BauerBuffett15: Inside the “Cloud Room”

January 20, 2015

Nebraska-Furniture-Mart---group-photo-web

Last Thursday, 20 students from the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship (WCE) travelled to Omaha, Nebraska, with Melvyn Wolff and me.

We were scheduled to meet with Warren Buffett the next day. Our backpacks loaded with excitement and anticipation, we landed at Eppley airport in Omaha. We could not have asked for a nicer day. We checked in at the Embassy Suites, and were greeted with a hospitality that made us smile.

A quick walk into Howard Street, the Market Square —  and for some of us, given how close we were to the Nebraska/Iowa border, pictures with one leg in each state —  all followed with a dinner at Stoke’s Grill, hosted by Melvyn Wolff. It was a delicious fare complemented by a lively discussion that WCE students can facilitate.

We took a quiz on Berkshire Hathaway, we enjoyed listening to the song by one of our team members, and most of all we felt truly grateful for everything Melvyn talked to us about. Always guiding without directing, Melvyn Wolff is a perfect example of a teacher who gets you to think without forcing you to believe.

The next morning, we awoke early and after a hearty breakfast, boarded the bus driven by Mr. George, who was to be our guide for the entire day. An affable gentleman, Mr. George had moved to Omaha in 1993 and had lived there since. Our first stop was Nebraska Furniture Mart (NFM). Started by a Russian immigrant, Rose Blumkin, NFM is the largest furniture store in North America. Initially confined to Omaha, they now have stores in Iowa, Kansas and are scheduled to open their largest ever store in Dallas (Spring 2015).

A business model with no debt, razor thin margins, price, selection and service, has helped them stake out a competitive position in a business where closings are more the norm.  We walked through the entire showroom (we saw and felt the Berkshire line of bedding with the “Warren” mattress, which has a side pocket to store cash), and their electronics area, which sells all electronics ranging from computers to washer dryers and exercise equipment.

Our next stop was the Kiewit building where the meeting with Mr. Buffett was scheduled.  En route we drove by Warren Buffett’s home, which would be hard to recognize, if you were not told so. Story goes that one of his neighbors, let’s call him Mr. X, a very successful corporate leader, came home one day and explained to his wife that the “strange” man who was their neighbor (who tended to his flowers in the morning when people left for work and was found removing weeds in the evening) had the gall to ask him to invest $5,000 in a business he was proposing.  Years later at a meeting in NYC of the most successful businessmen in America, each participant was asked to share their biggest business blunder.  Mr. X admitted that his biggest mistake was not having invested in his “strange” neighbor, Warren Buffett’s business!

We reached the Kiewit building and took the elevators to the 14th floor.  Other schools were also represented — Rice, Seattle, Wisconsin, Stanford, Chicago, Rutgers, a school from Brazil, in addition to WCE Bauer. We assembled in the “Cloud Room,” which was functional without being overbearing, well-appointed without seeming luxurious. Unannounced, he walked in from the back and the room responded with an ovation. Time stood still as we saw him at close proximity, and he seemed like an avatar, almost unreal. And then it began. There was no fancy opening line or speech, and what followed was two hours of one of the best learning experiences anyone could have asked for. His remarks packed intellectually exciting takeaways with entertaining stories, and there was a humor that was not contrived with “jokes” and flowed naturally, almost seamlessly.

When you add to this a very down-to-earth demeanor with not the slightest sense of accomplishment, you are left inspired, as if you just witnessed a spectacular magic show. The session was a Q&A but the A’s clearly dominated the Q’s. Each school had been told to prepare two questions which were asked in the order that was called out by Mr. Buffett himself — no assistants, no handlers, no nothing, not even a chair to sit in.  He had a microphone attached to his lapel which stopped working and had to be revived!  If we did not know that this was the richest man in the world, we would not have believed it.

My takeaways:

  1. What does he read?

Biographies of successful leaders. In particular he suggested we read the biography of Katherine (Kay) Graham of the Washington Post.  The biography profiles her role as leader after her husband passed away and is an inspiring story of courage, according to Warren.  He knew her, liked and respected her and helped her, not to mention the fact that he made money on his investment in the Post, 100 to 1! What else does he read? 10Ks and 10Qs, Moody’s Manuals (in fact he purchased on Amazon a copy of the Moody’s Manuals he read in the 1940s).

  1. Who inspires him?

He mentioned several names and keep reverting to Kay Graham – “Not sure that Wall Street people inspire me, but Kay Graham did.”

  1. How does he inspire the people who work for him?

He has 330,000 employees working at BRK, and every two years he sends a two-page letter to his employees.

  1. The story of the financial crisis
    In addition to the housing bubble, what triggered the crisis was when money market funds with $3.5 trillion invested in them started to experience problems.  Most of these investments were in commercial paper, and when Lehmann went bankrupt, the commercial paper market went under and hurt the money market funds. The scale impact that resulted from this (30-35 million people in the U.S, invest in these funds) “broke the buck.”  He credits President George W. Bush (who, in his words, explained quantitative easing better than any economist could, “If money does not loosen, this sucker is going down”!) as well as the financial team — Bernanke, Geithner and Paulsen, with helping break the fall.
  1. Where will the next crisis come from?

