AT LOS ANGELES International Airport, the immigration officer looked through my Singapore passport and asked what I planned to do in the US. “I’m on holiday,” I said.
He asked for my destination and looked up in disbelief at my answer: “Omaha? Unusual place for a holiday.” I explained it was to “attend the annual general meeting of Warren Buffett”.
I was expecting him to light up and say, “Oh, Warren Buffett – that super rich bloke?” or something like that. But he did not. He probably didn’t recognise the name of the richest man on the planet, whose Berkshire AGM is covered by hordes of TV crews and journalists.
Mr Buffett, 77, has a net worth of US$62 billion by Forbes’ estimate early this year. The amazing thing is he made it all through investments, so no one should be surprised that he has been rated the best investor in history.
To arrive in Omaha, a city of about 400,000 residents in the state of Nebraska, we had to endure some suffering and then some. We caught four planes - from Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Phoenix. We clocked 32 miserable hours from the time we left our homes at dawn Singapore time to when we stumbled into our US$65-a-night motel past midnight in Omaha.
There were six of us: Audi Wong, a commercial pilot, and his wife Jana, a home-maker; David Leoy and Melvin Tan, investment analysts; Kathy Zhang, managing director of an investor relations company; and myself, previously a Straits Times journalist who recently co-founded a financial portal (www.nextinsight.net).
A few months earlier, one of us had hit on the idea of attending the AGM. That person, a lucky fellow who doesn’t want to be identified, had bought a Berkshire Hathaway Class B share at a low price several years ago. His shareholding entitled him to invite three guests.
Just so the rest of us could go, Audi volunteered to cough up US$4,600 to buy a share of Berkshire. Class B shares carry 1/200th of the voting rights of Class A shares (which recently traded at US$125,000 apiece, the most expensive stock in the world). Because of their relative affordability, Class B shares have opened up opportunities for many people to become shareholders of Berkshire – often just so they could attend the AGM.
The event is famous for consistently being the longest AGM in the world. Longest doesn’t mean boring in this case. Mr Buffett would take questions from 9.30am to 3pm with a half-hour lunch break, and he would invariably awe the audience with his intellect, insights and wit.
We were intent on not only savouring the experience but also visiting the places that have become iconic because of Mr Buffett. Were we star-struck fans?
Maybe. We had read extensively about him through the years, and even imagined ourselves to be “value investors” in his mould. Well, at least a little.
After some badly needed sleep, we devoted the afternoon of our first day at Omaha, May 2, to searching for his office and home. In our rented seven-seater Chrysler, we pinned our hopes on a GPS navigator to guide us to our targets. It was right on the dot in locating Kiewit Plaza, a 14-storey building in a quiet corner of the city.
We felt excited as we parked our car around the corner, and made our way to the building where Mr Buffett spends his days reading about businesses and serving as the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. This is an investment holding company which owns a wide range of businesses, whose collective value on the stock market weighed in at US$194 billion recently. Phew!
Massive as his business empire is, Mr Buffett works out of a tiny office with just 19 staff. At the quiet lobby, a security guard behind a counter kept a keen eye on a bank of CCTV panels, and confirmed that Mr Buffett’s office was indeed located in the building. He even volunteered that it’s on the 14th floor – but, no, we could not go up without a prior appointment.
“Not even just to take pictures outside the office?” The answer: Sorry, no.
“But we have come all the way from Singapore,” I said. The answer: Sorry, no.
Oh well. We settled for snapping pictures of ourselves in front of the Kiewit Plaza name-plate in the lobby.
Locating Mr Buffett’s house was more challenging. We had the address culled from the Internet but after driving around a while, we reckoned we had better seek help. An old man walking by gladly drew us a sketch of the route to Mr Buffett’s house.
“It’s on the corner of Farnam Street and 55th Street. Don’t be surprised to find that it’s a modest home,” he said. We did get there, and it was exactly what we had seen on the Internet and in books. Three ladies were giggling as they shot pictures of themselves outside the house. They said they had travelled from Rhode Island to attend the AGM the next day.
Mr Buffett’s house, which reportedly sits on 6,000 sq ft of land, has neither a gate nor a fence. We parked by the roadside but we easily could have done so right on his driveway. We were about to summon up some courage to walk up to the main door when a burly man came out, reminded us not to trespass, and then went on his way down the road before we could ask any questions.
As we gazed in wonder at the house, Audi observed: “Buffett is known to not flaunt his wealth, and that has endeared him to many people. He is not someone to make enemies and that’s probably why the house does not need a gate or fence.”
The architecture looked decidedly dated – it probably is the same design as when Mr Buffett bought it for US$31,500 in 1958. The garden was a sight of despair: Just a couple of shrubs and trees here and there, and lots of grass.
After snapping some pictures, we headed to a hotel for a short networking session with fund managers before leaving for Borsheim’s, a jewellery store founded in 1870 and which Berkshire bought over a few decades back. Borsheim’s has a cocktail reception every year for Berkshire shareholders on the eve of the AGM.
Stepping in, I thought it looked somewhat like stores in Singapore such as Takashimaya. It’s just as sprawling – probably more so as Borsheim’s is one of America’s largest jewellery stores.
The place was packed – and reeking of money. Swimming in my mind were wild estimates of the collective net worth of the classily dressed crowd – mostly multi-millionaires, I presumed. The figures ran into, gulp, tens of billions of dollars.
Much as we love our significant others, we had no thought of buying Borsheim’s diamonds, or crystals, or china, or watches, whatever the discounts being offered. We settled for Buffett memorabilia such as neckties at US$20 each.
