The capitalist rock concert: inside Warren Buffett's annual AGM

To his devotees he’s the second coming and the answer to their prayers. To outsiders he’s simply a shrewd businessman. Take a look inside the hysteria of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway’s AGM

It’s called the Woodstock of Capitalism. Every publicly traded company in the United States is required by law to hold a yearly shareholder meeting to vote on corporate policies, but few adopt the approach of Berkshire Hathaway: a three-day extravaganza that’s part religious revival, part rock concert, and part business event. Each spring, tens of thousands of people travel to Omaha, Nebraska, to listen to ‘the Oracle.’

Unlike many corporations, such as the Walt Disney Company, which moved its corporate shareholder meeting away from the Anaheim Disney park in 1998 after a particularly rowdy meeting, Warren Buffett embraces the enthusiasm of his devotees. For some, this will be their biggest vacation of the year. The cost of entry to the annual shareholders meeting is a single Berkshire Hathaway stock certificate, but those without stock can easily buy a ticket, sold on Craigslist and eBay for $5 to prevent scalping.

“I’ve always known about it. There’s this legend that’s built up around it, but it never occurred to me that I could actually go,” says Christian Russo, a banker with a big-name financial company, who has travelled from New York City.
His girlfriend, an executive at a major investment firm, was so excited at the idea that she bought BRKB stock so they could attend. “We could have just bought a ticket, but we wanted to do it right. It was like: I’m going to take my money and invest in Berkshire so I can see Warren Buffett.

I know it sounds lame but it’s actually really cool. You actually get to see Buffett. You’re actually in the same room with him and 17,000 of your friends for nine hours.”

The crowd in attendance this year is closer to 40,000 – albeit not all present at the same time. It’s a mixed group: some are middle-America moms and dads hoping Buffett will say something to make them rich. Some are Wall Street types, here for the networking. Some are here to publicise their own business ventures. A few may actually care about the official corporate business being conducted. Most of them will attend the hours-long Q&A session, where audience members can ask Buffett about everything from his stock picks to his political opinions.

“Imagine you could ask Spider-Man something,” Russo explains. “Here you can actually do it! You just have to stand in line! But in this case it’s not someone playing Warren Buffett, it is Warren Buffett, the actual guy!”

The morning kicks off in the arena with questions from a panel of journalists. They represent the usual financial news sources – Fortune, CNBC, the New York Times – as well as the shareholders themselves. One by one they step to microphones near the front of the room, where Buffett sits next to his partner Charlie Munger at a table laden with Coca-Cola and See’s Candies, both Berkshire holdings.

One shareholder asks Buffett to talk about natural gas and energy policy; another asks for Buffett’s opinion on disclosing salaries for the presidents of Berkshire Hathaway’s various subsidiaries. One daring shareholder says he feels like America is off course, and asks Buffett if he can push the president to change direction. Buffett says, “America is doing extraordinarily well,” eliciting applause from the audience. Another question ends in a speech explaining why a college education isn’t necessary for success.

The arena explodes with cheers.

At Heinz, devotees can buy Warren Buffett– or Charlie Munger – branded ketchup bottles and Buffett-themed boxes of macaroni and cheese

Buffett’s answers are thoughtful and funny and can take up to half an hour each. Occasionally, he’ll ask the opinion of Munger, who will usually reply with some variation of “I think he handled it very well.”

“You can tell he doesn’t get paid by the word,” quips Buffett, as laughter rolls through the crowd, echoing off the ceiling.

“I’ve been to the Grammys and to the Oscars. There’s always a few empty seats. Here there are no empty seats,” says a man two seats away. “I feel wealthier already, just from being here.”

“Warren and Charlie we love you!” screams a middle-aged man from the stands.

In the convention hall next door, the other business of the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting is well underway, in a commercial space the size of two football fields. Berkshire Hathaway boxers. Berkshire Hathaway cuff links. Berkshire Hathaway money clips, running shoes, bras, scarves, baseball gloves, cowboy boots, and aprons. A BRK-themed diamond pendant costs upwards of $500. There’s a silver tray etched with Buffett’s words, “It’s not necessary to do extraordinary things to get extraordinary results.” A Pandora bracelet, a silver circle with a custom-made Berkshire Hathaway bead, sold out yesterday. So did Berkshire Hathaway pyjama bottoms printed with logos and dollar signs.

