My Journey to the Oracle of Omaha

Donna Eby
6.7.2011 »
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What would you do for the opportunity to ask one of the world’s most influential business leaders a question, have him answer it face to face, and be able to respond to what he says? How far would you travel? How many long lines would you wait in? How early would you get up? How do you get the chance?

Well, pay about $78 for a B share of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, travel (in my case) many miles to Omaha, Nebraska, wait in more long lines than you can imagine, and get up at 5 AM for admission to the Berkshire Annual Meeting (yes. 5 AM), and this opportunity could be yours. This was something I’ve always wanted to do, and this year I did.

Coming into Omaha, you’ll see hundreds of private jets and limos; for those who come without their own high-end transportation, however, Berkshire provides a free shuttle to all activities from everywhere (even the Budget Inn). The Berkshire Annual Meeting is a huge event, beginning with a Friday evening cocktail party at Borsheim’s Jewelry (another Berkshire’s company). In addition to the opportunity to buy items at a generous shareholders’ discount, you may find yourself standing in a long line next to the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, or a childhood friend of Warren’s (Buffett still calls Omaha home). This odd combination of Buffett junkies, Wall Street Executives, local farmers, and everything in between makes for a unique energy.

The annual meeting begins at 8:30 AM, but if you want an audience with Mr. Buffett (that is, to see him in person along with 18,499 other people), then you’d better be in line at 5AM. When the doors opened at 7AM sharp, the main arena was completely filled in less than 6 minutes. The next 40,000 people watch on-screen from other rooms in the Quest Center.

The meeting opens with an exclusive hour-long shareholder video, and then the real show begins: Warren Buffett answers questions from 9:30 AM to 3:30 PM. This session is the main event—you can ask virtually any question and he’ll answer it, adding on anything else he wants to talk about as he munches on See’s Candy (a company he’s extremely proud of). Buffett is pretty direct with his answers, shortcomings and successes, and the range of questions and comments is amazing. A woman who lives down the street from Buffett took him to task for taking too long to respond to an internal scandal (and she was applauded by many in the audience). A Boston stockbroker was shaking with awe when asking a question of the Great One, and another woman raved about her successes with energy stock. Buffett told her she had done a better job than he had with energy, so he just talked about his thoughts on the economy for 20 minutes. After the Q&A, there’s a very short annual meeting, and then it’s off to the next event.

Why did I feel compelled to go to Omaha? I have owned Berkshire since 1998, love listening to Warren Buffett and admire his business. I would see the annual meeting weekend on TV, and it just fascinated me. Buffett plays the banjo and puts on a bridge tournament, Wall Street veterans are on their best behavior, and his neighbors ask him very difficult questions about “their” investment. The quirkiness of the whole thing intrigued me, and I wanted to experience it. To anyone who asked, I answered “Neither Warren nor I am getting any younger; if I’m going to do it, now’s the time.”

But it was more than that. I don’t like the term “Bucket List;” it bores me. It sounds like checking a box instead of experiencing something wonderful and owning that experience. For me, this was a quest. I didn’t meet Warren Buffett in person but I did get a great seat in the main arena (thanks to my boot camp workouts). I saw and heard some really interesting things—most of them not from Warren Buffett. I laughed a lot and shook my head a lot. I probably won’t go again, but I’m very glad I went this year.

I didn’t used to do this kind of thing, but last November I saw the final table of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and got a chance to tour behind the scenes. It happened by accident; I didn’t plan it but it woke up something inside me, and now I am bursting with things I want to experience. What’s next? Maybe going to the NFL draft in New York and cheering on my Bengals’ pick (hope springs eternal) and booing the Steelers (no explanation needed). Maybe going to the Kentucky Derby but only if I can somehow get real seats. Maybe going to the Indianapolis 500 (with earplugs of course). I want to sit in the Grandstand at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I want to see a Super Bowl in person. I want to walk the Appalachian Trail.

OK, those are my ideas. What do you want to do, and how are you going to make sure it happens? Or do you just let life happen? What would you call your list besides the “bucket list?”

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