Improbable as it was, we met a Singaporean couple – Dr Ansgar Cheng, and his wife, Moonlake, a director of his dental surgery group in Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre. It was their second successive Berkshire AGM.
Before we went our different ways, Moonlake asked: “What time will you all go to the convention centre?”
When one of us ventured “7am”, she replied: “Too late, if you are hoping for the best seats. Last year, many people were in the queue at 5.30am.”
Well, we weren’t prepared to sacrifice too many precious minutes of sleep. The next day, a Saturday, we arrived at Qwest Center at 7.30am – half an hour after the doors opened. A long queue snaked from the entrance to the back. A chilly wind blew, which had us huddling in our windbreakers or jackets, and stamping our feet.
Inside the convention centre, we were amazed to find it was already substantially filled up. We climbed the stairs and found empty seats so high up we would not be able to see Mr Buffett on stage.
I spotted someone nearby who had the foresight to bring a pair of binoculars.
There was plenty to keep us occupied until the event began. We read preview articles of the AGM in complimentary copies of The Financial Times and Omaha World-Herald, the local newspaper.
Again, improbable as it was, we soon discovered that a few guys seated behind us were from Singapore. We chatted and learnt that they were Master’s in Business Administration students from the National University of Singapore. Lucky fellows – their trip was sponsored by the NUS Business School.
With some time to kill, some of us went off to shop at the exhibition hall where 34 Berkshire businesses were selling their products and services. The most popular item: chocolates from See’s Candies, in part because this is one Berkshire product and business (founded in 1921) that has elicited endless praise from Mr Buffett.
Its business traits: high pricing power, high cashflow, and low capital expenditure.
After braving the queues, we got back to our seats with free drinks – Coca Cola, orange juice and coffee. The lights dimmed at 8.30am and an hour-long series of movies started.
It’s amazing how they could be loaded with both humour and serious messages at the same time.
A cartoon featured Mr Buffett and Microsoft’s Bill Gates persuading Charlie Munger, 84, vice-chairman of Berkshire, to run for the US presidency to solve the nation’s problems.
In another clip, the real-life Mr Buffett – who has shunned technology stocks – got excited about the Internet and tried to persuade Mr Munger to invest in Internet stocks. The reply was “no” which led Mr Buffett to call actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who was lying sexily clad in bed.
On Mr Buffett’s request, she called Mr Munger to suggest “maybe we could all buy them together”.
At 9.30am, taking his place on stage along with Mr Munger, Mr Buffett intoned: “Let’s get this show on the road.” He said that the best estimate was that there were some 31,000 people in attendance – a record.
He introduced his board members who were seated in the front rows, including Bill Gates, as “the best directors in America”.
After the AGM ended, we made our way to the room where Mr Buffett and Mr Munger would meet the hundreds of shareholders who had travelled from outside the US and Canada. Last year, there were over 400 of them.
We endured lots of security restrictions and checks: No bags, no cameras, no cellphones, no jackets. Take with you just one item for autographing, said the security guys. I was taken aback. No cameras?
No pictures with Mr Buffett? Personally, I wasn’t excited about getting an autograph on a book or dollar bill. Then Jana had a brainwave: why not get their autographs on my AGM pass? I thought that would be cool: it would be a unique memento.
After queuing for about half an hour, we walked up in pairs – a tad reverently – to where Mr Buffett and Mr Munger were seated.
I don’t blame them for not looking up: they had signed countless autographs by then. On an impulse, as Mr Buffett autographed my pass, I said: “Hi, Warren, we have come all the way from Singapore.”
The image of him looking up, smiling and saying “thank you” is etched deeply in my memory.
Audi, the cool guy who flies A380 airplanes for a living, had his own unforgettable moment, which he laughingly told us later: “When I handed him a book to autograph, my hands were trembling.”
Next day, three of us flew to Las Vegas for a holiday, while the rest delayed their flight by a day for some business meetings. In between, they visited prominent Berkshire businesses such as Nebraska Furniture Mart, which was founded in 1937 by a Russian immigrant, Rose Blumkin.
She sold her majority control to Berkshire in 1983 but continued to run the store until she died at the age of 104 in 1998.
Then there was Gorat’s, Mr Buffett’s favourite steakhouse where he takes his pals such as Bill Gates. Disappointingly, we had been unable to make a reservation at the 240-seater restaurant which opened exclusively for Berkshire shareholders that day. Reservations were accepted from April 1. Last year, Gorat’s served 915 diners on “Shareholder Sunday”.
Sometime during the day, David got in touch with a friend at Bloomberg TV, who got to hear about Kathy and decided to ask her for an interview. Kathy got a big kick out of airing her impressions about the AGM and Mr Buffett.
On our flight to Las Vegas, a passenger struck up a conversation with us on overhearing our chat about the AGM.
He too had been to the event and his one abiding impression was: “The amazing thing about Buffett is that he is not stuck up. He is so down-to-earth. I have come across people who have a fraction of his wealth, yet they are so full of themselves, and make excessive demands on people around them.”
To us too, Buffett isn’t only about investing or dollars and cents; he is also about sense and sensibility, ethics and philanthropy.
For me, attending Mr Buffett’s AGM is now on my list of 50 things to do – again.
Mr Buffett, whose salary is US$100,000 a year and who has pledged to donate virtually all of his fabulous fortune to charity, is indeed many things to many people.
That is why come next May, thousands (including some of us probably) will make the pilgrimage once again to Omaha – the sleepy city which, we joked, experiences traffic jams and sold-out hotels and rental cars just once a year.
Related story: WARREN BUFFETT: Our pilgrimage to visit the Sage of Omaha