If you’ve never been to the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, make it a priority – and include a virtual visit this year. Experienced attendees, join in too.
An annual tradition for a half-century, Berkshire chairman Warren Buffett hosts the meeting to cultivate quality shareholders by explaining - and celebrating - the company’s culture. Typical Berkshire shareholders have read Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders before the ensuing meeting, where it becomes the focus of discussion.
They learn distinctive Berkshire owner-related business principles such as a sense of partnership and permanence, the virtues of autonomy and honor, the value of business analytics, and the utility of concepts such as circles of competence, moats, and margins of safety.
Berkshire’s live meetings draw thousands to Omaha annually - in 2019, more than 40,000 - many spending several days enjoying dozens of collateral panels, presentations, parties, dinners, and book talks that have spontaneously organized over the years.
Gatherings range from university-type debate of the finer points of that year’s shareholders’ letter to more relaxed ball games, cookouts and champagne brunches. Inside the meeting hall, Berkshire companies - both subsidiaries and investees - offer their goods and services, from Dairy Queen to GEICO and Coca-Cola.
The 2021 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting
This year, the May 1 meeting will be virtual-only with no in-person activities. But some Berkshire shareholders are hosting webinars. Yahoo! Finance, which has been livestreaming the meeting since 2016, is partnering with me to host a kickoff featuring three of the smartest Berkshire afficionados - Carol Loomis, Tom Gayner and Robert Hagstrom.
Promising value is Yahoo! Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer, who will host the April 26 lunchtime event: “As the moderator, I get to interview four of the most knowledgeable ‘Buffettologists’ on the planet. What could be more fun and interesting than that!”
Many on the planet will tune in, judging by last year’s meeting, which drew 2.5 million live streams and 28.4 million across Yahoo!’s apps and media. The figures will jump this year, especially among younger investors, thanks to additional streaming through TikTok.
Catering to the voracious readers among Berkshire shareholders, for the past two decades, Buffett has designated a few dozen books for sale at each meeting by Omaha’s Bookworm, adding to 120 titles, including 30 of the 350 containing the word “Buffett.” Buffett sometimes highlights a book or two in his shareholder letter (he mentioned my Margin of Trust last year). Authors greet fans and sign books at the Bookworm exhibit in the meeting hall.
Millions have read Robert Hagstrom’s Warren Buffett Way since its 1994 debut. This year, shareholders are reading his latest, Warren Buffett: Inside the Ultimate Money Mind, the best new book on investing and Berkshire for investors of every age. While others rehash the gurus or republish old financial reports, Robert unveils how “successful investing requires combining the best methods with the right temperament,” what Buffett calls a “money mind.”
Tom Gayner Attending The Meeting
Panelist Tom Gayner was 29 when he attended his first Berkshire meeting in 1991. Going back yearly since, he’s learned values such as patience and trust, and cultivated a high-quality shareholder base to his company, Markel. For decades, he’s hosted the “Markel brunch” during Berkshire week, one that began as a group of six acquaintances and most recently drew 1,400.
Gayner credits Carol Loomis for his initial attraction to Berkshire. A 1983 article in Fortune, which Carol had suggested to the magazine’s editor, caught Gayner’s attention. Carol, for decades the editor of Buffett’s annual letter, has written an unparalleled body of work on Buffett and Berkshire. This work is collected as another of the few canonical books of this genre, 2012’s Tap Dancing to Work. Her astute message to new and veteran Berkshire shareholders alike: “Don't forget you're not buying a stock. You're buying a partial interest in a business.”
While many companies can put their annual meetings entirely online, those with cultures built on shareholder cultivation cannot go wholly virtual or simply streamline the main event. At minimum, soliciting and collating shareholder questions for the session is needed, as Berkshire does. For others, like Berkshire, mounting concurrent events is key, particularly to engage individual shareholders, especially younger and diverse groups who’ll sustain the quality of a shareholder base into the next generation.
Like me and our panelists, many Berkshire shareholders have been attending for decades. A few years ago, my wife Stephanie and I enlisted a distinguished group of such denizens to write a joint memoir, published as The Warren Buffett Shareholder. Robert and Tom each contributed one of the 40 essays and Carol wrote on the jacket: “Oh, to be in Omaha come the first weekend of May,” a spiritual lament this year.
When we floated the book idea, skeptics thought everyone would simply repeat the same story over and over. Turns out, however, everyone’s story is unique and the collection offers a panoramic view that, as one reviewer put it, is the next best thing to attending Berkshire’s “tribute to capitalism.” While Omaha must await 2022, this year’s next best thing will be joining Andy’s Yahoo! team and events like ours.
About the Author
Lawrence A. Cunningham is a professor at George Washington University, longtime shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, and publisher, since 1997, of The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. To get updates, including an invitation to his exclusive webinar during Berkshire Hathaway’s 2021 Annual Meeting, sign up here.
Henry St. George Tucker III Research Prof.
George Washington University