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Author: TMFSelena Big gold star, 5000 posts Old School Fool CAPS All Star Add to my Favorite Fools Ignore this person (you won't see their posts anymore) Number: of 213573  
Subject: Selena's Omaha-BRK travelogue Date: 5/4/2000 11:46 AM
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WARNING: LONG...

Folks --
I prepared a bunch of material based on my weekend in Omaha. Some of it will be featured off our boards, in our "Specials" area. (In other words, it'll be featured on our main page for a bit.) Much of it I'll just post here. Here's my first contribution -- a travelogue. (Note that I originally penned it for a wider audience than just us here. So some of it will be obvious to you. I didn't know how much stuff we could run as front-page general feature stuff, so I wrote it all like that, in case.)
Selena

A Travelogue: My “Woodstock for Capitalists” Weekend

So there I was on the plane. I was flying Midwest Express for the first time, and was very excited, as I'd read about its many comforts: wider seats, good food, and baked-in-flight chocolate chip cookies. I wasn't disappointed. I was amused, though, by the GTE “Airfone” embedded in the seat in front of me. It urged me to make expensive phone calls -- and teased me with quotes of the Dow every few minutes. I chuckled to myself as I saw the Dow head south 149 points, then 168, then 182, then 127. It was so un-Foolish, this moment-by-moment review of the stock market. And so un-Buffettesque, as well. Warren Buffett has remarked that he'd be perfectly fine with a stock market that only opened once every few years.

We soon landed at Eppley Airfield. (Most people “deplaned,” but I chose to “disembark.”) My parents and sister were meeting me in Omaha, so I had a little time to kill at the airport. I strolled around and began to see my first hints that something was going on in town. A flower store offered 20% off to Berkshire shareholders. The Waterstone's bookstore had nothing but Buffett-related books in its windows. As the weekend wore on, many authors would be dropping by to sign copies of their books. The proprietor there explained that an Australian film crew had already been in to shoot some footage. He added that “Berkshire shareholders are a literate group.”

My family wasn't the only one enjoying a mini-reunion in Omaha. There were approximately 10,000 to 12,000 shareholders in attendance, with many couples and families present. No other company enjoys anything close to this kind of attendance level. Perhaps part of the reason is that for most companies, the annual shareholder meeting is a formality taken care of in an hour or two. (I attended America Online's meeting last year, and it lasted just about 90 minutes.) With Berkshire Hathaway, the company and shareholders organize a weekend full of events. Each shareholder who requests the (free) credentials that permit admission to various events also receives a small booklet featuring a schedule of events, a few maps, and lists of hotels, restaurants, sights to see, and more.

Our weekend started off well. We first headed to the very impressive Henry Doorly Zoo (http://www.omahazoo.com/), where we saw tigers and elephants, penguins, and an amazing puffin who thought he was Fred Astaire -- splashing about this way and that, using just one foot and then the other, mostly above the water line, then below… I wish I could have offered him a job or something, as he was trying so hard. For dinner, we headed to Gorat's, Warren Buffett's favorite steakhouse. I'd heard that he eats there once a week or so, and usually orders a T-bone steak. He was scheduled to dine there on Sunday night, but I knew that it would be a madhouse then, so we opted for a quieter evening. I was struck by how unpretentious the steakhouse was. The steaks ranged from about $14 to $18 (for the T-bone). The food was good and the service very friendly.

The next day was Friday -- when most shareholders would be arriving in town. We went to the Nebraska Furniture Mart (“NFM”) in the morning, to check it out. As explained on its website (http://www.nebraskafurnituremart.com), it's “the largest single home furnishings retailer in North America” with its only location in Omaha. The company was founded in 1937 by Rose Blumkin, in the basement of a pawn shop. She worked on the sales floor until 1998, the year that she passed away at the age of 104. Her motto? “Sell cheap and tell the truth.” The reason the store was on our list of sights to see is because it's one of the companies in the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio.

The store was impressive. It's actually a large and colorful complex of several buildings, most of which are loaded with all kinds of furniture, and one of which features appliances, electronics, and all sorts of other furnishings. Over the weekend, Berkshire shareholders are offered the chance to buy merchandise from NFM at the discount rate that only employees usually enjoy. I can't tell you the exact amount of the discount, as it varies by piece, but from asking about a few items it appeared to often be in the 20%- to 33%-off range. In other words, shareholders were getting a great deal. They knew it, too. Last year the store did $8 million of business over the five-day weekend.

Another Berkshire Hathaway company on display over the weekend is Borsheim's -- the largest jewelry store in the country except for Tiffany's Manhattan store (www.borsheims.com). I confess that I'd never heard of it until I learned about Berkshire Hathaway, but having visited it, I'm very impressed. Borsheim's threw a jazz and dessert reception for shareholders on Friday night and held a bigger gala event on Sunday, featuring Warren Buffett himself happily signing sales receipts. Borsheim's prides itself on being able to offer low prices due to the volume of its business. But that's not good enough for Berkshire Hathaway shareholders -- over the weekend, they receive an additional, substantial discount on merchandise. (Yes, Berkshire Hathaway stock may seem pricey near $2,000 for a class B share. But you should never evaluate a company based on its price tag alone -- and someone with a lot of shopping to do might be able to save that entire amount over this single weekend!)

