The church of Warren Buffett: Why thousands of investors flock to Omaha to be near the investing genius

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Every year, most publicly traded companies hold an annual meeting for their shareholders. Only one holds its event in an arena that holds more than 17,000 people.

The man who makes the difference is Warren Buffett, the 93-year-old investing legend who built Berkshire Hathaway from a humble New England textile firm into an $877 billion conglomerate.

Owning a single share of Berkshire — currently priced at $415 for class B and more than $627,000 for the A shares — gets investors an invite to the company’s annual weekend convention in Omaha, Nebraska.

Known as “Woodstock for Capitalists,” the three-day event offers shopping and discounts, a 5K run and camaraderie with like-minded investors. Most importantly, followers have the chance to see the legend himself fielding questions from investors: Here, Buffett is chief executive, investing oracle and ringmaster.

What started as a gathering of 12 people in 1965 now attracts as many as 40,000 people each year, who travel from all over the world to hear from the Oracle of Omaha directly.

I arrived at the 2024 shareholder event on Thursday, May 2. It felt like a special year since Buffett was a solo act. His long-time right-hand man at Berkshire, Charlie Munger, a legendary investor in his own right, died in 2023 at age 99.

Although I’ve been covering investing for 11 years, I’d never gone in person. I’d always wondered: When you could watch the meeting live on CNBC and read every word Buffett says across multiple publications, what’s the appeal of actually being there?

I aimed to find out. While I was expecting a conference of investing nerds and money hustlers, what I discovered was stranger and much more diverse: Yes, there were deal-seekers and networkers, but there was also community, consumption and reverence approaching religious fervor.

A shopping extravaganza

For many shareholders, the annual meeting is less about buy-and-hold investing and more about, well, buying. After all, attendees enjoy generous discounts all weekend from a wide array of Berkshire-owned companies, from Geico to See’s Candies to the Nebraska Furniture Mart.

My first night I attended an invite-only gala held by local jeweler Borsheim’s, featuring 20% off bedazzled tiger clutches and 18% off designer IWC watches. 

Ryan Ermey

Judith Lieber clutches were among the items on sale at Borsheim’s in Omaha, Nebraska.

The first surprise: I was overdressed. Anticipating a wealthy crowd, I’d worn a tailored burgundy suit. But the vibe was much more casual. Some wore jeans and cowboy boots; others wore khakis and sports coats.

The second surprise: Many of them were local, coming to shop and sip free liquor. And not everyone planned to attend the actual shareholders meeting.

Of course, others had flown in from as far as China and Australia and were eager to see Buffett.

“We liken it to a live concert,” said Diane Cunningham Redden of Cincinnati, Ohio. “We can buy recordings, we can buy albums, we can buy vinyl.”

But the main attraction is to “see the man in person — that’s the big difference,” she said. “It’s the charisma. It’s the ambiance of it all.”

The product display ramped up on Friday at the shareholder shopping day held at the CHI Health Center. Thousands of people milled about a room the size of an airplane hangar filled with booths from Buffett’s constituent companies, many paying homage to the man in charge.

The Pilot chain of truck stops brought in a semi with a cutout of Buffett in the driver’s seat. The Duracell stand had a Formula 1 car bearing the sponsor’s insignia. Shareholders could tour a Clayton model home, walk through a NetJets fuselage and take photos with someone dressed as the Geico gecko.

Shoppers lined up to buy the Buffett-shaped Squishmallow, the Brooks running shoe with his face on the insole, and $1 Dairy Queen Dilly Bars.

Sarah Min | CNBC

Squishmallows in the images of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger display at the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder Meeting at Omaha, Nebraska, on May 3, 2024.

The queue for the Fruit of the Loom booth looked like the security line at O’Hare airport. I was told its Berkshire-themed pajama bottoms were a hot commodity. Buffett reported the following day that the See’s booth had brought in and would sell six tons of candy over the weekend. 

I talked to some attendees who were first-timers, and others who’d become regulars over the years. A theme emerged: No matter their level of investing expertise or interest, all the cheap ice cream and Americana made for a fun day out.

One woman from nearby Columbus, Nebraska, had been to five meetings since the mid-1980s. She’d inherited Berkshire stock from her father, a longtime shareholder.

“[We’re here] to see what the different businesses are, what the products are, and kind of get a feel of the fun of the event,” she told me.

