Berkshire Hathaway event celebrates what makes firm special

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, center, looks at products produced by Precision Castparts as he tours the exhibit floor before presiding over the annual shareholders meeting Saturday, April 30, 2016, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

OMAHA, Neb. — Berkshire Hathaway’s peculiarities were on display again this weekend with tens of thousands of people filling an arena to listen to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger talk business for hours at the conglomerate’s annual meeting.

The Omaha event features an adjoining 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall where Berkshire subsidiaries such as See’s Candy, Fruit of the Loom and Geico insurance sell their products as executives chat with shareholders.

For the first time, Saturday’s meeting was broadcast online on Yahoo Finance. The crowd is smaller than last year’s 50th anniversary meeting but still dwarfs any other corporate meeting. Buffett didn’t give an attendance estimate Saturday morning as he offered optimism about business and advice on investing.

Buffett told shareholders that some of the keys to successful investing is avoiding envy and costly fees. The investor said it’s important not to try and copy others who profited in a company’s initial public offering or claimed a lottery jackpot.

“You don’t want to get envious of somebody who bought an IPO or won a lottery. You have to do what makes sense to you,” Buffett said.

That kind of advice and Buffett and Munger’s willingness to take almost any question is part of what keeps people coming back to the meeting. Bob Shanahan returned to for his second Berkshire meeting, so his son, Tim, would have a chance to attend the event while the 85-year-old Buffett and 92-year-old Munger are still leading the company.

“You never know how much longer they’ll be around,” said Bob Shanahan, who lives in Castle Rock, Colorado.

It didn’t take much convincing to get Tim Shanahan to make the trip because he has looked up to Buffett for several years and is now studying finance at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

“For someone my age, he’s a good hero to have,” Tim Shanahan said shortly after snapping a fleeting picture of Buffett touring the exhibit hall.

Shareholder David Parr said eventually replacing Buffett has to be a concern for Berkshire shareholders because he is 85 and such a remarkable talent, but he’s confident that Buffett has a good plan in place and has a knack for choosing good people.

“His investing is not about a magic formula. It’s about him,” said Parr, who is from Superior, Wisconsin. “If it was a formula, everyone would be doing it.”

In presidential politics, Buffett has long supported Democrat Hillary Clinton, so one shareholder asked what might happen to Berkshire if Republican Donald Trump were elected.

“That won’t be the main problem,” Buffett said before reassuring shareholders that Berkshire would prosper regardless of who is elected. He said U.S. businesses will continue to adapt and thrive.

“No presidential candidate or president is going to end that,” he said.

Buffett takes an extremely hands-off approach to managing all the companies Berkshire owns. Unless he’s aware of a problem that needs his attention, Buffett allows the CEOs of Berkshire companies to run the companies as if they owned them, and he encourages managers to focus on building the long-term strength of their brands.

Benjamin Moore paints CEO Mike Searles said running a Berkshire subsidiary has been a pleasant change after a career of working for public companies that focus heavily on each quarter’s results. Berkshire encourages its companies to focus on building their long-term strength even if their quarterly performance may be uneven.

Berkshire’s large conglomerate of more than 90 companies and investments shields individual subsidiaries from that pressure.

“The way Berkshire runs its company, it’s all about two things: the future and ethical performance,” Searles said. “The culture is so long range.”

Brooks Running CEO Jim Weber said his company has benefited from Berkshire’s long-term approach. As long as Brooks is strengthening its brand, which is a favorite with serious runners, Weber says Buffett is happy.

“With Berkshire there are no questions about the right way to manage our business,” Weber said.

A group of environmentalists hopes to make an impression on Buffett and the audience when they urge shareholders to support drafting a report on climate change risks Berkshire faces. That vote will come at the end of Saturday’s meeting.

Tim Rinne with the Nebraskans for Peace group that submitted the resolution says he knows the measure is likely to be defeated given that Buffett opposes it and he controls nearly one-third of the votes, but he hopes they can persuade Buffett to speak out about climate change.

The group brought in climate scientist Jim Hansen and Illinois State University professor and insurance expert Jim Jones to make their case.

“Mr. Buffett is so respected,” Hansen said. “His comments can carry a lot of weight.”

Buffett said in his shareholder letter that it’s reasonable to worry about climate change’s effect on the world, but it shouldn’t hurt insurance companies because policy prices are set annually based on that year’s risks.