Why I’m Going to Omaha

Very early Saturday morning I’ll leave my farm in North Central Kansas and drive to Omaha for a sit-down with Warren Buffett at the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B) annual meeting. With his longtime partner and vice chairman Charlie Munger, Buffett will speak without notes and answer every question until the 35,000 shareholders who attend the annual Woodstock for Capitalists are satisfied. The day will begin at about 9:30 a.m. and end that afternoon.

Buffett will not answer any question about what he’s buying, and Berkshire shareholders know better than to ask. So without the prospect of learning any insider information, the question is, “Why go to Omaha?”
Three reasons.

1. The inimitable Charlie Munger.

Charlie and Buffett have been partners for decades. Buffett calls him his “alter ego.” Munger is less talkative than Buffett but a little more…direct. Buffett, always the professor, will find a nice way to frame his answers. Munger, the lawyer, will shake his head and cut to the chase. “See, he’s trying to tell you your conceptual framework is all wrong.”

In addition to the differences in their personalities, Munger has a radically different investing style. Buffett wants industry-leading companies cheap. He’s always patient. But Munger is a gunslinger. He’ll pony up for game-changing enterprises that have potential to become great companies. Berkshire Hathaway’s massive investment in Chinese automaker BYD was Munger’s idea. So was Iscar, an Israeli metal-tool company. Both have delivered outstanding performances.

Buffett wants a reliable +8% return for 100 years. He bought Burlington Northern. Munger bets on would-be winners and swings for the fences. He bought BYD. The two men balance each other out, and, since Munger rarely talks to the press — something Buffett is immeasurably fond of doing — I go to Omaha to listen to Charlie Munger.

2. Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett has a phenomenal mind for business details. He absorbs information, catalogs it and waits until he needs it. He knows the minute operating details of every Berkshire company and the larger picture about the industries those companies compete in. All of these data are contextualized by a first-rate mind and nearly 80 years of watching the world work. It is nothing short of astounding to watch him react to sometimes tough questions for six hours.

The great thing about Buffett is that he’s always willing to share his perspective. He gets asked, and will answer, hundreds of questions at the shareholders meeting, and every answer he gives will — if the questioner heeds it — make him or her a better, smarter or wealthier investor. Some people have said that attending the Berkshire shareholders’ meeting is better than getting an MBA. I think that undersells it.

Part of me likes to keep an eye out during Shareholders Weekend for any hint of who might succeed Buffett. For years I’ve said I thought it will be Ajit Jain, who heads Berkshire’s reinsurance unit. But Jain, the leading pricer of risk in the world, may be far too valuable in that role. So this year I’ll he keeping a close eye on Buffett’s longtime fixer, Dave Sokol.

Warren Buffett does not stand before the audience at the Qwest Center as one of the richest men in the world. He stands there as the chief executive of the company whose job it is to manage the wealth of his partners — the shareholders. When you take your seat at the shareholders’ meeting, you’re sitting down with Buffett, in his mind, as an equal. As a partner. I’ve been to a lot of shareholder events and never felt this way anywhere else. I go to Omaha to be treated and talked to like a partner in a business of which I am proud to be an owner.

3. Ownership

I will stand in a crowd of millionaires in Omaha. It is, I would estimate, one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in the world. Shoulder to shoulder with these men and women, your thinking changes.

That, in a nutshell, is the third and most important reason I go to Omaha. It’s why every investor should consider going. To gain not merely an investor’s perspective but the ownership mentality. Stocks are not merely pieces of paper whose prices go up and down and that we can make or lose money buying and selling. To Berkshire shareholders, stock represents fractional ownership in the businesses they can partner with.

That is not a semantic argument. It might not seem like a big deal, and if you think so then my guess is you’ve never been to Omaha, and that owning a company like Berkshire might not be for you.

Ownership truly changes the way you look at balance sheets. Heck, it makes you want to look at balance sheets. Answer honestly: When was the last time you looked at the balance sheet of a company you own?

Ownership makes you judge price fluctuations differently. It certainly makes you view management differently: I don’t look at the CEO of any company as the boss, I look at him as a partner who is ultimately accountable to me for his results.

The difference between traders who buy and sell stocks and owners who partner with businesses is the difference between a conscientious homeowner and a capricious renter. Owners understand how to build equity in a living business over time. They grow their wealth using knowledge, intelligence and prudence in equal measure with the cash they deploy. When you leave Omaha, you’re better at that. You think and feel like the owner that you are.

And that’s why I go.

Be sure to keep an eye out for my meeting notes, which I will publish on the StreetAuthority website shortly after the meeting, followed up with a piece on what I learned this year.