OMAHA, Neb. -- As devoted shareholders gather for this rendition of Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A) - Get Report annual meeting, one thing is clear: this is Warren Buffett's party.

A jazz quartet laid down Lionel Hampton licks, while partygoers grazed on crudites and roast beef and perused jewels at Borsheim's. But everyone had one eye on the door for Buffett, hoping to be lucky enough to press the flesh and get a picture taken with the capitalist Oracle.

While the weekend is also about entertainment and camaraderie, it is first and foremost about seeing and learning from Buffett. "He's a unique individual and all the shareholders are focused on him," says Andy Kilpatrick, a Birmingham, Ala. stockbroker and author of

Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett

. "It's not only the profits but the ethics and his sense of humor and the speed of his responses. And, it's a homespun quality. People are fascinated some guy can have all these qualities in one body," said Kilpatrick, who is attending his 17th annual meeting.

A Loyal Tribe

The crowd at Friday evening's cocktail party was about three times as large as the group at last year's meeting-eve festivities, suggesting the meeting may have drawn a record-size crowd.

After months of controversy over accounting problems and corporate governance issues at many companies, Warren Buffett seems like a flower in a field of weeds. "Two or three years ago his ethics didn't mean anything to anyone because everyone was chasing the bubble," says Lyle McIntosh, a rural Omaha farmer who has seen over 15 annual meetings. "Now ethics mean something again. In the coming years, Warren will look better every day by doing what he has always done."

Brick by Brick

In the past two years Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has become a smorgasbord of home products companies, from Shaw carpet to Benjamin Moore paint. In August of 2000, Berkshire acquired Acme Bricks, one of the nation's largest brick manufacturers.

Acme's President and CEO Harold Melton has been in the brick business for nearly 37 years, helping build Acme into one of the leading brick companies in the world.

"Working for Warren Buffett is like owning your own business," said Melton in an interview Friday evening. "He gives you the flexibility to run the business just as though you still own the business. He is a great boss."

And Buffett knows the details, right down to the brick. "I've followed Warren Buffett for probably 35 years and never guessed he would be interested in our business," Melton quips. "But, he just has such a superb business mind that you can sit down with him and cover things in 30 minutes with him that you would spend a week with someone else."

The Acme deal illustrates that. A mutual acquaintance took some information about the business to Buffett, who took a quick look and called Melton to see if he would consider selling. "A few of us met with Warren and we made a deal," Melton said. "The basic decision was made in one day. He acts fast."

Melton says he doesn't worry, but he does wonder about Berkshire after Buffett. "Knowing Warren and his well-structured mind, he has a plan for when that happens," Melton says. Buffett is irreplaceable, he said. "There are a lot of other people -- probably not a single person, but two or three people perhaps -- that can fill that void ... maybe."

On Tap

The doors to the dusty Omaha Civic Auditorium opened at 7 a.m. today as shareholders rushed to secure the best seat for the six-hour meeting. More than 30 Berkshire businesses will be peddling their wares until Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger take the stage at 9:30 a.m. to answer shareholder queries until mid-afternoon.

We'll be there to capture the color. Look for our dispatches around lunchtime and again as the meeting wraps up Saturday afternoon. Plus, for

subscribers, we'll have real-time comments on the Columnist Conversation throughout the day.

Christopher S. Edmonds is president of Resource Dynamics, a private financial consulting firm based in Atlanta. At time of publication, neither Edmonds nor his firm held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. While Edmonds cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback and invites you to send it to

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