We did more than shop on Friday, though. Omaha is a sizable city, with much to do and see. We spent a few hours at the Joslyn Art Museum, enjoying the breathtaking and imaginative glasswork of Dale Chihuly. (www.chihuly.com) (Other shareholders were probably spending time visiting Boy's Town or the Strategic Air Command Museum.)

At 5:30pm, we headed to Austin's Steakhouse, for a dinner with denizens of the Fool's Berkshire discussion board organized by TMF Hunzi. When I walked in the door, I saw a circle of people standing around, some of them with mouths agape or wild grins on their faces. As soon as I realized that none other than Warren Buffett was there, standing and chatting there, I became one of those people with the crazy grins. (Thanks, Mr. Buffett, for stopping by and making a special evening even more special!) The dinner was a pleasure. Many of us who hang out on the discussion board got to meet each other and put faces to names. Many people there were lurkers or spouses of Fools. It didn't matter. We enjoyed getting to know each other.

The last social event of the evening was an ice cream social at Warren's favorite dessert spot, Dairy Queen. (Dairy Queen is another wholly owned member of the Berkshire Hathaway family.) It was arranged by Robert Miles, known on our discussion boards as “SimpleInvestor.” He recently published a book based on the “101 Reasons to Own Berkshire Hathaway” (http://boards.fool.com/message.asp?id=1070060001426000) that he first posted in Fooldom, and he and several others who'd written books about Buffett were there. Soon after we arrived and claimed our free cones, Warren Buffett appeared, with most of his family (and some security) in tow. He hung around for a while, chatting with whoever managed to get close to him. I was among those lucky enough to get to exchange a few words with him. I gushed (sincerely) about what a charming town Omaha was and said that my family and I were thinking of moving there. He responded that he's got some extra rooms in his house. (If you're not familiar with Mr. Buffett, he's known for his wonderful sense of humor -- as well as for his snappy comebacks.) So much for our exciting Friday. It was action-packed, but still just a warm-up for the main event, which was a few hours away.

My alarm went off around 5:45 am the next morning. I rushed to get to Omaha's Civic Auditorium by around 6:30 am, as I wanted to grab some good seats. There was already a long line of people in place. The doors were to open at 7am, with the meeting not beginning until 8:30am. (Note: You can arrive as late as 8am or even later, and still get decent seats.) Again, Warren Buffett showed up to mingle with the crowd waiting in line outside. It was clear to me throughout the weekend that he doesn't think of his shareholders as mere shareholders. He has long referred to us as partners and the detail and care that go into his annual letters to shareholders reveals the respect he has for those who've entrusted him with their money.

Once the doors opened, this large crowd of several thousand well-mannered people briefly changed personalities. For a few moments, the scene was reminiscent of a land grab. People were literally running down the aisles of the auditorium, in a mad rush to get seats up front. I'll save my commentary on the meeting for my next article. So let's fast-forward a smidge.

The meeting broke up around 3:30pm. Some people returned to their hotels, to rest a bit. Others ventured out to Borsheim's or Nebraska Furniture Mart, for some more shopping. Many shareholders took this opportunity to visit the display of Executive Jet private jets at Eppley Airfield. Executive Jet is -- you guessed it -- another Berkshire Hathaway company. Through its “NetJets” program, it sells fractional shares of private jets to those who can afford it. It's not unlike time-share condos. Imagine for a second that you're wealthy. Instead of buying an entire plane that you may only use once every one or two weeks, you can buy an eighth (or some other fraction) of a jet, and you'll be able to use it as much as you need. Very efficient. It was fun to climb into and poke around each of the six planes on display, chatting with the staffers who were happy to talk about the planes.

In the evening, several thousand shareholders attended a Nebraska Golden Spikes baseball game, at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium. As is the custom on this weekend, the first ball was pitched by Warren Buffett. Buffett wore a baseball uniform with the team name “Berkshire Hathaway” emblazoned on the front. On the back was his nickname, “The Whip,” and his number -- 1/16. He pitched his famous “flutterball” to hall of famer Ernie Banks. The crowd cheered. He then retired to the bleachers, where he posed for photos with many shareholders and signed autographs. (I kept looking in his direction as the innings wore on and while the line of people gradually grew shorter, he must have been accommodating requests for an hour or two.) Shareholders enjoyed some additional perks at the game -- a coupon for a free drink and hot dog, and one for a souvenir seat cushion.

The next day was Sunday and many shareholders began heading home. Some spent the day doing additional shopping or touring jets or sightseeing. I didn't leave town until Monday, and even then the airport was full of more shareholders leaving. They were easy to spot, with their large red Coca-Cola bags, their white See's Candy bags, their GEICO t-shirts -- and the smiles on their faces.

I think I'll be seeing many of these people next year.
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