Lining up at 2 a.m. to ‘learn from the best investor of all time’

On Saturday morning, the day of the meeting, I hit my alarm at 3:30. It was cold and rainy in Omaha, but by the time I got to the arena a little after 4 a.m., hundreds of shareholders had already lined up, wearing plastic ponchos and sipping coffees.

The men standing at the front told me they’d arrived at 2 a.m., hoping to get front-row seats. Why get up in the dark and brave the elements, I asked, to see something you could watch at home in 4K?

Sarah Min | CNBC

The CHI Health Center before the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska on May 4, 2024.

“When you’re live and you’re here, you get to see them in their element. And you get to experience the whole thing just like this — standing here and meeting people every year, and sometimes year after year,” said James Eddins of Fairhope, Alabama. “And you make a lot of friends here with the same mindset: They wanna learn from the best investor of all time.”

I spent the next few hours getting a variety of answers. Some people told me it was like seeing a great business lecture in person, while others said it was all about the vibes in line and in the arena.

Parents of school-aged kids wanted to instill Berkshire values. Children no older than 12 told me they were glad to have seen Charlie Munger speak before he died.

At 6:30 a.m., I took my seat in the press box, perched high above the empty arena. When the doors opened, the shareholders came sprinting in, hoping to get the best views of the man who would spend the next several hours fielding questions.

There was a palpable buzz, a pulse running through a crowd that was ostensibly waiting to hear a man talk about profit margins.

And sure, Buffett provided plenty of exciting fodder for the investing types. He said, given the choice, that he’d leave capital allocation decisions at Berkshire to his successor Greg Abel, rather than to the company’s current portfolio managers. He talked about why Berkshire reduced its large stake in Apple. He went deep on the regulatory environment for utilities companies — the kids in the audience snoozed.

But he also delivered the human stuff that the crowd was there for. He told practically everyone who came to the mic that they’d asked a good question and deeply considered his answers before responding in a voice that’s now more rasp than baritone. He honored Carol Loomis, the 94-year-old business writer and editor of Berkshire’s shareholder letters, who sat in a reserved seat in the front row.

David A. Grogen | CNBC

Warren Buffett poses with the Harlem Globetrotters while he walks the floor ahead of the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska on May 3, 2024.

When a boy no older than 10 asked, “If you had one more day with Charlie, what would you do with him?” Buffett laughed and paused to let the crowd applaud the kid. Buffett’s answer, an ode to his best friend in a weekend full of them, lasted seven minutes.

“What you should probably ask yourself is, who do you feel you’d want to start spending the last day of your life with, and then figure out a way to start meeting them tomorrow, and meet them as often as you can,” Buffett said before a rapt arena. “Why wait until the last day? And don’t bother with the others.”

A pilgrimage to be ‘in the presence of Warren Buffett’

I talked to dozens of people over the weekend. And amid the bargain hunters and the finance bros, I did manage to find some zealots — true believers in the Gospel of Buffett.

Guy Spier has fashioned a career in Buffett’s image. His Zurich-based investing firm, the Aquamarine Fund, manages hundreds of millions of investor dollars according to Buffett’s principles: Invest for value and hold over the long term.

Each year, Spier holds a shareholder event in Omaha, one of many that function as celebrations of and homages to Berkshire. This year’s lineup of speakers included investing professors, Buffett biographers and even Charlie Munger’s longtime assistant Doerthe Obert, who received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Spier likened the Berkshire meeting to a religious journey. “You go on a pilgrimage [to] rededicate yourself to a set of values or beliefs,” he said. “There are many negative aspects to religion, but at least part of it is to help people live a better life. There are people who travel with purpose to Omaha, who are really all seeking to live a better life and feel like they found a way to do it.”

David A. Grogan | CNBC

Warren Buffett poses with Martin, the Geico gecko, ahead of the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder’s Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska on May 3rd, 2024.

That’s Warren’s way: Frugality, modesty, savvy, long-term investing. It’s not only an approach to money management that has made a great number of people very rich — it’s Buffett’s approach to life, Spier says. The latter aspect may be the reason Buffett attracts such a following.

“What gets to the core of it is that when people sense that somebody is aligned, and they’re genuine, and who they are on the outside is actually who they are on the inside, that’s so rare that they’re drawn to it,” he said. “They want to be in the presence of that. It’s a strange, exciting phenomenon.”

For Spier, and many like him, basking in the greatness of Buffett is worth flying halfway around the world.

“If you gave me the opportunity once in my life to see the Mona Lisa, or some great painting, or once in my life to have been in the presence of Warren Buffett, I know that what’s far more productive is to have been in the presence of Warren Buffett.”

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