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Why one Omaha entrepreneur is 'terrified' about Berkshire Hathaway after Buffett

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer
Source: Arun Agarwal

Arun Agarwal’s life has mirrored Warren Buffett’s, and he’s embracing it.

Raised in Omaha, Agarwal left to attend the University of Pennsylvania and became an investment banker on Wall Street before coming home. He initially returned because of his father’s ailing health and anticipated being back for a year, tops. Fast-forward twelve years and Agarwal now runs his own real estate development firm, White Lotus Group, which is three blocks from Berkshire Hathaway’s office on Farnam Street.

Buffett was born and raised in Omaha and actually started his undergraduate education at UPenn Wharton but graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He then earned a MS in Economics from Columbia University and spent a few years working in New York before returning to Omaha to work as a stockbroker.

“In some places, it’s easy to lose perspective. But I think it’s very easy to keep perspective in a place like Omaha,” Buffett said in an interview with the AP in 2012.

Agarwal, 39, says he decided to stay in Omaha because it allowed him to think and breathe in a way that New York’s “pure corporate America, rat race” culture simply didn’t allow.

“I was most attracted to coming back to Omaha because it was a lot more progressive than I had left it. If Warren Buffett and large companies are based here, there’s no reason you can’t start a business here too,” he says.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) is among four Omaha companies in the Fortune 500 club. Union Pacific (UNP), construction and mining giant Peter Kiewit Sons, and insurance company Mutual of Omaha are also based in the city. ConAgra Foods (CAG), based in Omaha for more than 25 years, announced in October it is relocating to Chicago.

And Omaha is one of many cities that is trying to attract budding entrepreneurs, branding itself as “Silicon Prairie,” but ultimately Buffett may be the silver bullet to a fairly sleepy city.

“Omaha’s lower cost of living, educational opportunities and affordable housing makes it the safest place to be entrepreneurial,” says Agarwal. “But our biggest challenge is still finding talent. It’s still really tough in the small- to mid-sized businesses to recruit somebody from New York or one of the coasts to convince them to come to Omaha.”

Agarwal doesn't credit Buffett alone for putting Omaha on the map, but he says it’s undeniable the powerful branding his name provides. “I am terrified of Buffett’s successor moving Berkshire’s headquarters elsewhere,” he says.

Though 85-year-old Buffett is “doing everything humanly possible to make sure that Berkshire’s culture sustains itself and continues to grow without him,” it is inevitable that he won’t be around forever. Investors like Kase Capital’s Whitney Tilson think it’s 80% likely that Buffett will be running Berkshire for five or more years, Omaha residents like Agarwal are concerned about the city’s morale if Berkshire is no longer based in the Midwest.

“I think most Omahans don’t realize the magnitude of Berkshire and Buffett — he’s so humble, quiet and reclusive that they don’t recognize the impact he actually does have on Omaha.”

Apart from Berkshire Hathaway, the Buffetts' philanthropic touch has boosted the Omaha metro. The Buffett family donated $370 million to erect the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, which provides 4,657 jobs to the metro area and adds $537 million annually into the economy, according to The University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Though there are no guarantees, Buffett says he doesn’t see any reason for his successor to move Berkshire. “No, it won’t be moved,” he said.

With assurance that the Oracle of Omaha isn’t looking to relocate, residents like Agarwal can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for now.

On April 30th, Yahoo Finance will have an exclusive live stream of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. Click here for more information.