Omaha’s frenetic weekend cools off as Berkshire webcast hits AGM attendance

Missing out on my annual pilgrimage to Omaha meant not being able to catch up with my old pal, veteran US journalist Barry Wood. One of the very best in my field, Wood is a writer and broadcaster whose work is published in leading publications worldwide. He has an affinity for South Africa and visits regularly – having kicked off his career here with the Financial Mail and its inimitable founding editor George Palmer. Barry was in the Media-captured Skybox at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center on Saturday to witness proceedings first hand. Having covered the last six AGMs, he was well positioned to assess how the historic webcast impacted the event. At Biznews we gave the Yahoo Finance webcast a rave review, but not all feedback was as glowing – Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger having become somewhat self-conscious in Barry’s assessment. – Alec Hogg  

By Barry Wood*

Compared with past performances, Saturday’s “Warren and Charlie Show” here in Omaha was restrained. Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders meeting was streamed live worldwide for the first time, and the insurance and industrial conglomerate’s two principals, and legendary investors, were circumspect, their comments less infused with humor and satire than previously.

Because of live streaming — in English that was translated to Mandarin — attendance was down; there were, previously unseen, empty seats in Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, which accommodates 19,000. While more than 40,000 came to Omaha for last year’s 50th Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, this year’s number was considerably lower, noticeably so.

Shareholders from China take a photo while waiting for the start of the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. April 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ryan Henriksen
Shareholders from China take a photo while waiting for the start of the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. April 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ryan Henriksen

In fact, some hotels had open rooms, and there was little surge pricing that had always annoyed Buffett, which through the years prompted an exploration of alternate ways of broadening participation while holding down the influx to Omaha.

This year’s event was still very much the Woodstock for capitalists that it has evolved into in recent years. The exhibit area was crammed with displays from dozens of Berkshire subsidiaries. The faithful (and wealthy) surged through the space, their shopping bags brimming with See’s Candies and other company goodies offered at a discount.

Noteworthy this year was the growing presence of young Chinese, many of whom traveled directly from the mainland. One estimate put the number of Chinese at this year’s meeting at 3,000, and the online Chinese audience was likely in the millions. (A Bloomberg article last June put the number of Chinese investors at 90 million.) As one American living in the west of China observed: “There’s a hunger in China to make money and learn English — in that order.”

Live streaming was likely a bonanza for Yahoo Finance, which broadcast the event. Andy Serwer, its editor-in-chief, said after being approached by Buffett that he eagerly agreed to his proposition to stream the event. The arrangement, he said, involved no money, with coverage of the five-hour annual meeting handled by Berkshire, while Yahoo was allowed to do its broadcast and interviews from the exhibit area. Yahoo was permitted to sell advertising on its live stream, which is available free of charge for the next 30 days.

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Midway through Saturday’s meeting, Serwer said: “We’re obviously very pleased. The signal is superb. We don’t have the analytics yet, but we’re interested in continuing next year.”

The webcast is the principal reason for the attendance decline, a trend likely to gain momentum in the years ahead.

Berkshire Hathaway is a stickler for control, for its messaging and, ultimately, reputation. This year there were, again, notices that reminded attendees and journalists that photography and sound recording were not allowed except during breaks.

The meeting’s format was unchanged. Warren Buffett, the 85-year-old chairman, and Charlie Munger, the 92-year-old vice chairman, were seated at a podium with a box of peanut brittle between them. The arena was darkened, with large viewing screens above and behind. Selected journalists and stock analysts were seated on either side of the Oracle of Omaha and his longtime business associate. Only shareholders were allowed into the arena, and about a dozen of them were chosen to join in the questions.

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Whether online or in person, the Warren and Charlie Show is about money and how to make it. Buffett and Munger are legends who have made multi-millionaires of their early investors. The conglomerate controls 90 companies and has $100 billion invested in other firms.

Buffett is the oldest CEO of any Fortune 500 company. He is the world’s third-richest man and, yet, lives modestly in the Midwest in the same suburban home he’s occupied for decades. He plans to give away most of his wealth.

And the profits keep rolling in for these two elderly men with the Midas touch. They emphasize that their approach is to choose the best company managers and leave them alone. The result: Berkshire Hathaway had an operating profit of $17 billion last year. And even after making its largest acquisition ever, Precision Castparts, a Portland, Oregan-based maker of aerospace components for $38 billion, it has $60 billion of cash on hand. Berkshire Hathaway companies employ more than 300,000 people.

Warren Buffett has said he wants to be remembered as a teacher. Indeed, he is that to the thousands of pilgrims who come to these annual meetings in the modest Midwest. This year, with the Internet, his classroom was substantially widened.

I departed Omaha on Saturday with a sense that Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meetings are very much in transition. Because Buffett is always concerned about Berkshire’s share price, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the next year or so, he names a successor and assumes for himself the title of chairman emeritus, or some such.

That way, there would be three people on the podium, but investors would be comforted that “Uncle Warren” is still involved and Berkshire is in fine shape. That would be a real transition, and watershed moment, in one of the world’s best-run, most successful companies.

  • Economics writer Barry Wood has reported from the past six Berkshire Hathaway annual meetings. Follow him on twitter at @econbarry. This article first appeared on Marketwatch.com.