For most public companies, the annual meeting is a poorly attended, mandatory obligation that has been reduced to being little more than an hour-long formality that all but a few institutions ignore.
Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A, BRK-B) isn't most public companies. For Berkshire, the annual meeting is a three-day, sold-out festival that culminates in a standing ovation by 40,000 adoring fans ... I mean, shareholders.
As a result, and thanks to many other reasons, the Berkshire event is as unique as the man at center stage, 81-year-old Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in America. What's surprising for a man and a company that have earned their fame by shrewd investing is how accepting and calm his followers still are after three years of sub-par performance. That is, sub-par stock performance, because here in Omaha, Neb., what matters is business performance, and by that measure it was another record quarter for the vast majority of the Berkshire's operating companies.
"I feel good about the first quarter and the year," Buffett told the capacity crowd packed into the Century Link Center down the street from his birthplace and his corporate headquarters. "All of our companies, except those in residential construction, are doing well."
And speaking of feeling good, the first question asked of Buffett had to do with his health and his succession plans in light of his recent revelation that he has stage one prostate cancer. Following a light-hearted joke that 88-year old Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger actually "resented all the sympathy and attention" his younger friend was getting, Buffett did give some fresh thoughts on his would-be replacement.
"We won't have an arts major running Berkshire," Buffett assured the crowd, telling them that the next CEO will also assume his role as chief risk officer.
The other primary issue for Buffett is his political connection to the country's continuing deficit crisis. President Obama has pulled Berkshire's leader into the fray by pointing to the "Buffett rule" that would increase tax rates on the rich. On that topic, Buffett used poked a little fun at himself in the annual opening film, a standard bit of lighthearted fun Berkshire shares with attendees each year. While he didn't spend too much time on the issue during his extensive question and answer period, he did reiterate his opinion that the nation's wealthiest citizens are not holding up their end of the deal and suggested "shared sacrifice" was the key to solving the crisis.
With financial strife abroad as well as at home, Buffett suggested that turmoil in Europe was not impacting his decisions very much, saying that his focus is much more on company values and not the latest headlines.
Later in the Q&A session, the Oracle of Omaha prompted a bit of a guessing game about his desire for new acquisitions. Despite his health scare, he's not slowing down when it comes to the business and said he recently considered, but ultimately did not purchase, a $22 billion company. It would have been the second-largest such deal in Berkshire's history but will stay shrouded in mystery as far as Buffett is concerned.
With over five hours of questions, Buffett and Munger dealt with a host of other issues, ranging from their opinions on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the compensation of their employees. As long as Buffett continues to preach at these meetings, the faithful are certain to keep coming by the thousands.