We all know the old cliche: Don't judge a book by its cover. As hard as this is to always practice, it often yields wonderful surprises. And so it is at the famed Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A)(BRK-B) annual shareholder meeting, where 40,000 people of all ages and from all over the world converge in Omaha, Nebraska --the pleasant Midwestern city that doubles as Warren Buffett's home town.
Since it is him and his party that draws them here year after year, it may come as no surprise that many of Buffett's followers mimic his unassuming lifestyle, as much as they drink in his thoughts on investing and a host of other topics. Like Buffett, most people who make the effort to come here are friendly, happy to chat and, if only for a weekend, adopt a Midwest pleasantness no matter where they came from.
Although the $50 billion net worth of the man at the head table is publicly known and openly talked about, no such assumptions can be made about the other people here. In fact, a polite version of financial "don't ask, don't tell" is played here because there's no way of knowing if the soft-spoken gentleman from California who is seated next to you has $5,000 or $50 million in the bank.
So who are the people that flock to Omaha each year?
In my short time there, I met a first grade teacher, covered in tattoos that she normally concealed, who got her stock from her mother, who she thinks bought it sometime in the 1970s. I shared a taxi with some Norwegians who (I think) said they won their tickets through a fund in Oslo that is modeled after Berkshire Hathaway and the Buffett style of finding value. I met a man who it turns out used to mow the Oracle's lawn when he was a kid growing up here and had the sense to buy the stock decades ago.
Wherever I went, I met people who seemed to have only one thing in common: Untold wealth.
Like the leather-clad, biker-couple from Missouri I chatted with who were retired in their early 50s and (need I even say) enjoying life.
I also talked tax policy in a shuttle bus with a retiring economics professor from Wellesley College, stood in line to buy See's Candies next to two local ladies who became shareholders in order to be a part of Omaha's best party, and shared a few laughs with the mayor of Plant City, Florida and his father outside Borsheim's.
They say anyone who has ever been to the Masters in Augusta, Georgia will surely tell you it draws the classiest sports fans on earth, who are drawn together by their love of golf and are happy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the hot sun quietly applauding out of respect for the game. Likewise, anyone who has ever been to a Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting will tell you they'd come again, and are just happy to have the chance to spend some time with a man and a culture they so deeply respect.