Lessons From The Top
Meeting with Warren Buffett - The Oracle of Omaha
Beacom School of Business students were invited in October to meet with Omaha businessman Warren Buffett for a noon lunch. While it's difficult for some of the world's shrewdest investors to meet with Buffett on an annual basis, this was the fifth time in six years that USD business majors have been invited to spend time with the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.
Read what students had to say.
" Getting the opportunity to meet Warren Buffett has been one of the biggest highlights of graduate education at USD...This was truly an amazing experience."
Twenty of us Beacom School of Business students traveled to Omaha, NE on Friday, October 22, 2010 to tour Berkshire Hathaway holdings Nebraska Furniture Mart and Borsheims as well as to meet and question Warren Buffett. We left Vermillion before dawn and most of the ride to Omaha was in sleepy silence, however as we got closer to our first destination everyone was awake with anticipation. First stop was Nebraska Furniture Mart.
Mr. Bob Batt, executive vice president and grandson of the Nebraska Furniture Mart's founder, Rose Blumkin, greeted the USD students along with students from east and west coast schools. Mr. Batt availed us of the marketing strategies they have used to grow market share and stay current throughout the years. It was particularly striking to learn how a family owned business has been able to stay true to their founding values in spite of becoming a publically owned company. Mr. Batt detailed the importance of customer service and constant innovation and updating of their offerings as keys to Nebraska Furniture Mart's sustained success. Next stop, Berkshire Hathaway headquarters.
The first thing you notice when arriving at 3555 Farnam Street in Omaha is that any preconceived notions about what the headquarters of a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars might look like are quickly replaced with the reality of a rather plain looking office building. Inside we were whisked to the top floor conference room, in which I might add USD got front and center seating for the big show. Again preconceived notions regarding the aloofness of what the second richest person in the world might be like were quickly assuaged upon Mr. Buffett's short welcome making it clear that no topics were off limits and that we should feel free to probe personal and professional topics alike.
USD was given the honor of the first question and from there the next two hours included topics as far ranging as tax policies to foreign investment to marriage. Mr. Buffett kept every response lively a story from his own experiences and often a great deal of humor. Strikingly the biggest takeaways from the Q&A with Mr. Buffett were not investment advice but instead repeated guidance on choosing a career which makes "you want to get out of bed and tap dance to work each day". The importance of choosing companions both personally in marriage and professionally in partnerships was the other highlight of the day with Mr. Buffett explaining that these decisions are more important than any investment decision. However it should be noted that Mr. Buffett's command of fact and figure regarding each question was very impressive and no one left the room without an impression of awe at his mastery of asset allocation. The two hours of questions went by in a flash and it was time for lunch.
From the outside Piccolo Pete's on South 20th Street in Omaha is again not what one might expect as a preferred haunt of a billionaire, but once inside the attention to service and value made it clear that this was well thought out choice. I must admit I was a bit skeptical of the pairing of steak and root beer floats, but again I learned something new! Following lunch Mr. Buffett graciously made himself available for photographs with each student, a process which took considerable time and at no point did if feel as if there were anywhere else in the world he needed to be; it is one thing to get face-time with someone of such fame and knowledge, but to receive such attention was really a once in lifetime experience.
Bellies full, cameras full and brains awash with the mornings events we headed off to the last stop, Borsheims. Being a followup act to Mr. Buffett is not a billing most people will opt into, however Ms. Susan Jacques, president and CEO, showed our group the same attention and courtesy we had received from Mr. Batt and Mr. Buffett. Ms. Jacques explained the business model of Borsheims focused on value and selection, much the same as we heard earlier in the day at the Nebraska Furniture Mart. Ms. Jacques took questions on a wide array of topics, one in particular prompted a discussion of social responsibility in the diamond trade. Ms. Jacques ardent opinions regarding what a business should do to ensure that in a pursuit for value one should not lose sight of the externalities of a product. As with Mr. Batt and Mr. Buffett it became very clear that Ms. Jacques did in fact "tap dance to work each day."
In the morning I had expected a day filled with asset allocation acumen and sage-like advice on all things financial. Instead we were treated to a recurring theme of value being the primary goal and personal choices and dedication being the vehicle. Each individual piece of the trip would have been valuable enough for the trip to Omaha and each in its own way has been a major milestone in my education at USD. This was truly an amazing experience.
" Mr. Buffett simply has a way with words and charisma that make it nearly impossible to lose focus...All in all, the trip was one of the best I have ever been on."
October 22nd started bright and early in the B-School parking lot. We were leaving for Omaha to meet and greet with three of the top leaders in the business world, namely Warren Buffett. The bus ride to our first stop, Nebraska Furniture Mart, was filled with coffee, copies of the Wall Street Journal, and excitement. For each of us this was a chance to ask questions and seek advice from some of our greatest business role models. Perhaps a chance we may never see again.
