Warren Buffett: Revivalist
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett calls his annual shareholders' meeting the "Woodstock weekend for capitalists," but investor Michael Cleveland has a better analogy: "It's a religious revival, and Buffett is our evangelist!" For years shareholders have flocked to Omaha each spring to hear Buffett preach the virtues of investing in--and holding on to--strong, proven businesses. As the incredible returns piled up, so have conversions to Buffettism.
But last year Buffett seemed to have lost his heavenly touch. This year Berkshire's per share book value underperformed the S&P 500 index, by 20.5 percentage points--the first time in 20 years it lagged the index. The problem: Most of Buffett's blessed stocks--including Coca-Cola and Gillette--tumbled. Meanwhile, infant Net stocks soared, making many instant millionaires. Buffett still refused to jump in (he doesn't feel comfortable betting on companies and industries subject to great uncertainties). Berkshire Hathaway fell 50%, to a 52-week low of $40,800 a share, by early March. Enough to rattle the faith of even the most devout.
Like any good revivalist, Buffett had a higher power on his side: Wall Street. Miraculously, his stock staged a 47% recovery, to around $60,000, just in time for the meeting in late April. What's more, technology stocks tanked. "We're in this stock for the long haul anyway," notes Brian Goebel of Huntington Beach, Calif. "We're not day traders."
Certainly not. Unlike the nouveaux riches dot-com clique, Buffett-heads aren't glam. Rather than Prada slip dresses and Manolo Blahnik pumps, the weekend uniform was a forest-green Berkshire T-shirt (emblazoned with a fistful of cash) and matching baseball cap. Few of the folks who lined up for free Danish and coffee looked as if they could afford a $60,000 share of Class A stock. This crowd was particularly pumped when Buffett announced that See's Candies, a company that Berkshire owns outright, was working in collaboration with Mattel to make a Barbie doll dressed in See's classic 1950s salesgirl outfit. Everyone clamored for order sheets.
Of course, the weekend wasn't all about Barbies. The meat of the conference was the seven-hour meeting on Saturday in the cavernous Omaha Civic Auditorium. Buffett kicked off the event with a goofy one-hour movie in which he strummed on a ukulele and played Who Wants to Be a Jillionaire? with Regis Philbin. (Sample question: What is the sure-fire investment for the new millennium? Buffett opted for a lifeline call to Bill Gates, after noting, "Value investing hasn't been working so hot lately.") Then the gang settled down to business. For almost five hours shareholders posed questions to Buffett and his vice chairman, Charlie Munger. Some shed their worshipful attitude, pressing Buffett on the company's underwhelming performance last year. One 15-year-old said, "I bought Class B shares two years ago for college. When they dipped below $1,500, I decided to investigate correspondence courses." Buffett laughed, as if to say, "You got me."
Throughout the weekend, Omaha became a trade-show floor showcasing Berkshire's wide-ranging businesses: International Dairy Queen, See's Candies, Dexter Shoe, and World Book. Shareholders scooped up discounted knives, mattresses, and diamonds with a hungry vengeance. On Saturday night Buffett lured the faithful to a minor-league baseball game (though many missed half the game waiting in line for Buffett's autograph). And others took part in their favorite pastime: trading Buffett tales. "Have you driven by his house?" one woman asked. "It's so modest!" Another woman says she went to high school with the chairman. She had her photo taken with him at the last reunion. "I had a lot of boasting to do the next day," she laughed.
Some had more pressing reasons to make the pilgrimage this year. Bong Jung, who has owned Berkshire stock for a decade, needed to get back in touch with his Buffett values. "It's been hard not to be tempted by Internet stocks," explains Jung. "When you play golf, you chat about investing. My friend is telling me that he's making 80% in tech, while my stock is down 30%! It's hard not to be jealous. So I came here to renew my faith." "Exactly," chimes in his wife. "Renew." Once again, Sage Buffett gave his minions something to believe in.