The last week of January, 20 lucky UC Davis Graduate School of Management students jetted off to Omaha, Nebraska to meet the Oracle himself. It all started unassumingly enough with an email solicitation sent to all GSM students to enter a lottery to meet and have lunch with Warren Buffett. Well, of course I would sign up, right? With over 200 entrants, 20 students from among the Davis, Sacramento, and San Ramon programs were selected to represent the school for the GSM’s seventh visit to Omaha.
Amidst the finals of Fall Quarter and the looming holidays, we all attended a planning session to discuss the logistics of the trip and lay out what must happen before our big day. Questions needed to be prepared for our Q&A with Mr. Buffett, travel plans made, and gift ideas vetted. Through the magic of the internet, Google groups, and online surveys, we made it all happen.
While the members of our group traveled circuitous routes from Northern California to converge on Nebraska, some of us more successfully than others, the early arrivals started their trip volunteering at an Omaha institution: Girls, Inc. A fantastic organization, Girls, Inc., is a national non-profit aimed at providing low-cost supplemental education programs to girls. Their efforts in Omaha are truly inspiring, and we were thrilled to be able to give back during our stay in the Cornhusker State.
The next day, with an agenda in hand, we made our way through the snowy streets of Omaha. Not sure what to expect, the day began with a trip to Nebraska Furniture Mart. Armed with coffee, we met up with seven other schools: UCLA Anderson School of Business, IBMEC, University of Tennessee, Holy Cross, University of Houston, University of Western Ontario, and MIT Sloan School of Management. With such a humble name, we certainly were not expecting the monstrous complex of warehouses and well-appointed showrooms that awaited us.
As we walked through the showrooms, we were introduced to the history of the Omaha institution, a Berkshire Hathaway-owned subsidiary. Despite their incredible scale, they prided themselves on their ability to beat anyone’s price – replete with updated-by-the-minute electronic price tags hanging from each item.
The Q&A session was up next. For over two hours, Mr. Buffett held the group’s rapt attention as each of the eight schools took turns asking questions. His ability to make each person, each school, feel welcome was a pleasure to behold. His biggest take-aways centered on making sure we each knew the importance of the people in our lives. Through his family and friends, he says that he has been able to succeed in the manner that he has.
Of course, he spoke about investment analyses in a matter-of-fact manner that made it seem as though it were the easiest thing in the world, but he made his preference for investing in mature companies with products that he understood quite clear. Quoting Mark Twain, he stated that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” referring to the fact that markets fluctuate and underscoring the necessity to read the signs that the market gives you.
When asked about his philanthropic work in pairing with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he stated, “in business, you look at small problems to solve. In philanthropy, it’s the big problems that have the biggest reach.” Mr. Buffett indicated that he was interested in specifically pursuing issues pertaining to the security of the food and water supplies, but also in increasing access to medicine around the world. He said, “it is a difficult thing to decide whether to work on something which others are also working on, or to swing for the fences and expect that failure is likely.”
The highlight of the trip to Omaha was in the lunch at Piccolo Pete’s, an Omaha institution. For most of his guests to the city, Mr. Buffett hosts them at this, his favorite restaurant in town. Fortunate enough to share his lunch table, a number of GSM students held a captive audience and he gamely answered questions throughout lunch. As he sipped on Cherry Coke and munched away, finishing with an enormous root beer float, the conversation lightened and talk turned to the only email he ever sent, texting and Twitter, Netflix or DVDs, Breaking Bad and Desperate Housewives, and what antics are planned for the upcoming annual shareholders’ meeting. It was clear to all who interacted with him that his complete joy, graciousness, and gusto for life radiated forth. A book recommendation and a group picture later, and we bid Mr. Buffett adieu.
The afternoon wrapped up with a visit to Borsheims, another impressive Omaha institution, and to Oriental Trading Company, a newly acquired subsidiary. A luminous space with light reflecting off of every surface, Borsheims echoed NFM’s commitment to competitively price all of their products. Possibly a brilliant marketing ploy, the writer of the agenda must have banked on the earning potential of business students, and the memory that would be seared in our brains by their understatedly opulent store. The visit to Oriental Trading Company revealed one of the most state-of-the-art, technologically-advanced supply chain processes in the business.
Ending our trip with a group dinner at Marks Bistro, and a second assembly of volunteers at Girls, Inc, we said farewell to Omaha. A truly unforgettable experience, we looked forward to heading back to Northern California to implement Mr. Buffett’s wise words in our own lives.