After making the trip to Omaha, we were met by Bob Batt, executive vice-president of the famed Nebraska Furniture Mart (NFM). He gave us and the other business school students from top tier universities an inside look at the operations and scope of NFM. Mr. Batt could not emphasize enough the core values of the company that had made it so successful through the decades. A laser focus on customer value and lean operations were among the many key points made throughout his presentation. In passing, you may never know Bob was a vice-president of such a successful company, but after the time we spent with him, it was clear that he knew exactly how to grow and lead a great business. "when you take care of the customer, they will take care of the stock price." This type of core philosophy instilled within himself and employees will keep this company successful for many years to come.
Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha as he has been nicknamed was going to meet with us and share his incredible insight next. We raced to the building housing one of the most successful businesses in the world, Berkshire Hathaway, in hopes of getting front row seats. Unfortunately, another school beat us to the punch. However, with some clever jockeying (mainly from Dr. Lavin!) we were able to secure front row seats in the "cloud room" atop the offices. The next two hours were filled with insight into business and life in general that was so profound and yet so simplistic. Mr. Buffet simply has a way with words and charisma that make it nearly impossible to lose focus. Piccolo Petes was kind enough to host all us for lunch following the Q&A session. Buffett was good enough to pick up the tab for the 150 + students and faculty. He also spent enough time with each student for a picture and a few shared words after lunch.
The trips final stage was held at Borsheim's Fine Jewelry. We meet with Ms. Jacques, CEO of the jewelry company. Her story of overcoming life in Zimbabwe and moving up the business ladder here in the states was riveting. She is truly someone whom I would model my business core values and ethics around.
The trip ended with a long bus ride home full of great memories and sleepy faces. All in all, the trip was one of the best I have ever been on. The time spent there could not have been better spent under any conditions. Thank you so very much to Dr. Lavin, the business school, and all the people who made this trip possible!
"Students that were curious about whether the trip would be worth their $25 and their Friday, left Omaha with a day full of laughs, advice, and a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet an admirable human being."
Twenty seven business students embarked south, towards Omaha, Nebraska, on Friday the 22nd of October at 5:45 a.m. There were many thoughts going through their heads. Some students were wondering why they were wearing a suit this early in the morning; others were thinking about classes they would miss, most were wondering whether this trip to visit with one of the greatest investors of all time, Warren Buffet, would be worth their $25 and their Friday.
The University of South Dakota students stepped off the bus and walked into the Nebraska Furniture Mart showroom, along with students from Illinois, Wisconsin, Denver, Pepperdine, Villanova, and Nebraska Omaha, for the first stop of the day's tour. They were guided to the downstairs showroom and greeted by Irv Blumkin, CEO, and grandson of Nebraska Furniture Mart's founder, Rose Blumkin. The students were shown around the many different facilities of Nebraska Furniture Mart while being told about the company's business model. Students from all over the country asked Mr. Blumkin questions ranging from business strategy to the company's relationship with Mr. Buffet. The tour concluded in Nebraska Furniture Mart's impressive electronics department. The next stop on the tour was Berkshire Hathaway headquarters.
All the students in attendance suddenly quickened their pace while exiting to their busses. The pace turned into a jog as the students unloaded from their buses at the Kiewit Plaza, home of Berkshire Hathaway. The students ascended to the 16th floor of the Kiewit Plaza known as the cloud room. Students from the University of South Dakota were lucky enough to get front row seats in a room filled with one hundred and sixty MBA and undergraduate business students. The room was anxiously waiting the arrival of the man known as the Oracle of Omaha.
Mr. Buffet opened by stating a few quick facts about himself and Berkshire Hathaway. He then declared that he would begin taking questions. Students could ask questions pertaining to any subject matter. Topics ranged from politics, foreign investment strategy, personal advice, to his views about marriage. Mr. Buffet answered all questions without a second's hesitation, and managed to keep the crowd thoroughly entertained for the two hour duration using wise cracks and humorous analogies. To say Mr. Buffet is a great public speaker is an understatement.
Shortly following the question and answer session all one hundred and sixty of the students were treated to lunch on Mr. Buffet at Piccolo Pete's, a family owned restaurant in Omaha. After the students were fed their choice of steak, chicken, cod, or vegetarian, everyone gathered in the restaurant's parking lot to get their picture taken with Warren Buffet. Mr. Buffet must have taken over three hundred pictures in a photo shoot that lasted an hour. Each picture taken was more comical and light hearted than the last. A few photos consisted of a fake proposal to a female student, plenty of "fist pounds", and there was even a photo taken of Mr. Buffet trading eye glasses with a University of South Dakota MBA student.
To conclude the tour the students visited what Mr. Buffet called the "gem in Berkshire's crown", Borsheim's. Borsheim's is an Omaha operated jewelry company managed by CEO Susan Jacques. Ms. Jacques discussed with the students the importance of being in a business that makes you passionate. After speaking with Ms. Jacques the students were able to browse Borshiem's selection of jewelry.
The day ended as the students loaded back onto the buses to return to their universities. Students that were curious about whether the trip would be worth their $25 and their Friday, left Omaha with a day full of laughs, advice, and a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet an admirable human being.