As a member of the national organization, Smart Woman Securities, I was fortunate enough to join 60 undergraduate women from 19 different schools for a three day trip to Omaha, Nebraska. During this trip, we were able to visit seven different companies and meet with prominent business executives from the Omaha area. The culmination of this trip was a question and answer session with the Oracle of Omaha himself, Mr. Warren Buffett. We then were able to join Mr. Buffett for lunch at his favorite restaurant, Piccolo Pete’s, along with MBA students from various schools. Yet the highlight of the trip came later in the evening, when Mr. Buffett made time to come to dinner at another favorite restaurant, Gorat’s Steakhouse, exclusively with SWS. Not only did he stay for three hours, but he took the time to meet every single woman, hear each of our aspirations, and answer our questions. This experience exemplified how Mr. Buffett’s success not only stems from his determination, intelligence, and business acumen, but more importantly from his character.
The room was abuzz with excitement as soon as I entered the space where Mr. Buffett would be presenting to the large group of students. We had just visited the Nebraska Furniture Mart, one of the earliest companies in which Mr. Buffett invested. The company is in the process of expanding into Texas where they are opening a large new store. As was the theme the rest of the day, whenever anyone at any of his companies spoke of Mr. Buffett, there was a sense of admiration. The executives at Nebraska Furniture Mart were no different and were able to describe to us how Mr. Buffett truly cares about the companies he invests in and helps them grow to maximize their potential (along with their profits). One of the first things I noticed when entering the room was the three bottles of cherry Coca-Cola placed where Mr. Buffett would present. I smiled to myself, recalling Mr. Buffett’s quote, “I’m one quarter Coca-Cola”, and his further declaration that he has the diet of a six-year old. I was expecting Mr. Buffett to be down-to-earth based on the preparation projects my group had done before the trip, but I did not realize the extent of his humility until hearing him speak.
The room grew silent as soon as he entered, but he greeted us all with a big smile and thanked us for coming. Every group had predetermined questions and we all were able to ask them in a rotation The first question was about if he would do anything differently looking back on his career. Mr. Buffett replied that he would do everything he has done in his past the same, but he would have pushed harder. He then mentioned that his one big mistake was using Berkshire as a vehicle to build his business today. The textile business that Berkshire operated in at the time of its acquisition was not the best business, and he would have more rapidly made progress with another company. He pointed out that the biggest mistakes that we can make are not using the talents we have, and marrying the wrong person. This led to further questions about careers and his opinion of the current market status. While he believes that the bond market in Europe has the potential to be the next ‘bubble’, he believes the biggest potential problem of our time is the threat of a successful biological or nuclear attack. The regulation in the financial industry, such as Dodd-Frank, is important, but he worries that it actually strips the Federal Reserve of the ability to stop a panic in the future, which will inevitably happen again. However, he thinks that children that are born today have the best possible future. Because we have won the ‘ovarian lottery’ (referring to our opportunities to attend great schools in the US), it is our responsibility to continue improving society and making a difference.
Many of the subsequent questions were followed by funny stories and anecdotes that Mr. Buffett has accumulated during his time in business. Mr. Buffett would often stray from the more technical and financial questions and instead give life advice, equally as valuable as his advice on the current market. One of my favorite points that he made was about surrounding yourself with the right kinds of people. One of Mr. Buffett’s friends was a survivor of a concentration camp and she struggled to get close to people. She told him that it was because she always wondered, “would they hide me?” He challenged all of the audience members to think about this when choosing with whom to surround ourselves. He also mentioned his friend, Don Keough (recently deceased ND Chairman of the Board, past president of Coca-Cola) and summed up his life in three words: “Everybody loved him.” He said that Mr. Keough could connect with everyone and brought out the best in people, and that we should all develop similar characteristics to engage more people.
Mr. Buffett also emphasized that success is not necessarily dependent on IQ or success with numbers. The people who will be very successful are those that others want to work with and who are leaders. He challenged us to think about the people we know at our schools. If we were to pick someone out of our class to earn 10% of their earnings for the rest of their life, who would we choose? If we were to short someone, who would we choose? He guaranteed that when we looked at the traits that we admire, they can all be acquired. Similarly, we can get rid of the negative traits. In the end, we want to be able to say that we would choose ourselves. We need to develop habits now, because as we grow older, our preexisting characteristics are further accentuated.
Our subsequent dinner with Mr. Buffett was likewise filled with great words of wisdom. I had the opportunity to ask him what he saw as the biggest mistake that people our age are making. He replied that we need to learn how to communicate. He said, “If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark.” He took a speech and communications class outside of his studies in business school and he hangs that certificate up on his wall along with his business degrees. He also said that we should all try to become experts in accounting if we want to work in the financial industry. As our group was fully comprised of women, he made the point that we live in a great time, one much better than when his sisters were our age. Mr. Buffett’s points centered on the idea that investments are a great area because performance is objective and anyone can be successful, regardless of their background.
As he closed out the Q&A, one of my favorite quotes from Mr. Buffett was, “I’m painting my own painting. I get to do it my own way, no one tells me what to do. This frees up human creativity.” This was in response to a question asking why he goes to work every day. I really aspire to have this kind of freedom in my career, where I feel as though I am having an impact and making something special. He also mentioned to make a little time for yourself every day and to do something you enjoy; this is the key to self-improvement. Personally, I know that I will not always have autonomy. But, I like to think that as long as I feel as though I am making a difference, learning, asking questions, and am surrounded by inspiring people, I am beginning a painting myself.
My trip to Omaha gave me a short, yet meaningful, glimpse into the great Oracle’s life. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity, and I will always remember how Mr. Buffett made all of us feel so comfortable. I will be sure to keep his advice in mind throughout my career and continue to pursue philanthropic endeavors, as it is equally important to give back throughout one’s life. Last but not least, I will try to drink more root beer floats- because if Mr. Buffett drinks them, then they must be special.