A group of students from K-State’s Student Financial Association traveled to Omaha, Neb., on Friday to learn from one of the most prominent figures in the financial world. Along with students from the business schools at universities like Dartmouth and Columbia, 18 SFA members attended a question-and-answer session with Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., in the Kiewit Plaza building in downtown Omaha.
Buffett, 82, amassed an enormous fortune buying and selling stocks and businesses, and is one of the wealthiest people in the world. Despite his age, Buffett insists he “tapdances to work” every day, and has no plans to retire in the near future.
“I kept Mrs. B working until she was 103,” said Buffett, referring to Rose Blumkin, founder of Nebraska Furniture Mart, a retail furniture store owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which the SFA group toured before the session with Buffett. “Then, she retired, and died the next year. I keep that as a lesson — early retirement is no good.”
Buffett walked into the Cloud Room on the 16th floor of Kiewit Plaza with a spring in his step uncharacteristic of a man his age and immediately cracked open a can of cherry Coca-Cola, a company in which he owns a 9 percent share. Before taking questions from the seven universities in attendance, Buffett recognized the K-State delegation.
“Incidentally, the tie I have on is a K-State tie,” Buffett said, displaying the purple-striped tie sent to him for his birthday last year by SFA, and adding a congratulatory remark on the Wildcats’ undefeated football season.
Buffett said he became interested in stocks around the age of 7, and purchased one by 11. According to Buffett, over the decades in which he has played the stock market game better than anyone else, the rules have stayed fairly consistent.
“The basic philosophy is exactly the same as it was 60-plus years ago,” Buffett said. “Now, you just get a chance to apply it in different ways.”
Many of the questions Buffett fielded were related to the recent financial recession. According to Buffett, the situation could have been far worse than it was.
“I was on CNBC and I called it a financial Pearl Harbor,” Buffett said. “The right leaders saved us. Fortunately, we had the kind of people who not only did brave and extreme things, but did them very fast.”
Buffett, widely known as the Oracle of Omaha, did note that he expects the economy to start picking up in the years ahead.
“Regardless of which [presidential] candidate gets elected, I think the economy will be doing better,” Buffett said. “I think we’ll see less silliness in Washington.”
Another common theme in the questions was career success. Buffett’s advice was to simply find your passion.
“Look for the job you would want to have if you were already rich,” Buffett said. “If you’re doing what you love, you leave others behind.”
Buffett did offer a bit of practical wisdom to the students: develop communication skills, both written and spoken.
“If you can’t communicate to people, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark — nothing happens,” Buffett said.
According to Scott Hendrix, instructor of finance at K-State who organized the trip, SFA has been going to Omaha for Buffett’s question-and-answer session annually for the past five years.
“Over 200 schools apply each year, but only about 40 attend,” said Hendrix, who added that Buffett hosts several sessions each year. “We have a good relationship with him, one that we work hard to maintain, and he likes K-State a lot.”
According to Hendrix, K-State is one of just a few schools that is invited back each year automatically, rather than having to re-apply. Hendrix attributes this to SFA’s efforts to stay on good terms with Buffett.
“We have a party in Manhattan every year to celebrate his birthday, and we get a package and a card together to send to him,” Hendrix said, noting that the purple tie Buffett sported at the event was included in this year’s gift. “It was great to see him wearing the tie, I was thrilled he remembered to.”
Mike Records, sophomore in business administration and member of SFA, said he has been interested with Buffett’s work since his sophomore year of high school when his older brother, a certified public accountant in Wichita, introduced him to it.
“He is kind of the reason I’m interested in finance,” said Records, who attends the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders’ meeting with his family regularly to hear Buffett speak. “When he went out and made all that money, he didn’t just go blow it all, he’s really down to earth. He does it because he loves to, not because of money.”
Records said he felt “more of a personal vibe” at the question-and-answer session than he normally does at the shareholders’ meetings, which was attended by over 35,000 people in 2011.
“The chance to be in a smaller room and make eye contact with him was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Records said. “It was invaluable. There’s nothing you can really do to replace that experience, especially given his age, because he won’t be around forever.”