My excitement to attend this year’s annual meeting was exceptionally high as I had not attended a meeting in-person for the past three years. Last year I had a terribly timed chest cold that kept me away, and the two previous years’ annual meetings prohibited attendance due to Covid restrictions. Before that, I made the sojourn to Omaha every year from 2000 to 2019 – not a bad streak!
I have checked off virtually every box of sightseeing during my many visits to Omaha, although I’ve most enjoyed visiting some of the Berkshire-owned businesses that cater to shareholders during the first weekend of every May. While I pride myself on being emotionless in my capacity for analyzing businesses, I must admit that my disciplines disappear when I set foot in such enticing places as Nebraska Furniture Mart or the CHI Health Center Arena (location of Berkshire’s annual meeting) where many Berkshire-owned companies promote and sell their wares at discounted prices during the weekend.
Admittedly, I sometimes lose my mind in Omaha by becoming my version of a profligate spender. As usual, I found myself magnetically attracted to many of the products that were on display at the CHI Arena. See’s Candies, Fruit of the Loom, Brooks Running Shoes, Justin Boots, and H.H. Brown’s Born Shoes had some of the longest lines of shareholder-customers. Money was flowing as if it came right out of a Berkshire Hathaway printing press.
My trip this weekend was also very special for another reason. While I have met Warren Buffett on a few occasions, one of my “bucket list” items has been to meet Buffett’s brilliant business partner, Charlie Munger, who could be the smartest and sharpest 99-year-old on the planet.
I ruminated for a long time over how I could ever get Charlie Munger to meet me, but it wasn’t hard for me to come up with a very special and unique outreach that might perk his interest. Since genealogy research is a hobby that I’m very passionate about, I sent him a detailed dossier on the Munger Family’s history. I prepared and mailed a rather large envelope to Mr. Buffett’s secretary at Berkshire’s headquarters with a request to kindly pass on the envelope to Charlie in Los Angeles where he resides. I sent this package in April 2022, and then I waited (really prayed for) a response. Well, I heard nothing for 12 months, and I chalked it up to Charlie being too busy, old, and/or uninterested for a host of reasons. With some counseling from my wife, Lori, and son, Andy (a 4th year PhD student in psychology of all things), they advised me that I needed to move on and “stop making it about me.”
However, favorable things sometimes happen when you least expect it. Lo and behold, I received an email two weeks before the meeting from Molly Munger, Charlie’s daughter, who is the Munger Family historian. Somehow, my envelope got misplaced in the shuffle until Molly discovered it under a pile of contents in her office.
The reward for my efforts and patience? Molly and her dad invited me to meet them for drinks at their hotel, as Molly told me that Charlie wanted to thank me personally. I almost needed to find a defibrillator when I read Molly Munger’s email! I knew that Charlie invited other guests to a private dinner, so I didn’t want to overstay my welcome at the cocktail party. I came well prepared with two strategic missions: (1) a photo with Charlie and (2) Charlie’s signature on my treasured Fruit of the Loom Berkshire themed boxers (Fruit of the Loom is owned by Berkshire) that typically hang framed on my office wall. Did I forget to mention that these boxers were made for the company’s 50th annual meeting and had both Warren and Charlie’s caricatures on them? Or that I got Warren Buffett to sign them back in 2006?
So, of course, I shamed Charlie into signing them (“Warren insists that you sign them too!”) and I came properly prepared with a Sharpie that fit his hand perfectly. You can only imagine the expressions on some of his friends’ faces when I pulled out the rolled-up yellow boxers from my sport coat pocket! The moral of my story: Never give up hope despite how long it takes!
I clearly had a little extra pep in my walk the next morning as I entered the CHI Arena to attend the shareholders meeting. Once again, Warren Buffett (age 92) and Charlie Munger (age 99) were at the absolute top of their game. Except for a 1-hour lunch break, these two men answered 50+ questions from shareholders throughout the day without any breaks or time to rest until the meeting concluded at 4 pm. Perhaps their consumption of copious amounts of Coke and See’s Candies Peanut Brittle is their version of the elixir of life. Whatever their special sauce may be, they exhibited their typical brilliance throughout the meeting as they were peppered with questions on many different topics.
What resonated throughout the meeting was the simplicity of their process when making a business decision. They can determine in 15 minutes, using their vast experience and gut instincts, whether they would be interested in a particular company. They are also very good judges of people who they can entrust to run a business. Warren mentioned that he gives very little credence to where someone went to college, as it’s often those intangibles (e.g., the love and joy of building a business regardless of a paycheck) that allows Buffett to give managers complete autonomy in their decisions.
Warren and Charlie also were very open that they have a deep bench of executives who can carry the torch when the two are gone. However, there has always been some concern that activists might go after the company for various reasons when Warren and Charlie are no longer with us. The protection against this for Berkshire is that much of the stock is in the hands of its loyal & patient owner-investors – its shareholders. It’s quite clear from a sample size of 30,000+ shareholders in attendance that the “Berkshire Way” can and will endure for many years after Warren and Charlie are no longer at the helm.