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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
Meet the world's second richest man

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

Nearly 20,000 grateful shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Incorporated met in Omaha, Nebraska for their annual gathering. The company, owned by the fabulously wealthy Warren Buffett, is extremely successful... and the shareholders are not doing too badly either.

Map of Nebraska

They call it a festival of capitalism and that is about right.

The 19,500 shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, crowded into a vast basketball arena for their annual meeting - swarming over a town as middle of the Midwest as you can get - are shaking hands and rejoicing in their good fortune.

And it is a very good fortune indeed.

The main hand being shaken belongs to Warren Buffett - worth about $42.9bn (£23.5bn) - whose company Berkshire is - and who has increased the share price from $175 (£97) each in 1978 to the current $93,390 (£52,000) per share now.

No wonder the shareholders' meeting that I went to beside the Missouri River felt more like a carnival. Or perhaps the gathering of a cult, the cult of Warren Buffett who has made many of them richer than they could ever have dreamt.

Humble beginnings

Warren Buffet
Mr Buffett, now 73, has been in business for more than 60 years

He wanders through the throng, soaking up the adulation with some modesty.

He is a quiet, bespectacled man who exudes warmth and intelligence and no hint of arrogance.

He stops to be photographed. He smiles. He makes the odd, sometimes awkward quip. Showmanship is not his style. His humour is understated.

Mr Buffett - or Warren as everyone here calls him - is a local boy made very good indeed.

After all, Omaha, Nebraska is not the kind of place where you would expect the world's second richest man to live (Bill Gates is the richest). Or to live in an ordinary suburban home on an ordinary tree-lined road.

Warren Buffett really is refreshing.

Waiters at his local steakhouse wear T-shirts showing Warren in a Superman outfit and holding two big bags of money

Born in Omaha, by the age of 17 he had made enough money from a paper round to buy agricultural land and rent it to farmers.

He bought his first share before he reached his teens. As a boy, he set up a business renting pinball machines to local barbers. Money, plus wisdom, begat money. A lot of money.

Today, he still goes to the local steakhouse, Gorat's at 4917 Center Street, where I can attest that the steaks are very good indeed, though the décor is not exactly fancy.

It is the kind of place where they serve beer - not Chateau Neuf du Pape - with what the waiters call Warren Buffett's Favorite T-Bone. Waiters wear T-shirts showing Warren in a Superman outfit and holding two big bags of money.

Individual style

Warren Buffet (left) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (right)
Warren Buffet mixes with many prestigious and powerful people

It seems that money is not quite the point for Warren. It is not the spending that excites him. Dollars, with lots of zeros after them, are a kind of scoreboard of business success and that is what he enjoys.

On top of that, money does give him access to a lot of people from presidents down, which he also enjoys.

Throughout the festival, Warren Buffett expounds what seems, once he has said it, like an obvious truth: "We just look for good businesses run by sensible people at good prices".

Simple enough, but it is not the common way in a financial world that gets gripped by fads like the internet boom which Warren shunned to much amusement then... and awe now.

His style is more to identify companies which are basically sound, but undervalued - buy them - put in managers to improve them and watch the stock rise.

He is in it for the long term. Investing for him is not about watching fancy charts and arcane ratios, but about the bricks and mortar of a business, literally.

Consumerism

Over the shareholders weekend they crowd the stores that Warren and Berkshire own.

They cram into Borsheim's, the jewellers, for a reception and free food. One of the great mysteries of human nature, it seems to me, is how much suffering people will put themselves through to get something that is free.

Commemorative boots to celebrate 125th anniversary
A series of men in big Texan hats told me: If they ain't tight, son, they ain't right

At Borsheim's, the line of people clutching tiny plastic plates stretches for perhaps 100 yards to get that free slice of steak and a meatball, or a radish and a plastic cup of wine.

Warren Buffett is shrewd though even in his generosity. All these shareholders spend money in the company's stores so the event is, as he puts it, "one of the most profitable annual meetings in capitalism".

I restrained my spending to a pair of cowboy boots made by a Berkshire company called Justin Boots, founded exactly 125 years ago and still thriving in Fort Worth, Texas.

It had a stall at the shareholders' meeting and on show was a celebratory pair of boots made of leather, tooled into ornate patterns and inlaid with lashings of gold, silver and 525 gems, including diamonds and rubies.

Needless to say, I went for a humbler number; black, high and with some intricate scrolling in the leather. As I wrestled with them, trying not to seem wimpy, a series of men in big Texan hats came up and advised me: "If they ain't tight, son, they ain't right".

Well, they are tight and they are right, blissful in fact, though it does take me half an hour to force them off. And, you know heels - I suspect women already do know this - heels really do make you walk tall. They force you to stand up straight. There is no other way of walking on them.

As Justin Boot's chief executive told me, the boots really do embody what he called "the spirit and lifestyle of the American west".

But I did notice, just inside, a little tab saying: "Made in Mexico".

There is no doubt that Warren Buffett is very shrewd when it comes to business.


From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 6 May, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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