The centerpiece of the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A) weekend is the actual shareholder meeting. Fortunately, I mostly knew what to expect at this meeting. But I chuckled to myself imagining what the uninitiated might have thought. Warren Buffett called the meeting to order around 9:30 a.m. He took care of the official business (electing the board of directors) in five minutes, and then proclaimed the meeting adjourned around 9:35 a.m. He then asked, "Any questions?"
The questions and answers are why most people were there. While the typical CEO might field questions for 30 or 40 minutes, Warren Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger patiently answered questions from about 9:35 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., pausing just once for a brief lunch. There were about eight microphones placed around the auditorium (which holds roughly 10,000 people, give or take a few thousand). Those asking questions included several children, and people from places as diverse as California, Kentucky, New York, Texas, Toronto, Germany, and Hong Kong.
But let me set the stage a bit. Downstairs below the main space was an exhibition area. That's where you could get a complimentary breakfast (lunch was offered for about $6 later in the day). It was also where Berkshire Hathaway and many of the jewels in its crown were showing and selling. (Some of the exhibitors were wholly owned companies, others are ones in which Berkshire holds a significant stock stake.) In this exhibit hall, you could:
- Buy some See's chocolates and candies
- Buy some Dairy Queen ice cream
- Get a car insurance quote from GEICO (or buy a GEICO T-shirt or hat)
- Check out Dexter Shoes' latest line (and place orders)
- Get some Coca-Cola pins commemorating the upcoming Sydney Olympics
- Watch a demonstration of a Kirby vacuum cleaner that runs by itself, via remote control
- Buy some Ginsu knives from the Quikut booth
- Review some World Book encyclopedias and other educational materials
- Learn more about American Express' offerings
- Get a Disney button
- And more!
Before the meeting began, a special company movie was shown, lasting about 55 minutes. It was really something, and I'd like to suggest that Berkshire consider selling videos of past meetings' movies on the company website. I know I'd love to buy some. These days many companies show such movies at annual meetings. They're usually put together by people who specialize in such productions. You probably won't be surprised by this point to hear that it doesn't work that way at Berkshire Hathaway. The movie was largely produced by Buffett's family members. Words can't do it justice, but let me try to describe it for you a little.
It opened with a shot of Warren Buffett, strumming a ukulele and singing -- surprisingly well, actually. In his song, he welcomed shareholders and mentioned his "master plan": offer a movie for free, but make people pay for the rest (alluding to the goodies available downstairs). The film was essentially a collage -- featuring some very funny commercials for various Berkshire companies, and much original material, too.
In one segment, Judge Judy (yes, the Judge Judy) was in court, faced by two citizens with a dispute. One was Bill Gates (yes, the Bill Gates) and the other, Warren Buffett. She was her usual acerbic self, exclaiming, "I'm the boss, applesauce!" and when hearing what Bill Gates did for a living, saying, "Oh, you're a salesman." Her ruling was to tell Gates to "pay the man the two bucks." (I think it was Gates. I'm recollecting as well as I can.)
Another segment featured a short parody of the classic black and white movie, Citizen Kane. Only this was Citizen Buffett. I think it was this segment that showed some footage of Buffett appearing before the government representing Salomon Inc. At the time, Berkshire was a major shareholder in the firm, which was embroiled in scandal. Buffett's integrity was needed to rescue the firm, and he became its interim chairman.
President Clinton appeared in one segment. In a speech he gave somewhere, he was praising Dexter golf shoes. Earlier in the year, Buffett had performed in community theater, appearing as Daddy Warbucks in "Annie." Some footage of that was shown, where he was singing, "The stock'll go up tomorrow, so you gotta hang on 'til tomorrowï¿½"
A very funny segment featured a cheesy infomercial by a guy named John Avarice. (This segment may have been a Microsoft production, actually.) He was urging viewers to call 1-800-GET-RICH and buy his "Web of Wealth" package, which will help anyone become rich via the Internet. He explained that, "Before, I couldn't buy my wife a used car. Today, I'm on wife number four, and they all drive nice cars like this!" He held up a chart with intersecting upward-sloping lines -- explaining that in a few years, "There'll be more Internet than people!" Martha Stewart was one of his satisfied customers, shown with a desktop computer that she had worked on. (A paraphrase: "Next time I'll show you how to make attractive Christmas ornaments from those outdated memory chips.")
In one scene, ABC big cheese Tom Murphy and Warren Buffett were visited by Susan Lucci, acting as Erica Kane of All Children. She wanted their advice on how to grow her "Enchantment" company. "How will I go about going public? Will you advise me?"
Another good segment featured Regis Philbin hosting Who Wants to Be a Jillionaire? It had started out as a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? but the contestants were Warren Buffett and two other Nebraska giants, and they got up to leave when they heard it was just for millionaire wannabes. At one point, Buffett called Bill Gates as his lifeline -- and Gates responded, "Not again!" When Warren discussed what he'd do with a jillion dollars, he said, "Well, a jillion dollars is a lot of money. At times like this, you think of your family. I'm going to give each of my kids $300. With what's left I'll buy a second suit and a comb.
These are just a few of the many parts of the movie. It ended with a return to ukulele music, and a refrain from the famous Coca-Cola commercial, where people sing, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke." Only it became the voice of Buffett's wife Susan singing (very nicely). One line I recall was "We've bet a ton on the supercatastrophe." (One of Berkshire's insurance specialties is supercatastrophes.) The closing chorus, though, which the audience was invited to sing along with, was: "What the world wants today is Berkshire Hathaway."
After much applause for the movie, the meeting was called to order, quickly adjourned, and the serious stuff began -- the questions and answers.