I’ve been going to the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting since 2008. This trip has become a wonderful annual tradition. This year I am joined by my son Jonah (his second trip to the BRK meeting).
I’ve written about this weekend so many times that it is very difficult not to repeat myself. Instead, I’ll share below the chapter I wrote for The Warren Buffett Shareholder (a book edited by Lawrence Cunningham and published by Harriman House), where I describe my experiences attending BRK meetings over the years.
First (Hopefully) Annual Breakfast – Friday, April 29, 8–10:30am, Lula B’s
I am hosting an intimate gathering for friends, readers, and fellow value investors from 8–10:30 AM on Friday, April 29, at Lula B’s in Omaha. Stop by and enjoy some delicious breakfast. I may do a simple, unscripted Q&A. If you show up early enough, you might even get a free signed copy of my new book, Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.
Register here. Space is limited.
I’ll be speaking at the YPO event at Holland Performing Arts Center on Saturday, April 30 at 4:30pm, where I’ll share the stage with Tom Russo, Tom Gayner, and Lawrence Cunningham. My understanding is that the event is open to non-YPO members too (you can register by contacting ypo.nebraska [at] gmail [dot] com).
My friend Guy Spier is hosting a lunch on Friday April 29 from 12:30–3:30pm. You can register here.
One last thing before we get to the Shareholder chapter. For reasons I don’t understand, supply chain issues are having a huge impact on the publishing industry. It usually takes four weeks to print a book. Not today – we are out in 21-week territory. Publication of my book has been shifted twice! When it was delayed a second time, my awesome editor, Craig from Harriman House, called me and said, “Vitaliy, I have bad news and good news for you. The bad news, your book publication has been shifted from May to June 21. The good news, I know you really wanted the book to be available at the BRK annual meeting. Just for you, we’ll run a limited printing in the UK [no supply chain issues on the other side of the pond] and ship them to the US.”
Thus my book will be available in very limited quantities at Hudson Booksellers in the Omaha Airport two months before it hits other stores in the US. And no, the UK-printed copies will not speak the Queen’s English, just my acquired American patois, riddled with Russian sarcasm. If you are flying in or out of Omaha, stop by Hudson Booksellers and pick up a (possibly signed) copy of my book.
Next Year in Omaha
“Next year in Jerusalem” is a phrase sung by all Jewish people at the end of Passover.
“You left Russia 24 years ago and this is your first visit to Israel?” the Israeli border officer at Ben-Gurion Airport snarled at me as she thumbed through my American passport. Yes, like most Jews, I had kept singing “Next year in Jerusalem” but had never followed through on it. Now it was 2015 and I hadn’t even set foot in my holy homeland yet, and already I was overwhelmed with Jewish guilt!
Just as for Jews Israel is a homeland that we know is always there, for value investors Omaha turns into our homeland for three (usually) sunny days in late April. For me the first pilgrimage was in 2008. I had just finished my first book on value investing and my editor at John Wiley & Sons had recommended I participate in a book signing at the Omaha Dairy Queen during the BRK event weekend. Yes, the DQ. I was a bit perplexed when she has mentioned it. I had labored over this book for two years, just to do book signings at fast food restaurants? Maybe, after DQ, I’d graduate to Burger King.
She said, “You’ll see.”
When I arrived at the DQ it was packed with authors and book lovers, media, and ice cream. Somehow it felt natural: value investors (who usually love books) come to the DQ to meet authors, buy books, and scarf a Deluxe Cheeseburger. But then the event quickly drew so many people that the DQ simply couldn’t handle the traffic, and so we were moved to Creighton University. But for a while, if you had written a value investing book and you wanted to shake the hands of your avid readers, there was no better place in the world to be.
Several things came out of this DQ visit.
Before that day I was indifferent to Dairy Queen’s ice cream. Since then, however, I’ve been taking family, friends, colleagues, and clients to DQs not only in Denver but all over the US. I’d take a client to a fancy restaurant; we’d skip the dessert and go to DQ. I’d tell him the story about the DQ signing in Omaha, and suddenly repairing to the DQ after a fancy dinner would seem normal to both of us.
I met Jim Ross, the owner of Hudson Booksellers, who puts together the book-signing event. Hudson Booksellers is a small store in the Omaha airport. It is probably the only airport store in the world that has every value investing book in print. This BRK visit turned into a series of small traditions. Every single year when I step off the airplane, my first stop is to say hello to Jim and thumb through new books. I may even sign a few books of my own that they diligently carry.
