"It is difference of opinion that makes horse races." Mark Twain. OMAHA, Neb. -- It's Warren Buffett's opinion that makes the Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.A) annual meeting. And that was worth more than a certain horse race to Jim Peddle. "This is something I've always wanted to do but have always had a competing event the first weekend in May," joked Peddle, a mortgage banker from Chicago attending his first Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. "We call it the Kentucky Derby." While the six hours of questions the Oracle of Omaha and his sidekick Charlie Munger will face as today's annual meeting plays to nearly 12,000 faithful at the Omaha Civic Center will seem like a marathon compared to the mile-and-a-quarter sprint in Louisville, there are similarities. A lavish party Friday night at Buffett's Borsheims jewelry store found hundreds of shareholders grazing on crudit¿s and roast beef like horses as the horserace to find the perfect piece of jewelry showed just the capitalistic bent of Berkshire shareholders. And, this morning, thousands of Berkshire shareholders crowded the front doors of the Civic Center to get the first glimpse of the Oracle just as revelers crowd the infield gates at Churchill Downs in hopes of getting a split-second glance at horses as they make the turn into the homestretch. However, there is one stark difference. Most of the Buffett faithful in Omaha this weekend are focused on investing. For those in Louisville, money decisions are much shorter term.
Allure and IntrigueWhat could possibly be so exciting about a corporate annual meeting that would have the ability to pull a track fanatic away from the most exciting horse race of the year? It's important to understand first the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting isn't your typical annual meeting -- a 20-minute perfunctory counting of the proxies where all the outcomes are predetermined. Indeed, while the one shareholder proposal on the Berkshire agenda tomorrow -- to extend directed charitable giving to "Class B" shareholders -- is likely to take less than five minutes to dispose of, it is what happens after the formal meeting that has captivated Berkshire shareholders for decades.
Buffett and Munger spend the next several hours answering questions from shareholders about everything from Berkshire's recent acquisitions to their views on the market to Charlie's annual list of favorite reads. All that, plus the curiosity about the genuine Warren Buffett, is the real draw to Omaha the first weekend in May. "I think I'm looking to pick up the aura," Peddle says. "I don't think I'll necessarily learn anything new but the impact when you are sitting there and hearing him first hand, that will be something different." Peddle has been a shareholder for several years and has followed Buffett since the mid-1980's when he was a student at the University of Iowa. "I got the annual report and read it and was taken by the simplicity of the reports, how he lays out business and what he looked for in solid investments." Peddle, who is attending the meeting with his wife and baby daughter, is clearly taken by Buffett. "He is fun to watch," he quips. "He is the master."
Love, Marriage and BuffettPeddle is in good company. More often than not you see couples strolling through Borsheims or perusing the offerings from Berkshire subsidiaries like Dairy Queen, World Book, Justin Boots or The Pampered Chef. And, like Peddle, many shareholders cart their toddlers, grade-schoolers and teenagers to the annual meeting, clearly hoping just a little bit of Buffett's capitalism rubs off at an early age. "We hope it's her college fund," says Linda Peddle of their Berkshire stock. Linda appears just as interested in Buffett and what makes him tick as Jim. When asked what she would like to ask the Oracle, she pauses as she decides also to focus on the Buffett persona.
"I would love to know what inspires him," she says. "He inspires so many people I would love to know what excited him and whether this is what he thought he was creating." For both Jim and Linda Priddle, Omaha and Berkshire Hathaway will always be an important part of their lives, a place where Jim began his quest for Linda's heart. "Six years ago I flew here from Chicago to buy my wife an engagement ring because I got the Berkshire Hathaway discount," says Jim. "They treated me like a king -- they picked me up at the airport and I bought the ring. So, it's a neat experience."