JUNE 6, 2004
 Cover Story
 Personal Finance
 BT Special
 Back of the Book

Market Research Jitters
The big market research (MR) problem: people, when asked, often tell you what they think you want to hear rather than what they really think.

Maggi Five
Say 'Maggi', you get '2 minutes' in response. But the brand is talking '5' all of a sudden.

More Net Specials

Business Today,  May 23, 2004
Face To Face With The Sage Of Omaha
recounts his experience at the latest Annual General Meeting of Berkshire Hathaway.
Omaha notes: (L to R) Warren Buffet, CEO, Berkshire Hathaway with Abhishek Dalmia and Wesco Chairman Charles Munger

It has taken me 30 hours to reach the obscure town of Omaha from New Delhi. It is still small enough to be called a town, although its fame, thanks to its most illustrious citizen Warren Buffett, transcends that of many large cities. But for the Fortune magazine, Buffet may well have succeeded in maintaining a low profile. Despite being the second richest man in the world, not counting Ikea's founder, he continues to live in the house which he bought for $31,500 in 1958, drives a $20,000 Lincoln town car and operates out of the same office he moved into, many decades ago. The total headcount at the world headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway is 15.8 (one lady works only 4 days a week). The company is now worth $140 billion and employs about 175,000 people. All this has been built in just under five decades by Buffett. To put things in perspective, an investment of $10,000 in his partnership in 1956 is now worth $350 million, after all taxes, expenses and fees. Phew!

I am one of the 20,000 people who arrived in Omaha from all over the world to attend Berkshire's annual general meeting and listen to the man himself. To all of us, this is Woodstock redux. Forty Australian men and women chartered a plane to fly into Omaha and attend the AGM of a company that is neither part of any significant index, nor has been tracked by the analyst community at large. The queue for a good seat at the venue of the AGM, held on Saturday, May 1-it has been held on the first Saturday of May for many years now-starts forming at 1.00 a.m in the morning, the low temperature (low single digits), notwithstanding.

Interpret Needs

Is material success (as summed up in the opening paragraph) the reason for all this? I am not so sure: the attendance at Walmart's AGM or Microsoft's pales into insignificance when compared to that at Berkshire Hathaway's. So what is it that makes people spend many precious hours of their lives to travel this great distance to spend a few hours with the man? One reason could be that these people recognise Buffett the manager as much as they do Buffet the investor. As one shareholder put it, the man is a value investor and a values-driven manager. Still, even this is inadequate when it comes to explaining his cult status. Why are people willing to bid $250 on E-Bay to gain entry into the AGM? Why have some shelled out $600,000 for the opportunity to lunch with Buffett? There's more. Heard of the Yellow BRKers? It is a club of long-time Berkshire shareholders and Buffett fans. I met one more of the club at the meeting. He told me that he bought the Berkshire share when it was trading in the double digits (it now trades at over $90,000), and that he had to sell a few to buy a $20 million house.

Warren Buffett continues to live in the house that he bought for $31,500 in 1958

To my mind, Buffet is living proof that good guys do not always finish last. His ethical standards are legendary. He has no ego at all (despite his achievements) and has consciously cultivated a low profile. If you hop into a cab in Omaha and ask to be driven to Mr Buffett's house, chances are, you will be asked to provide the address. Another reason why the man appeals to people is his selflessness. Early on, Buffett told his father not to provide anything for him in his will. And he has made it clear that apart from a small portion of the wealth created by him (which will go to his kids), everything will go to a foundation he has instituted that will support charities. Imagine doing this in the Indian context! A third could be the simplicity with which he explains complex concepts and his sense of humour.

The 15-minute AGM itself is a mere formality. What all of us are here for is the almost six-hour Q&A that follows. Some people consider this a rapid-fire mba programme. A few shareholders have brought their children along. Some are encouraging them to ask questions of Buffett. One such asks, "What is your advice to the young?"

An investment of $10,000 in the company in 1956 is now worth $350 million, after taxes, expenses and fees

"Avoid debt," says Buffett simply. "Why don't you pay out some of the $30 billion lying with the company as dividend, if there is no investment opportunity in sight?" asks another shareholder.

The response is a bit longer this time. Buffet says he does not believe in hyperkinetic behaviour and that he doesn't get paid for activity-just for being right.

That's enough for several value investors in the room-they dissect and analyse every word the same way bond traders do with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan-to conclude that a big market crash could be coming. If it comes, is the reasoning, Buffett wants to be ready with a pile of cash to acquire good businesses at a fair price.

The total headcount at the HQ of Berkshire Hathaway is 15.8 (one lady works only four days a week)

There's more of the same. Readers interested in a complete transcript of the proceedings can get one simply by sending me an email at abhishek.dalmia@renaissance-group.com with a brief note on your background.

At the AGM, we find out that Alice Schroeder, the first analyst to write a detailed report on Berkshire Hathaway five years ago-she was with Paine Webber then; she later moved to Morgan Stanley and was the firm's star insurance analyst-has been hand-picked by the man to help him write his autobiography. There are hundreds of books on Buffet, including the most famous one by Andy Kilpatrick, but the official autobiography, labeled "the book project" promises to be something else. I cannot wait for it to be out next year.

Abhishek Dalmia, a Warren Buffet fan and a shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway, runs the Renaissance Group. He is best known for his aggressive play for GESCO Corp.




Partners: BT-Mercer-TNS—The Best Companies To Work For In India