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Party in Omaha

Berky BoxToday, I’m taking a look at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha. Home to basketball and hockey games, rock concerts, a convention center, and yes, Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting.  The Arena holds more than 18,000 screaming fans, or, in this case, shareholders. Estimates put visitors to the 2015 annual meeting at about 40,000.

Most annual shareholder meetings amount to nothing more than required legal statements, perhaps a company presentation, and if you’re lucky, refreshments. Berkshire Hathaway takes annual meetings to a whole new level. The opportunity to buy Berkshire-themed trinkets from subsidiaries Heinz, Fruit of the Loom and Oriental Trading (including a set of Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger rubber duckies for $5 and Berky Boxers, which CNN proclaim a long-time best seller)…check. The opportunity to eat a piece of a gigantic ice cream cake created by Dairy Queen in celebration of Warren Buffet’s 50th anniversary of taking control of Berkshire Hathaway…check. The chance to run a 5k among other Berkshire investors…check. There is even a detailed Visitor’s Guide outlining the many activities in and around the shareholder meeting. The guide provides information on “seat saving,” “microphone manners,” and the annual “Newspaper Tossing Challenge” in which Buffet challenges anyone to a 35-foot World-Herald paper tossing contest. If any participant lands a paper closer to the doorstep of the Clayton Home, that participant will receive a Dilly Bar. What’s a Dilly Bar anyway? Sounds more like a party, and why not with thousands of shareholders and a Chairman who calls the annual meeting a “Woodstock for Capitalists.”

Was any actual business conducted at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting? Absolutely. Although most investors unequivocally love him, the questions were not the softballs you might expect. Among the things he and Munger were asked, according to MarketWatch, during a nearly six hour Q&A session, included refuting accusations that Berkshire subsidiary Clayton Homes engages in predatory lending practices, whether IBM is a “cigar-butt” stock, referring to a company that is “a good value investment, but with only a couple of puffs left,” and whether Coke’s competitive advantage is narrowing. When talking about changing consumer preferences for food and drink, the 84-year-old Buffet commented, “If I lived my whole life eating broccoli and Brussels sprouts, I probably wouldn’t live as long.”

While I certainly don’t think many, if any, companies should follow Berkshire’s lead when planning their annual meeting, there are a few lessons to be learned. Be shareholder friendly. Communicate in a style that everyone will understand, and make it easy for investors to access your information, attend your meeting and own your stock. Make your annual meeting worthwhile. While tchotchkes are nice and provide shareholders with a fun reminder of their stock ownership, most would likely prefer an open and honest Q&A with management to help them understand a company’s future plan and how they are going to get there. You don’t need to give them six hours, but you should provide a forum for their questions and commentary.

With annual meeting season upon us, let us know if you’ve been to a great meeting, and also if you’ve seen anything that made you cringe (company names are not required). To Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger and Berkshire Hathaway, I say…party on!

— Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com