OMAHA, Nebraska — Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders on Saturday celebrated Warren Buffett’s 50th anniversary running the conglomerate, as the billionaire fielded questions about the company and its future, and explained some business practices.
Berkshire owns more than 80 companies, including the Burlington Northern railroad, Geico car insurance, Benjamin Moore paint, Dairy Queen ice cream, Fruit of the Loom underwear and See’s candies, and owns more than $115 billion of stocks.
But Buffett’s status as an investing legend, and his plain talk and humor, are key reasons why people trek to Omaha for what Buffett calls “Woodstock for Capitalists.”
Berkshire’s annual meeting is Omaha’s top annual draw other than baseball’s College World Series — reflected in hotel rooms that can fetch more than $400 a night and often sell out nearly a year in advance.
Buffett, 84, and his second-in-command Charlie Munger, 91, spend hours at the annual meeting in a downtown arena answering questions from shareholders, analysts and journalists about business, the economy, current events and life.
As is usually the case, no major controversy has been hanging over Berkshire despite its sprawl.
But Buffett did offer a defense of Berkshire’s partnerships with Brazil’s 3G Capital, which critics say ruthlessly cuts jobs at companies it acquires. In 2013, Berkshire and 3G bought H.J. Heinz Co., which in turn is now buying Kraft Foods Group Inc.
“The 3G people have been successful in building marvelous businesses,” Buffett said. “I don’t know of any company that has a policy that says we’re going to have a lot more people than they need.”
Buffett also offered a defense of Berkshire’s Clayton Homes manufactured homes unit, which was criticized in a recent Seattle Times article for predatory sales practices that can trap low-income borrowers in homes they cannot afford.
“I make no apologies whatsoever for Clayton’s lending terms,” he said, adding that Clayton itself faces losses when borrowers default.
Devoted and sleep-deprived shareholders began lining up outside the venue hours before doors opened at 7 a.m. Kyle Cleeton, a research analyst for an investment firm, may have gotten there first, saying he showed up at 10 p.m. the night before.
“I wanted to be first in line,” he said. “You’re not sure how many more years you’re going to have.”
Bill Guenther, a state forester from Brattleboro, Vermont, said, “I’m one who likes a good seat.” He arrived at 1:04 a.m. despite having last year suffered a major foot injury requiring crutches when he collided with another shareholder as he tried to get that good seat.
“My girlfriend said, ‘You’re not going to do this again,’ and I said, ‘I have to, it’s the 50th year.’”
Many at the meeting wondered about Buffett’s future with the company but he was not expected to give any hint about who might replace him as chief executive.
“Doing so would limit his options going forward and he doesn’t usually give up free options to satisfy the curiosity of the outside world,” said Ken Shubin Stein, founder of Spencer Capital Management LLC in New York.
The meeting was preceded by the company movie overseen by Buffett’s daughter Susie, part celebration of Berkshire and its culture and part entertainment.
This year’s film featured, among other things, chats between Buffett and some of Berkshire’s earliest employees, and a spoof championship boxing match directed by John Landis between Buffett, billing himself as “The Berkshire Bomber,” and the undefeated welterweight champ Floyd Mayweather.
But the weekend is mainly about commerce. Shareholders at the arena bought 10,000 frozen bars and 2,000 Blizzards at Dairy Queen on a Friday shopping day. They could also buy an array of products as varied as blindingly yellow “new and improved” “Berky” boxer shorts for men and “Berky Bras” for women (both $6), or carpet cleaner from Berkshire’s Kirby unit (also $5).
Buffett as usual milled about the displays prior to the meeting, trailed by dozens of print and TV journalists, where he ate (and paid for) a Dairy Queen vanilla orange bar, and tossed newspapers as he once did as a boy. Bill Gates, the Microsoft Corp. chairman and Berkshire director, tossed one too.