeting in 1973, Buffett and other shareholders huddled in an employee lunchroom at National Indemnity, an Omaha-based insurance company that Buffett acquired in 1967. To avoid interrupters such as people who wanted to get coffee, they taped a simple sign on the door that said “Meeting in Progress.”
Steve Jordon, a reporter of 50+ years at the Omaha World-Herald, writes on how the meeting expanded to become an annual pilgrimage in the book The Warren Buffett Shareholder: Stories from inside the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting.
As Buffett’s investments grew and garnered more media attention, he moved the meetings to the Red Lion Inn in downtown Omaha, where about 250 shareholders crammed into a room to ask him questions in 1985, Jordon recalls.
- Credit Suisse
That year, the company helped finance Capital Cities Communications’ purchase of ABC for $3.5 billion.
But even reporters weren’t interested in attending the meeting. “What self-respecting financial journalist would travel all the way to Omaha for, of all things, a corporate shareholders’ meeting?” Jordon writes.
By 1985,Berkshire’s acquisitions were defining moments for public attention on Berkshire, according to Jordon:
Attendance at the Meetings grew something like Berkshire’s stock price: 1,000 in 1989, 1,400 in 1990, 4,100 in 1995, 7,700 in 1997, 13,000 in 2000, 17,000 in 2001, 19,500 in 2004 and 35,000 in 2009, peaking at about 40,000 in 2015. Bigger venues, too: Joslyn Art Museum, the Orpheum Theater, the Holiday Inn Convention Center, Aksarben’s Coliseum, the Civic Auditorium and, in 2004, the newly opened Qwest Center, now named CenturyLink.
When the Meeting came downtown, Buffett moved it to a Saturday to avoid disrupting office workers’ parking. CenturyLink has plenty of parking and he wanted to return to Mondays, but shareholders told him they liked weekends. Saturday, it remains.
Word has spread to the world at large about Buffett, and he’s still the big draw that starts people coming. Here’s a man many call the greatest investor in the world, with arguably the greatest sidekick in the world. You see them in person. You tell your friends and clients what Charlie [Munger, Berkshire vice chairman] said. You might even make an investment decision based on Warren’s comments. If you’re lucky and persistent, you can snap a photo of Buffett tossing a newspaper.
Sometimes it’s called a tribal reunion or a pilgrimage.
“Would you want to shake Muhammad Ali’s hand?” an Omaha bar owner once asked. “Would you want to shake Babe Ruth’s hand? Buffett is bigger than both when it comes to business. He’s the best there is.”
The lunchroom where Berkshire’s meetings started may be hard to find today, as the building was converted into residences after National Indemnity moved out.
In 2015, it made one final appearance – at least symbolically – at the 18,300-seater CenturyLink Center in Omaha. In between the displays for Fruit of the Loom clothes and Mrs. See’s candy, Jordon writes, there was a setup of tables and chairs with chrome napkin dispensers from the lunchroom.