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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 May 2007, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
Buffett headlines at Berkshire gathering

By Stephen Evans
BBC News

Warren Buffett
Mr Buffett played the ukulele at this year's Berkshire AGM

The bookstore in the corner of the hall has a sign saying "Welcome to the Woodstock of capitalism", and that's exactly right.

The annual shareholders' meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, which has taken place this weekend, is a gathering like no other.

It's a show as much as a business gathering.

Billionaire Warren Buffett - who took control of Berkshire Hathaway nearly half a century ago in his native Omaha - entertains, either by playing the ukulele in front of a country and western band or by dispersing wisdom to the thousands of grateful shareholders who attend.

And grateful they are.

Those in at the start have seen the value of their stock increase a hundred fold.

Local people entrusted their money to this studious youngster with a mind that relished complex mathematical calculations, and he repaid them with interest - a lot of interest.

Buffettology

Warren Buffett talking to shareholders
Shareholders flock to Omaha for the annual Berkshire meeting

Mr Buffett still lives in Omaha, driving a modest car and eating regularly in local restaurants, particularly Gorat's, a steak house where he has been known to entertain Bill Gates, his chum and now fellow board member of Berkshire Hathaway.

The two of them toured a side hall to the meeting, where companies that Berkshire owns had set up stalls.

Mr Gates was curious, with a boyish smile, as he looked at the display of cowboy boots - it didn't seem like his style - but Mr Buffett relished the chance of publicity for one of his brands.

When my mother became 80 I bought her an exercise bike, because the longer she lived, the longer I was likely to live
Warren Buffett

The whole festival, for that's what it is, is an exercise in business.

Mr Buffett draws thousands of people who also own Berkshire Hathaway stock to Omaha and offers them a discount on their own goods, and they buy with relish.

Borsheims, the jeweller owned by Berkshire Hathaway, does 10% of its annual business in the weekend.

There is a sub-branch of the publishing industry devoted to analyzing the Buffett business method - Buffettology as the titles call it.

Making money

The truth is that the method is simple, but that doesn't mean it can be copied easily.

Mr Buffett invests in good companies for the long term, and he only invests in companies he understands.

His companies include a maker of cowboy boots, a chain of ice-cream stores, a brick maker and the jewellery store. Berkshire also has stakes of 8% in Coca-Cola and 12% of American Express.

They're all companies which have clear processes and ways of making money.

Last year, he bought an Israeli maker of industrial equipment - again a very profitable company without the mystery associated with, say, internet companies.

And the Buffett way is to spot really good managers, put them in and let them get on with it.

Appetite for business

Berkshire Hathaway shareholder
Shareholders toast Berkshire's success under Mr Buffett

Susan Jacques, the chief executive of Borsheims, says she gets a single sheet of paper in January from Mr Buffett, telling her her goals for the year, and then she's allowed to get on with it.

Eitan Wertheimer, the son of the founder of ISCAR, the Israeli machinery manufacturer - who is now president of the company - tells the same story.

He says Mr Buffett continually asks "why" about companies, seeking "answers to problems that don't exist" - in other words, he wants to understand completely and not wait for problems to occur before addressing them.

But once he's understood a company and bought it, he leaves the chief executive to run it.

It is no surprise of a man whose precocious appetite for business and numbers was apparent in his teens, when he used money he had saved from his paper round to buy land and rent it to farmers.

Mr Buffett has said that while some people read Playboy of an evening, he prefers a good company report.

Asked at the meeting how he stays so fit at the age of 76, he replied that he did not smoke or drink and enjoyed a stress-free job.

"When my mother became 80 I bought her an exercise bike, because the longer she lived, the longer I was likely to live," he added.

Sudan question

He comes into his element in the annual meeting when he and his business partner, Charlie Munger, sit at a table in the centre of a basketball hall and field questions.

Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates
Mr Buffett includes fellow-billionaire Bill Gates among his friends

This year, the contentious topic was disinvestment from Sudan because of the atrocities being committed in Darfur.

Berkshire Hathaway owns 1.3% of PetroChina, which is also owned by the Chinese government in the shape of the China National Petroleum Corporation.

Critics say the corporation supports the Sudanese government by doing business in the country in which hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have been killed.

Dissident Berkshire shareholder, Judith Porter, told the meeting in Omaha that it was "the first genocide of the 21st century", and so Berkshire Hathaway should pull its money out of what is in effect a Chinese government company operating in Sudan.

She told Mr Buffett: "Your support of divestment will send a signal to China and Sudan that there are costs to continuing this destruction.''

Mr Buffet acknowledged the dire conditions in Sudan but said the company in which Berkshire Hathaway has a stake could not tell the Chinese government what to do.

The shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway agreed and the move failed.

Man of actions

You get the sense that Mr Buffett doesn't feel easy about dealing with pressure group politics.

He's a practical man of actions and results.

Gestures aren't his style. He expresses his politics more directly with his donations and philosophy of money.

He's promised to donate Berkshire stock currently valued at about $30bn to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and about $6bn more to four Buffett family foundations.

It's a type of practical politics with which he is more at ease.


SEE ALSO
Buffett's $48bn donation deadline
02 Mar 07 |  Business
Buffett donates $37bn to charity
26 Jun 06 |  Business
Forbes reports billionaire boom
10 Mar 06 |  Business
Buffett says successor is chosen
05 Mar 06 |  Business
Meet the world's second richest man
06 May 04 |  From Our Own Correspondent

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