Last month, 20 Wake Forest University students from the Working Professional MBA programs in Winston-Salem and Charlotte, along with two faculty members, had the chance to spend the day with Warren Buffett, the highly respected American businessman, owner of Berkshire Hathaway, investor and philanthropist.
The event in Omaha, Neb., was hosted by Berkshire Hathaway and included students from seven other MBA schools from the United States and South America. The day began with a guided-tour of the 500,000-plus-square-foot Nebraska Furniture Mart, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway, with Robert Batt, a Mart executive vice president and grandson of founder Rose Blumkin. The legendary single-location Nebraska Furniture Mart got its start in 1937 when Russian immigrant Rose Blumkin ("Mrs. B") began selling furniture at a slight markup out of a shop basement. Her motto: “Sell cheap and tell the truth!" Warren Buffett purchased a majority stake in Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1983.
Batt discussed how the furniture industry has changed during his 49 years in the business. He said everyone in his company is always learning something new and learning from each other. He “told us the most sage advice he has ever received is to stay the course, don’t panic, everything will be fine,” said Chas Mansfield (MBA ’11).
Following the Furniture Mart tour, students gathered at Buffett’s downtown office for a 2.5-hour question-and-answer session with Buffett, who is often referred to as the “Oracle of Omaha.”
Buffett fielded questions from students about a variety of topics including his personal philosophy and investment strategies. “You need every ounce of temperamental quality that will enable you to act on what your mind tells you versus what the crowd around you is doing,” said Buffett. “Never make an investment decision if you can’t write down on a piece of paper why you are buying it. You have to know that you are getting your money’s worth.”
When Johanna Anderson (MBA ’11) asked about succession planning at Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett said his successor will likely come from inside the company. “The most important thing is to maintain the corporate culture. It is a one of a kind culture and leads to certain operational advantages, so my successor will have to make darn sure that nothing happens to our corporate culture,” said Buffett.
Wake Forest students appreciated all of the good the advice. “He emphasized that you need to attack problems quickly, don’t avoid them. Learn from your mistakes and move on to the next problem,” said Brian Patterson (MBA ’10).
After the question-and-answer session, Buffett took the students to lunch at one of his favorite local restaurants, Piccolo Pete’s, where they dined on steak, parmesan chicken and root beer floats. After lunch each student had the opportunity to have their photo taken and speak one-on-one with Buffett.
The day closed with a tour of Borsheim’s, a jewelry store owned by Berkshire Hathaway, and a question-and-answer session with Susan Jacques, CEO of Borsheim’s.
Matt Clewis (MBA ’10) took the lead in getting Wake Forest students invited to Omaha this year, “From interviews on CNBC and articles in BusinessWeek, it was obvious to me that Buffett was able to handle the popularity and temptations of wealth without allowing them to drastically influence his life. Minus the publicity, one could easily mistake him for an everyday middle-class citizen. To me, this makes him all the more interesting.”
This is the second time that Wake Forest MBA students were invited to participate. In November of 2008, the trip was led by Wake Forest student, David Perkins (MBA ’09), who wrote to Buffett’s office requesting an invitation for the school. Perkins had been a “fan of Buffett’s wisdom and inspiration” for nearly a decade and as an undergraduate, he joined his uncle in Omaha each May for Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, which is affectionately known as “Woodstock for Capitalists.”
“My biggest take away from the trip was the fashion in which Buffett conducts his life. Without knowing who he was or what he has accomplished, people would be very surprised to discover the amount of wealth he has accumulated over the past half century. He is an extremely humble, down to earth individual who views himself as an equal contributor to society rather than a superior individual,” Clewis said.