Getting business advice from Warren Buffett
By David van der Keyl
One of the key benefits of enrolling in Kellogg’s Asset Management Practicum this year was the chance to travel to Omaha, Neb., to meet Warren Buffett. In an intense, random drawing, I was selected to participate on the trip along with 13 other classmates and six students from the Kellogg Family Business Association.
The lucky group of 20 met at a hotel in Omaha the night before the big event for dinner. While each of us had different interests, all of us were excited for the day ahead.
The day began at 8 a.m., when all 20 of us hopped into a bus that took us to our first destination: The Nebraska Furniture Mart, a massive furniture and electronics warehouse owned by Buffett. There, we became acquainted with students from seven other schools scheduled to meet with Buffett.
We were all treated to a brief history of the company from Nebraska Furniture Mart’s Director of Marketing. We were then given a 90 minute tour of the absolutely massive showrooms, stopping several times for student questions (examples: how does NFM maintain their low cost structure to compete on price, how does NFM effectively thwart off the “showroom effect” from online sales), and we learned a bit about the business’ evolution and why Buffett was attracted to it (well run, family business with strong cash generation and an economic moat).
Next, we hopped onto our tour bus to head to the main event: a two-and-a-half hour Q&A session with “The Oracle of Omaha” himself. We arrived at a relatively nondescript building in Omaha, went up the escalator to the 14th floor and entered a small auditorium with seating for 150 or so people. Each school settled in to its allotted rows of seats (Kellogg was placed near the front), and a few seconds later, Buffett walked in to a standing ovation.
For an 85-year old, Buffett is pretty spry, and I can’t imagine his wit and memory being any sharper. He has the same demeanor you see in media appearances – friendly, humble and old-fashioned. He started off with a few self-deprecating jokes and some discussion about the format of the Q&A session (questions from a designated representative from each school). While I wasn’t sure what to expect out of the next two-and-a-half hours, what followed far surpassed my expectations.
While I won’t go into a full description of the Q&A session, here are a few highlights:
Buffett’s first investment filter: “Can I understand the company, what can kill the business and what the competitive position of the company will be in five to 10 years?” Most of the opportunities he evaluates do not pass this first filter.
Buffett believes that successful people tend to be those that others most want to work with. He suggested an exercise to all of us: Write down 10 traits you admire most in others, and five qualities you admire least in others. Now shape your own behavior around your answers. Buffett also claims that money is not a great motivator, and he is living proof of that; excluding expenses for his private flying, he says that he lives on less than $100k per year and is perfectly happy. He “skips to work” because investing is his passion – “it’s like a treasure hunt!”
Marry someone that is “in sync” with you and also “better than you.” In addition, marry someone that thinks you can do more than you think you can do yourself.
On Trusting Others:
In his experience, it is better to err on the side of trusting others than the alternative. This was a little surprising to hear from a world-class value investor. Buffett explains that while there will invariably be a few disappointments, trusting others will ultimately lead to a better life.
On Being One of Us:
Buffett doesn’t seem to think he’s all that different from us. His routine consists of waking up just before 7 a.m., flipping between MSNBC and CNBC, reading the paper and then heading in to the office at around 8:30-9:30 a.m. He spends 75% of his day reading and 25% of his day on the phone, traveling or doing something else.
Our “conversation” with Buffett was as much about investing as it was about life and careers. He is a masterful storyteller, and he took even the most mundane questions and turned them into interesting tales, each with a lesson relatable to his audience.
On the whole, it was an experience I won’t soon forget.
David van der Keyl is a student in Kellogg’s One-Year MBA program. He grew up outside Philadelphia and went to undergrad at Cornell. Prior to Kellogg, he lived in New York City and worked in equity research at Merrill Lynch for eight years, first covering software companies and then airline companies.