The Single Best Thing That Warren Buffett Said

In the course of answering investor, media, analyst, and short-seller questions for around five hours, Warren Buffett had a lot to say at the annual Berkshire Hathaway  (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) annual meeting.

But was there one thing that stood out as the wisest, best, or most memorable thing that Buffett said this year? To answer that, I turned to my fellow Fools who were in attendance for the Omaha extravaganza.

Brendan Mathews: One of the great fears among Berkshire Hathaway is the future of the company without Warren and Charlie at the helm. In fact, according to Buffett, succession is the No. 1 issue discussed by the board.

At this year's annual meeting, the first investor question was about the future of Berkshire after Warren's inevitable departure. In response, Warren highlighted the subject of Berkshire's unique culture. Culture is hard to measure, and it can't fit in a spreadsheet. For that reason, investors, particularly those with a value bent, often totally ignore it. That's a mistake because it's crucially important, particularly at Berkshire.

Warren and Charlie have purposely, and mindfully, built a one-of-a-kind culture that will enable the company to persist beyond their time. They've set an example, carefully chosen their employees, directors, and acquisitions, and tirelessly preached their values -- shareholder stewardship, decentralization, honest and ethical behavior, long-term thinking, and rationality. As a result, these values are woven into the fabric of Berkshire, and this unique culture will allow Berkshire to continue rewarding shareholders long after Warren and Charlie are gone.

Or, to paraphrase Charlie's advice to his family, don't be so stupid as to sell Berkshire shares because Warren or Charlie aren't at the helm. 

Rex Moore: My favorite moments from the meeting involved Buffett and Munger's great sense of humor. Their investing principles are very familiar to us because we hear them over and over throughout the years, but the constant humor keeps things fresh. Here are some examples:

Shareholder: Thanks for letting us in early so we could get out of the cold and rainy weather.

Warren: If we had a company that sold coats, we would've left you out there.

...

Warren: Clearly, a 16-year-old male is more likely to have an accident than I am. It's because the 16-year-old, while driving, is trying to impress a girl next to him, and I don't need to do that anymore.

...

Charlie: There's a reason why all that stuff is in the Bible that you can't covet your neighbor's ass... it's a terrible thing to do. How much fun can you have being envious? It's the only sin there's no fun in doing.

Warren: Gluttony is a lot of fun... [as he eats fudge]... lust has its place, too, but we won't get into that.

...

Warren: I give away 4.75% of my stock every year. That's $2 billion of stock. That's less than 1% of Berkshire. One percent is absolutely peanuts.

Charlie: There's nothing so insignificant as an extra $2 billion to an old man.

John Divine: "We now realize that paying up for an extraordinary business is not a mistake."

Not only did I find these to be the wisest words Buffett uttered during Berkshire's annual meeting, but in some ways this simple, 14-word phrase was one of the most shocking moments of the entire event. It came in the form of a riposte to the stubbornly ineffective jabs launched by Doug Kass, the designated bear of the Q&A session.

Kass suggested that in recent years Berkshire seemed to be acquiring companies at higher valuations than it had in the past. To his credit, Buffett didn't deny this, which immediately struck me as a stunning confession from the longtime proponent of purchasing stocks with a built-in "margin of safety." To be fair, Buffett's always endorsed the general idea that more established companies deserve higher valuations, but when he said it like he did -- as if it was a departure from a prior philosophy -- one almost got the sense that the legendary value investor had adopted a more growth-oriented approach. Almost.

Michael Olsen: For a man with admitted and paralyzing social awkwardness (see: The Snowball), Buffett also possesses remarkable emotional intelligence. For instance, check out this quote:

I don't even know about Ted or Todd's purchases until about a month later... I don't tell them to diversify or not... When I was managing money, I wanted free reign. That's exactly the position that I have with Todd and Ted now.

This quote sounds like it's about managing money. But it's not just that. As journalist-cum-workplace behaviorist Daniel Pink detailed in Drive, a key motivator (for employees) is autonomy. Those given autonomy -- and I'd add, trust -- work harder, are loyal, and exhibit greater creativity.

As Berkshire's evolved into a business holding company, this mind-set bears increasing significance. It reinforces Berkshire's attractiveness as a home for the next big fish -- be it Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Lubrizol, or MidAmerican. A highly decentralized organization, Berkshire is different than the average employer. It doesn't want to meddle in its managers' day-to-day affairs or cut expenses to the bone. Buffett wants profitable businesses and productive employees. He trusts them until proven otherwise, almost to a fault.

For would-be sellers of business or seekers of capital, this mentality holds intrinsic allure.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 08, 2013, at 12:25 PM, DS31 wrote:

    Matt,

    Can B class shareholders attend the annual meeting or is it only for A class shareholders?

    Dan

  • Report this Comment On May 08, 2013, at 12:33 PM, JohnCLeven wrote:

    You can own only 1 class B share and still attend meetings.

  • Report this Comment On May 08, 2013, at 5:18 PM, TMFKopp wrote:

    @DS31

    JohnCLeven is exactly right. Just 1 B share will get you in the door!

    Matt

  • Report this Comment On May 09, 2013, at 3:12 PM, DS31 wrote:

    thanks much, Matt. As an owner of a few B shares, perhaps I'll make it out to Omaha someday.

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