Omaha, Neb. — Would you like to spend $20 for a Warren Buffett baseball cap? No? How about $12 for a Buffett T-shirt? Or eight bucks for a Buffett shot glass? Just under 10 bucks for a box of chocolates with his picture on the front?
I’ve spent the weekend here at the famous annual Buffettpalooza, aka the Berkshire Hathaway
annual meeting, and it’s starting to feel like Nebraska’s answer to Turkmenistan, a genuine country in Asia where a picture of the dear leader supposedly hangs in every home.
Warren Buffett is a brilliant man, and a very successful man, and by all accounts a nice one too. He has made the world’s third-biggest fortune, and when he dies, he is leaving it to charity.
But he’s an investor. A fund manager. He bought high-quality stocks with leverage and hung on for 60 years.
The omnipresent oracle
This thing is out of control.
The Berkshire annual meeting includes 30,000 square feet of retail space for company businesses, from NetJets to See’s Candies to Benjamin Moore paints. And everywhere you turn there’s another Warren Buffett.
A Warren Buffett dummy in a pickup truck. (I don’t quite understand why.)
A cardboard Buffett holding Duracell batteries.
A cardboard Buffett in a chef’s apron bearing the words “Let’s get cooking.”
I have never seen so many pictures, models and cardboard cutouts of a man who is supposed to be modest and self-effacing.
Do you want a Warren Buffett travel mug or $25? A deck of playing cards with his beaming face on the back for 10 bucks? You can even — I am not making this up — buy a sheet of actual U.S. Postal stamps with the pictures of him and business partner Charlie Munger on them for $28.
Actual value of the stamps: $11. The markup is 155% because those stamps have Buffett and Munger on them. Instead of, you know, some unknown like Elvis, or Ella Fitzgerald, or a dead president (those sell at par).
OK, so for many of those items, you get a picture of Munger along with Buffett. But not all.
You can buy a Montblanc rollerball pen with Warren’s signature on the side for nearly $500. There are Warren Buffett rubber ducks. Anything to make a buck.
This thing is insane. There are people walking around with “I Voted for Warren” buttons on their lapels, as a result of some spoof contest he’s having with Munger.
The buttons cost a dollar.
And the pilgrims come. Oh, boy, do they come. The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce tells me there are about 15,000 hotel rooms in and around the city, and right now they are packed to the gills. Counting all the couples and families, there are somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 Buffett fans in town.
As I sat waiting for my Uber, I heard the front-desk guy at my hotel fielding call after call from desperate last-minute hopefuls. “No, ma’am, I’m afraid the hotel is fully booked,” he said, over and over. “I think the whole town is fully booked.”
As the average room costs around $250 a night this weekend, that’s about $3.75 million spent by stockholders on accommodations. Throw in airfares, meals and other expenses and … you have a lot of people spending a lot of money to come and learn about the importance of “value investing” and minding your pennies.
And they come from everywhere. “I’ve picked up people arriving from Australia and Tokyo,” my Uber driver told me Friday.
There is a world map on the wall of Buffett’s “favorite steak house,” Gorat’s (where, naturally, there is yet another cardboard cutout of the great man standing in the foyer — for selfies). Over the years, customers have been invited to mark their home countries with red pins. And the pins march across nearly all the continents. They crowd Europe, Japan and the Pacific Rim as well as North America. And they track across South America, Africa and the South Pacific.
It’s a global map of Buffett Nation. People did not come to Gorat’s from Kenya and Vanuatu just to eat onion rings across the road from an AutoZone. They came for the Great Man.
“Many Korean people are very interested in Warren Buffett and his actions,” said Kim Jong Chool from South Korea. “Many Korean people want to come here to see Warren Buffett for themselves.”
“It’s like visiting a temple,” Bhovesh Doshi, from Mumbai, said of the stockholders’ meeting. He has been coming for years. Buffett is a “living legend,” he said, and an inspiration. This year he has brought his son Dev.
Even people here who can barely speak English can articulate exactly why they hold stock in Berkshire Hathaway, and have flown, sometimes halfway around the world, for a stockholders’ meeting. “Warren Buffett!” they say. “We love Warren Buffett!”
No free lunch (or anything else)
Some stockholders’ meetings offer freebies. London brewers, for example, used to offer free beer (until lots of high-functioning drunks started turning up to the meetings clutching a single share).
Not Berkshire. The stockholders come here, spend an entire day shopping in a convention hall crammed with Berkshire concession stands … and get no freebies. None.
I needed a tote bag; I had to buy one. See’s Candies weren’t even handing out samples. “Warren Buffett gives nothing away for free — nothing,” said a fan (and stockholder) with a laugh.
OK, so there were discounts. But some people who had come thousands of miles stood in line for nearly half an hour in order to visit the … Fruit of the Loom concession.
Dudes, they sell this stuff at Macy’s. OK, so the tighty-whities are on sale at $9. But, seriously?
There was a line to buy discounted Heinz ketchup. Berkshire employee Erin Hardigan — who says she’s owned stock for 10 years — was minding a giant, 20-foot inflatable Heinz ketchup bottle next to the stall. “Did you want your picture taken with the ketchup?” she asked me.
I didn’t. Others did.
Warren Buffett is now 88. (Charlie Munger is 95.) There is enormous pressure on him to name a successor. But who can fill those shoes? Who can follow this act? Berkshire is the cult of Warren.
The answer, surely, is nobody. Which leads to the obvious question: How long will it be after Warren Buffett has left the scene before people start talking about breaking up this $530 billion conglomerate? Wall Street banks would love to get their hands on the fees. And what is Berkshire without Buffett?
Brett Arends is a columnist for MarketWatch.