There’s Only One Warren Buffett

Posted May 11, 2018 4:23 p.m. EDT

OMAHA, Neb. — Officially, it’s known as the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting.

Unofficially, a handful of nicknames describe the three-day extravaganza that happens in the first weekend of May, in which tens of thousands of people descend upon Omaha to revel in all things Warren Buffett.

There’s “Berkyville,” which captures the folksy, small-town tenor of the event. There’s “AGM,” an abbreviation of “Annual General Meeting,” preferred by the finance crowd. And there’s Buffett’s personal favorite: “Woodstock for capitalists.”

But the most revealing name is the shortest one: the meeting. Just as some New Yorkers refer to the Big Apple as “the city,” as if there were only one, scores of attendees consider this shareholders meeting to be in a class of its own.

In part, that’s because the atmosphere feels closer to a carnival than a buttoned-up investors’ conference. There are tables of merchandise and costumed mascots, Ping-Pong matches and a movie reel of celebrity-filled skits and spoofs. There is an unofficial circuit of VIP parties and piggyback events. At the center of it all is Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway’s chief executive, one of the world’s most successful investors and the weekend’s enthusiastic master of ceremonies.

“There’s a cult of personality, and I mean that in a positive way,” said Dan Calkins, president and chief operating officer of Benjamin Moore.

For Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Initialized Capital and a former executive chairman of Reddit, the fun began long before he touched down in Nebraska. “There’s such a range of people, even just from the plane out of Newark to here,” he said. Pointing to his business partner, Garry Tan, he added, “This guy talked to, uh, well, I don’t want to name drop.”

As if on cue, investor Li Lu walked up to shake Ohanian’s hand; inches away, John Collison, chief executive of Stripe, typed away on his laptop. For Tan, the big names mattered less than the Midwestern sensibilities: “There is a piece of this that really resonates with us, around being plain-spoken and investing in what you understand,” he said.

The epicenter of the festivities is Omaha’s CenturyLink Center exhibition space: One wing is fully devoted to booths of Berkshire Hathaway-owned brands. Friday is known as “shopping day.” It’s a dedicated opportunity for Buffett’s admirers to buy his brands, snack on his preferred foods (See’s Candies and Dilly Bars) and take selfies next to his various likenesses (or, in Tan’s case, in an Oscar Mayer hot dog costume). Another wing is home to a Madison Square Garden-like arena, where the actual shareholders meeting is held on Saturday.

Revelers line up overnight to get in — or, in capitalist fashion, hire other people to stand in line for them. This year, many people expressed gratitude for the gentle breezes and sunshine, a welcome reprieve from the torrential rainstorms of past years. A handful of revelers were dressed up in bow ties and silver-glitter heels. Others climbed up poles to snap photos of the crowd.

By 7 a.m., attendees were streaming into the arena. Many purchased fluffy pretzels and pink beverages adorned with umbrellas from the concession stands and settled in to be entertained. A parody of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” blasted over the loudspeaker, but the lyrics were changed to: “In Berkshire, financial strength is where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do.”

Then the “movie” started rolling.

As in previous years, Berkshire Hathaway had created a video reel of skits with celebrities, who ostensibly agree to participate free. This year, Katy Perry was one of about half a dozen big names on the screen, joking about the Left Shark debacle at the Super Bowl in 2015 and comparing the uncoordinated backup dancer to the Oracle of Omaha himself. The right shark, she said, was the one who showed up on time to rehearsal and got none of the credit — and that was Buffett’s vice chairman Charlie Munger. The crowd applauded loudly.

After the Berkshire Hathaway board was announced and earnings were delivered, the most beloved portion of the show began: Buffett and Munger held a question-and-answer session, taking on topics like global politics and cryptocurrencies. Buffett dispensed wise advice and spoke with occasional self-effacing charm. Munger delivered deadpan one-liners that drew raucous laughs, including his comparison of virtual currencies to “turds.”

“If you’re interested in business, this is the bucket-list event,” said James Weber, the chief executive of Brooks Sports. “It’s just priceless.” For hard chargers in the financial industry, who are often laser-focused on performance, it’s a reminder that business can be fun. “Every year that I come personally, I walk away energized,” said Calkins of Benjamin Moore, who said he has attended the meeting 17 times.

Even after the main event was over, there was still plenty of weekend left to enjoy.

There was a picnic at Nebraska Furniture Mart, a 5K run and a chance to challenge Buffett in a game of Ping-Pong (he promised to “take all comers”). There were additional finance meetings, private dinner parties and an exclusive brunch held by Buffett at the country club.

“People aren’t coming here because they’re investing money,” said Conner Van Fossen, an Air Force member who attended the event with his father, Jim Van Fossen, for the first time. “It’s about the spectacle.”