Meeting Warren Buffett was a "bucket list" item that hadn't even made it to my list because it seemed so farfetched. Thanks to the hard work of the Kellstadt administration, and a good word from Trustee Frank Ptak, DePaul University found a way to give 20 MBA students this amazing opportunity, and the chance to cross this item off our collective bucket lists. At the end of the day, we all agreed that the value of hearing about Mr. Buffet's success was in understanding its simplicity. Work hard at what you love and you will be successful.
Traveling as a group to Berkshire Hathaway in Omaha was a great bonding experience and one of the highlights of my trip. Associate Dean Dan Heiser and Assistant Dean Christa Hinton were our guides. They helped fuel our excitement, while at the same time, calming our nerves. The lessons I learned were enhanced by the ability to share them with this group and process the information together.
At breakfast, we practiced our questions for Mr. Buffett and helped the representatives from our group who would ask them to rehearse. Questions were chosen by vote, and at least three people were slated to pose them to Mr. Buffett. On the top of the list for DePaul were questions involving how Mr. Buffett recognizes talent in his team, the need to address financial competency in high school and public education, the growing wealth disparity, rising higher education costs, and thoughts on promoting women's opportunity in business.
Before the Q&A with Mr. Buffett, we had our first company visit to the Nebraska Furniture Mart (NFM), a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. NFM is a sprawling campus. The showrooms are stocked with everything a homeowner might need, from furniture to electronics and appliances. Executive Vice President Bob Batts was our tour guide. Batts is the grandson of the original proprietor, "Mrs. B," a resourceful immigrant who started the company without being able to read or write.
NFM was an introduction for us to the types of business that Mr. Buffett favors because of its strong, lean management and commitment to customer service. Later in the day, we toured two other such enterprises, Borsheims jewelry store and the Oriental Trading Co, where executives briefed us on their business strategies. In addition to advice, they gave us Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger (vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway) rubber duckies as souvenirs.
The Main Event: Q&A with Mr. Buffett
After lounging in some comfortable recliners with Bob Batts, we went on to what he called the "main event" — the Q&A with Warren Buffett. We arrived at the Kiewit Center of the Berkshire Hathaway facility and sat alongside students from other schools in a long narrow room. While we were waiting, there was an excited buzz in the air. Before we knew it, Mr. Buffett was in the front of the room. He had walked in without fanfare through a side entrance, almost unnoticed.
A simple thought set the pace for the discussion, as he opened by saying: "It is nice to make money, and it is nice to have fun, and it is really nice to be able to do both."
The questions were asked in alphabetical order according to the names of the business schools represented. They ranged from how he determines his famous Circle of Competence, to what three trends he foresees as the most impactful for our generation.
The first question asked how he determined his Circle of Competence. The Circle of Competence is Mr. Buffett's theory people should stay within the realm of their own understanding. It translates to his business practices because he has always been an advocate of sticking with industries that one understands before investing. Even one of the world's richest people has limits, and Mr. Buffett asserted that one should "know the perimeter of his own circle." Mr. Buffett pointed out that his perimeter includes retail, which has sometimes proved elusive. Outside of the circle completely is the growing technology industry, which he has chosen to avoid despite a close friendship with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.
DePaul's very own, MBA student James Wilke, asked a great question about talent. "You mention that regardless of age, race, gender or any other extraneous factors, of the rare traits you seek out most for all leaders at Berkshire Hathaway is talent. Can you define talent and how you spot it?"
The answer to this question really resonated with me, because Mr. Buffett pointed out that, like Mrs. B of the furniture mart, the most important aspect is a certain passion and will to succeed. Having a 130 IQ is not necessary, he explained. In fact he said, "If you have a 130 IQ and you want to be an investment manager, sell off the extra points you won't need, because in investing you need emotional stability.
"I elect to come to Berkshire Hathaway because it's fun… it's the most fun I can have," he explained, confirming that he tap-dances to work every morning.
Relationship with Global Community
In terms of positioning ourselves alongside the global community, Mr. Buffett posited two possible future worlds. The first, in which the U.S. enjoys similar rapid growth as in the last century at the expense of the rest of the world, or a second, more favorable option, in which the U.S. forgoes the rapid rate in order to support mutually beneficial global economic growth.
When talking about the wealth disparity, he explained that having observed GDP rise by six times per person, people from his parents' generation would have thought everyone would be provided for by now. Within a market-based economy, he explained that the tendency is toward a plutocracy. The opportunity lies within the government's ability to step in and improve the standard of living for those who are not adapted to the market system.
Despite the need for these improvements, there was an overarching sentiment of optimism. He reminded us how in the last 20 years there have been great strides towards improving leadership opportunities for women. Though these things might take time, he is still reassured that the "baby who is born today in the United States still has the best opportunities in the world."
The group then moved toward questions that had to do more with careers and the financial world. He was asked how he chose his investment team, the "Two T's," Todd Combs and Ted Weschler. He explained that with Todd and Ted, and even 28-year-old prodigy and financial assistant Tracy Britt Cool, he looks for winners that he can trust, or "Someone that you would marry your son or daughter to."
In his own career, he always surrounded himself with people who he admired, and encouraged us to do the same. When running his brokerage, he started by investing the money of family and friends. These people counted on him, and when asked how he would do it, he admitted he wouldn't change anything. Treat these people as partners and keep them informed so they can trust you.
He said he would gladly pay $100,000 for 10 percent of the lifetime earnings of any student sitting in that room because he was positive we would all be successful and he would get a good return.
In his question, DePaul MBA student Brian James introduced the need to educate students at a younger age on financial literacy, to which Mr. Buffett agreed. Mr. Buffett helped form the Secret Millionaire's Club, which is a cartoon series dedicated to helping young people understand the financial world.
The final question was posed by DePaul's Steven Corush about the rising cost of higher education, something we can all relate to. As a father of two, Steven asked what Mr. Buffett thought would happen and how we should prepare for the future generation. Mr. Buffett felt that higher education is rising "because it can" and as of now it is a "seller's market."
Overall, the questions from DePaul were well received, and Mr. Buffett put incredible thought into answering every student with depth and insight.
It is impossible to summarize completely and do justice to the quality of the time we spent with him. In two hours it felt like we learned the lessons of a lifetime. This quote was one of my favorite moments of the session and summarizes the humor and wisdom with which he speaks:
"I am going to give away every single share of Berkshire. I'm not using that money – I want to make as much as I can for philanthropy… Do you think we have a party when I make another billion? We have a party when I wake up in the morning and I'm still breathing. I would have as much fun making $200,000. It is very important to enjoy yourself, this postponed enjoyment thing is a bad idea, like saving up sex for your old age."
It was exciting to take home all of these lessons from not only Mr. Buffett, but also the entire Berkshire family we encountered. Each shared the same values of combining quality business practices with simple and straightforward purpose. Most of all, each was contented in his/her career and was pursuing something they love. The businesses thrived on consistency and authenticity, something that we can strive for as we start our careers and look for the next stepping stone to success.
We returned home to start building our own empires and see where our passions lie. Thanks to DePaul for providing us with this opportunity, and thank you to my fellow students with whom I was honored to share this experience. I'm sure there is at least one future CEO among us!
Kate Stevenson, DePaul MBA student and Department of Marketing staff member, and 19 of her DePaul classmates were invited to meet Warren Buffett and tour Berkshire Hathaway businesses in Omaha Oct. 25. Read more about the trip.