A silent Woodstock
Only five minutes passed from the moment I entered the Quest stadium as one of 23,000 visitors, and the moment I shook hands with Warren Buffett, the investments guru of the 20th century. No security checks, no questions, no pushing, no lines and mainly, no explanations of who on earth I was and why I thought I needed to talk with him at that time.
The September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. did not change the unique character of the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders assembly. One doesn't get X-rayed or quizzed. Nobody grabs you if you approach the second-richest man in the world and whisper a word into his ear.
Buffett wears the same suit he wore to the assembly 20 years before, and cracked a lot of the same jokes he told back in the 70s and 80s.
Another thing not likely to change is Omaha, Nebraska's attraction to Israeli tourists, despite Buffett's gigantic investment in the Galilean company, Iscar. But tens of thousands of Berkshire Hathaway investors, including hundreds from Europe and Asia, make the pilgrimage to that godforsaken town once a year, flying three and a quarter hours from New York, to hear the most influential investor in the world speak about investments, economics, and life.
Nothing to alter the mind
Americans call the meeting the Woodstock of Capitalism but you won't find mind-blowing riffs, mind-altering drugs or boozy bacchanalias. It is extraordinary what happens there, though.
Two hours after the event began, as Buffett explained the Iscar financials in depth, I suddenly realized something weird. There was utter silence in the stadium. I was in the first row in front of the stage, which was occupied by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, and couldn't see what was going on behind me. So I turned.
I saw something astonishing: the gigantic stadium was packed full and 23,000 people were sitting silently and listening.
All these people paid to hear an old man, past 76 years of age, talk about business models of insurance companies, the American trade deficit and capital market trends.
Most of what was said appears in Buffett's famous letters to investors, or they could read it in the papers the next day. But they want to see their guru in the flesh.
It is hard to think of something more American than the annual Berkshire Hathaway general assembly of shareholders, the annual ceremony of the Capitalist Faith.
Why do they love Warren Buffett so much? First of all, because he's made them a lot of money, at least for people who got into Berkshire Hathaway stock in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Until three years ago shares in Berkshire Hathaway were among the best in America.
But that is not the whole story. The American capital market has hundreds of companies that did better, and - in the last decade - hundreds of hedge fund managers who trounced the benchmark indexes and Buffett, too.
But Buffett sells a story that goes far beyond their returns on the share. He sells a philosophy of life, of investments, of economics, of a man's responsibility to take care of his own money. Buffett sells a story of simplicity: you won't hear him or his colleagues indulging in jargon that only insiders can understand. Good business is simple business that succeeds as a function of the managers' devotion to thinking about their own role in the long run.
Dinner and a movie
The meeting started with an hour-long movie produced each year by Buffett daughter Susie. It had a lot of jokes about Buffett, Munger, and his friend Bill Gates, not to mention a lot of ad breaks for the companies in which Buffett invests, such as American Express.
The movie also featured a lot of politically incorrect segments, including sexual innuendo. It goes over alright in Omaha, and it shows that Buffett and Munger may be among the most successful businessmen in the world, but their generation is going extinct.
Based on his status, one might assume there are two Buffetts, the private one and the public one. But when you meet him, you realize: there's only one, the smiling uncle who drives his own old car himself and eats burgers at the diner beneath his shabby office. He doesn't like to waste his or his investors' money.
Only once during the two days in Omaha did we see another face of Buffett, perhaps even a slightly threatening one. It happened in one short segment in the movie, the only one that wasn't funny. It was three minutes of his testimony before Congress in 1988, when he served as chairman and acting CEO of Salomon Brothers, after that company became embroiled in financial scandal. Buffett, then the main shareholder in the company, was forced to take the helm, and there he stood before Congress.
And he proceeded to deliver a message to the Salomon workers: lose money. Lose a deal. Lose a business opportunity. That is forgivable. But lose a smidgen of the company's reputation? He promised cruel retribution.
This is another reason for his attraction. In today's breakneck take-prisoners world of business, this violent arena ruled by CEO/PR masters who live from quarter to quarter spinning and grinning, Buffett is an icon of long-term thought and honesty, of not cutting corners, of not stampeding unthinkingly with the herd, or turning the complex into the simple. Of making it.
He is more than success: he is the embodiment of the idea that one can still have principles in the business world. One can be fair, and still not be steamrolled by the system.