On that day in DQ I was approached by a good-looking man who looked just like me. We started talking and he told me that his name was Ethan Berg, from Lennox, MA. Due to our similar looks people been confusing him for me. He’d be at a value investing conference and people would come up to him and say “Vitaliy, would you sign my book.” At first he’d say, “I am Ethan.” However, after the first few times, he started saying “Sure!” and signing the book. The DQ was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Ethan and me.
As I discovered, the DQ signing was just the tip of a huge iceberg – there were opportunities to learn and to meet interesting folks at dozens of different events all over Omaha.
I’ve been lucky to be able to participate in some of these events as a panelist or speaker. I’ve been a panelist on a value investing panel at Creighton University for five years. One year I was an accidental guest speaker for the CFA Society of Omaha. My friend Whitney Tilson, who was scheduled to speak with Robert Hagstrom, got delayed. Somehow the CFA Society knew I was in town and asked me to step in. The Robert Hagstrom book about Buffett was the first book I’d read about him, and suddenly I was sharing the stage with its author. Only in Omaha!
My favorite event is when I get to take the stage with two Toms (Gayner and Russo) at an event organized by YPO that takes place at the Omaha Performing Arts Center. Tom Gayner is CIO of Markel, and Tom Russo is a legendary manager who runs a fund that specializes in consumer brands. Tom Russo knows more about consumer brands than the people who sell them. He has owned shares of Nestle since World War I – okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but he has probably owned them much longer than he’d care to admit. Markel is a specialty insurance company that has modeled itself after BRK and that has been an incredible investment thanks to great underwriting and wise investments by Tom Gayner.
For about an hour, the two Toms and I answer questions from the audience. It’s one of those cases where I do more listening than speaking while I’m on stage. The event is sponsored by Todd Simon, CEO of Omaha Steaks (he is the third-generation Simon to run the company).
Something interesting happened to me in Omaha in 2017. I was supposed to give a presentation at the GuruFocus conference, a day before the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. I was more nervous than usual. I had agreed to give this presentation because I wanted to push myself to explore a brand new topic. I wanted to zero in on the investment process. GuruFocus seemed to have the right audience for me.
I need a looming deadline to build the pressure to unleash my creativity. Two days before I was to leave for Omaha, I wrote a nine-page speech titled “How to Stay Rational in an Irrational World.” A day later I created a 40-slide PowerPoint, which I was still tweaking an hour before my talk.
The GuruFocus conference was at the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Omaha. There were maybe two hundred attendees packed into a typical hotel ballroom. A few minutes into my talk, the power went out. Though the lights came back a few seconds later, my microphone and projector were still dead.
The speech that followed ended up being the best presentation I have probably ever given – and I have given plenty of them over the last ten years. Charlie Tian, who runs GuruFocus, emailed me and said, “Went through the surveys we collected from the attendees and found that you were rated one of the best speakers.”
I am sharing this with you not to brag – not at all. The point is that I find that small, often random moments shape the journeys of our lives. When the lights came back on and I realized that the projector and mic were out, to my amazement my blood pressure dropped. I felt calmer than I had ten seconds before. A weight fell from my shoulders. Suddenly I was no longer burdened by switching slides. I didn’t have to follow bullet points. I could just talk. Tell a story. My 40-slide presentation had been a huge distraction. Until the lights went out, the attendees weren’t looking at me; they were trying to read my bullet-point-packed slides. Their eye contact was with the screen, not with me.
If I were to redo that presentation, it would have five slides: a “Hello” slide, three slides in between with pictures, and a “Goodbye” slide. That’s it.
On my first trip to Omaha in 2008 my goal was clear: I wanted to see and hear Buffett and Munger speak. Getting up at 5 AM, standing in long lines rain or no rain (too early for sunshine), sitting in an uncomfortable seat for six hours in a humongous sports arena – All of that came with a certain sense of adventure the first few times. However, when year after year you hear the same questions and answers, the annual meeting becomes the least important event of the BRK weekend.
But all in all, I look forward to the BRK weekend more and more each year. Buffett and Munger are not the main attraction anymore, but they have created an enormous value investing ecosystem by bringing 40 thousand investors to a cow town that most people would otherwise not be able to find on a map.
The BRK weekend is a rare opportunity for me to see friends who come to Omaha from all over the world – from the UK, Australia, Germany, Switzerland – the list goes on and on. We share meals; we debate stocks. We make new friends.
As I get older I have begun to appreciate that the most important things in life are relationships. A lot of my relationships are rekindled and nurtured in Omaha, and that’s why every year I say “Next year in Omaha” and mean it.