A Chat with Warren Buffett
Ross School students visit Berkshire Hathaway CEO at his Omaha headquarters.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Armed with a dozen carefully crafted questions, 80 expectant Ross School MBA and BBA students flew to Omaha, Nebraska, to learn from billionaire Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. They were not disappointed.
"We had serious and humorous questions. It's a chat. It is not like you expect him to say something that will dramatically impact you for the rest of your life, but you hope he will," said Jason Townsend, a first-year evening MBA student who asked questions on behalf of the Michigan group. About 40 students from the University of Missouri also attended the November 3 session. "He would talk to every question. His answers were profound and professional and often humorous," Townsend said.
Warren Buffett, center, pauses for a photograph with Ross School MBA ’08 students, from left to right, front row, Xin (Shirley) Feng, Caroline Koskinas, Yiqiong (Elsie) Pan and Lauren Rosenthal; back row, Max Yutsis, David Forsythe, Shashank Mara and Mark Lukehart.
The visit, organized by Townsend and Munish Gandhi, MBA '07, included tours of the Nebraska Furniture Mart and Borsheim's jewelry store, two of Buffett's early investments. Students, the majority of whom belong to the Entrepreneur and Venture Club (EVC), arranged for their own transportation and hotel accommodations; costs were partially offset by American Express, the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and the Ross School's Student Government Association.
When Buffett's office issued the invitation to the EVC club in July, they were told it would not be a canned speech. He prefers Q&A. As with other groups Buffett has hosted, no electronic recorders were allowed in the Cloud Room on the 15th floor of the Berkshire Hathaway headquarters, where he met with students.
What do you ask the world's second-richest man? Topics covered everything from politics and campaign financing to microfinancing, poverty, management techniques, the market and Buffett's philosophy on life and philanthropy.
"He is dismissive of hedge funds, but this isn't surprising given his consistent philosophy of value investing," said Gandhi, who described Buffett as thoughtful, calm and patient.
"We asked him how his motivation has changed since going from nothing to millions and now billions," Townsend said. "He gave us two really profound pieces of advice."
Buffett said his motivation has not changed because he always has loved securities and investing. He counseled the students to do something they love, not hunt for the job that promises the most money. Buffett, 75, said that if it were up to him, he would run Berkshire Hathaway for at least five years after his death.
How does he measure success? It is about enjoying what you do and having family and friends who love you, according to Buffett, who told students in the end it comes down to who would hide and protect you. Success is all about trust and relationships, he explained. He talked about the Holocaust and those who risked their own lives when they hid Jews from the Nazis. "There are lots of millionaires who have no one to hide them," he said. "Even their children would say ‘he is up in the attic.'"
Explaining his decision to donate $35 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Buffett said he was prompted by the passing of his wife Susan, who had handled the family's philanthropy. Plus, he trusts Bill and Melinda Gates and believes in what they do.
Buffett credited his success to good mentors and parents and winning the "ovarian lottery," a lottery the students already have won, he pointed out, by being born in a time and place where they are free to trade securities and start companies.
Reflecting on the visit, Tom Lytle, MBA '07, said, "The most important impact for me from the trip wasn't any one thought or comment, but instead the character of the man. Mr. Buffett is truly one of a kind."
After the Q&A session, Buffett hosted the students at a lunch at Gorat's Steakhouse. There, he took time for photographs with the students before driving back to his office.
"We thought he would be followed by an entourage," said Townsend. "He wasn't. He was completely accessible and humble."
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Mary Jo Frank