Each of the more recognisable Berkshire brand names has its own booth here, with its own version of Berkshire Hathaway paraphernalia for sale. Most have a line of shoppers down the corridor. At Heinz, devotees can buy Warren Buffett– or Charlie Munger – branded ketchup bottles and Buffett-themed boxes of macaroni and cheese. Oriental Trading is selling Warren and Charlie rubber duckies. At GEICO, shareholders can take a picture with a giant gecko mascot. Photos taken at Fruit of the Loom are overlaid so that they look like Warren Buffett is posing at the same table. The rolling ice cream carts of Dairy Queen are doing a brisk business.

A blonde woman stumbles by with two enormous cases of ketchup. An Asian businessman pulls down a whole shelf full of Berkshire Hathaway polo shirts. By late afternoon, the See’s Candies booth is bare, almost completely sold out. While events in the convention centre wind down, some attendees crowd outside Buffett’s modest house in the Dundee-Happy Hollow Historic District to take pictures.

That night there’s a barbecue at Berkshire Hathaway’s Nebraska Furniture Mart, complete with duelling pianos and ‘Berkshire Weekend’ discount prices. This is their biggest weekend of the year, to the tune of $40m. Over a million dollars’ worth of mattresses alone will walk out the door.

A lot of people just bought one share of stock to come here. Look at these women, just here to pick up some high-finance dudes”

The next morning is the Berkshire 5k Fun Run, where participants are encouraged to show off their limited-edition Berkshire Hathaway PureCadence 2 commemorative running shoes. The starting gate is a giant cartoon of Warren Buffett in running sweats, topped with the words ‘Invest in Yourself’. Warren Buffett himself fires the starting gun, and shareholders run alongside Berkshire Hathaway staff.

“We’ve come every year for the last 13 years. This is a family affair,” says one gray-haired Chicago patriarch, gesturing to his wife and three kids. “It’s like a rock concert. It’s the rock concert of capitalism. It’s like going on spring break, but when you went on spring break you didn’t have money.”

“Afterwards we’re going to Pitch Pizza,” says his wife. “[Buffett’s daughter] Susie goes there. If there’s a place the Buffetts go, it’s gotta be good.” She surveys the crowd, her lip curled in disdain. “A lot of people just bought one share of stock to come here. Look at these women, just here to pick up some high-finance dudes.”

“Are you rich?” asks a man in his mid-forties. His name is Tommy, and he’s making small talk while waiting to clear security. He’s here with his small investment group. “We’re similar to what Warren did, but I’m not as smart as him. I made my wife read a lot of his books. I told all of my friends, just follow this! There’s no way you can’t be rich if you just follow this! Everyone wanted to come, so we turned it into a big road trip. I was going to bring my copy of some of his books to get autographed, but I was too shy to get up in front of him.”

Technically, the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting is a legally required corporate triviality. No shareholder is obligated to attend, with the possible exception of the few petitioners who file official resolutions to try to steer the company. And even they arrive knowing that their requests will almost certainly be denied. All the financial information relayed during these three days is included in the company’s annual reports and financial briefings. Any pearls of wisdom Buffett drops are live-blogged by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal or conveyed by the Fox News headquarters set up across the street. While ketchup might be slightly less expensive on the convention floor than at the local Kroger, the price is certainly offset by the cost of a plane ticket and lodging.

So these attendees aren’t consumers. Or at least, they aren’t only consumers. To bother branding a multinational corporate holding company at all is a little unusual. To brand it to this level is just downright odd.

Berkshire Hathaway attendees don’t only appreciate the brand for what it does for them and their metaphorical towels; they’ve also reinterpreted what holding Berkshire stock means. It means financial freedom. Plucky American ingenuity. A chance to socialise with others who are much like themselves. Vacation. Exclusivity. If the value of Berkshire stock decreases, they are unlikely to start shopping around for a better one. In fact, during the Great Recession in 2008, a common gripe among shareholders was that they didn’t have enough resources to buy still more. The piece of paper that says ‘Berkshire Hathaway stock’ is indeed proof of an investment, but it also embodies a goal or even a mythos. It’s something for the owner to believe in.

Consumers care about the product. Fans care about what that product stands for. These two groups of people have very different wants and needs. In 2010, a giant Dairy Queen spoon signed by Warren Buffett was auctioned to fans for $4,500.

It’s unlikely that the winner was planning to eat a giant sundae with it. 

‘Superfandom’ by Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron M Glazer is available to buy for £9.99. For more information or to order a copy, see profilebooks.com