The next crisis will not be a housing or financial one (we now know how to deal with these) but will be a Cyber, Nuclear, Biological, Crime (CNBC!)

  1. On gender equity
    The U.S. constitution uses male pronouns— it took 33 male judges and several years before we had a Sandra Day O’Connor on the United States Supreme Court.
  1. Other interesting takeaways
    • “Everything about me gets exaggerated.”
    • Most important responsibility most people have is raising children — do it well, he said.
    • Older people in retirement homes are in “God’s waiting room.”
    • Get smart people around you.
    • Like the Russian immigrant who lost her sister in Auschwitz, migrated to the U.S. and spent her life picking friends based on – “Will they hide me?” – make sure you have enough friends who will “hide” you.
    • While we have all the money we want, we only have the exact amount of reputation we need – so guard your reputation; it is precious.
    • “Play in the center of the court” and not close to the lines.
    • “Get it right, get it fast and get it over.”
    • When Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett disagree, Charlie (who is older) says: “Warren, you will eventually agree with me because you are smarter, and you know I am right.”
    • You don’t really need a very high IQ to invest — if you have an IQ that exceeds 150, sell the extra points— you don’t need it.
    • There are innovators, imitators and the swarming incompetents.
    • It is very important to learn good oral and written communication skills – without the ability to communicate, it is like “winking at a girl in the dark” – no one recognizes it or values it.
    • On technology: “I spend $1.5 million on my aircraft and a few $100 dollars on my computer – if I had to give up one of these, the aircraft would go, i.e. I am willing to trade something worth $1.5 million for my computers, yet the technology industry is not monetized to reflect this value.”

Stokes-Grill---group-photo-web

After the talk we all drove to Piccolo Pete’s.  His favorite items on the menu, chicken parm, beef, fries, coke and root beer floats and a veggie burger (he must have known I am coming!) were available for us to order from. At the end of the meal, we took pictures with him. We departed for the airport at 4:15 p.m. and landed back in warm Houston around 8:40 p.m.

What an amazing two days.

Being able to see at close hand a person whose life has lessons for every one of us, was a once-in-a-life time experience.  I know we all took away nuggets of wisdom which will serve us well in the future — be it the humility that envelops everything about Mr. Buffett, his comments on the value of a reputation or his keen analytical mind. Every minute of his talk was packed with insight that was interesting, unique and presented to us in a humorous, down-to-earth and amazingly engaged manner. He did not talk at us; he talked to us.

He took a keen interest in every school by thanking every one of us, he took us to lunch and treated us to the things he enjoys most — chicken parm and root beer floats —  and spent time taking pictures with us.

If there is one way to describe his success, it is what he shared at the end — think of a career as something you would want to do every day even if you did not have to – what would make you come to work every day even if you had all the wealth you needed?  The fact that he simply loves what he does is key to his success. He enjoys what he does — that he makes money doing it is almost incidental.  So let us begin every day by looking for the passion that we all have for that something inside us, learn about it, work on it and make a contribution to others who may not have it — the health, wealth and happiness will surely follow.

Which brings me to the next point: the students I travelled with — my students, our students, at WCE, at Bauer, at UH.

LR-and-female-WCE-students-at-Nebraska-Furniture-Mart-web

You are an amazing group and I know that every one of you has a passion for something significant.  I know that each one of you is talented and focused, and when you add this to the learning that comes your way at WCE, you have all the ingredients for success. I know you have great careers ahead of you, I really do. In addition, you care about each other, and you are a family that will stay so, long after you graduate. You leverage each other, you watch out for each other, and you inspire each other. That is truly special, and I believe that is the magic of WCE — Ken and Dave, Ed and Jim, all our faculty, staff and mentors have created a learning environment which inspires as much as it educates, which teaches life skills as much as it teaches business skills, which helps you grow outside the classroom as much as you learn inside one.

None of this of course would be possible without the people who birthed WCE — Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff. None of this would happen if it were not for their giving, their mentorship, their friendship. Our trip to Omaha as we all saw was not like that of the other schools — Chicago, Stanford, Seattle, Washington, Rice, Wisconsin, Brazil, Rutgers — who waited for several years before they got to go. They waited patiently in line before their names were called. We, WCE on the other hand, visit Mr. Buffett every year, and this would not be possible without Mr. Wolff. Not just this, we would not enjoy the experience as we do, but for Mr. Wolff’s presence on the trip. His counsel, his planning, his taking care of details, his making sure we took all the pictures we did — everything about the trip had that special aura thanks to his accompanying us.

Thank you Melvyn. You inspire us, you motivate us, and we feel safe knowing you are watching out for us. We are blessed to have you in our lives.


Making a Difference, Changing Lives

December 15, 2014
Bauer MBA Candidates Lara Machemehl and Raiya Al Salmi organized a faculty vs. students kickball game to raise money for Teague Cox, center, who suffers from brain cancer. The money raised at Bauer College will allow Teague to go deep sea fishing with his family during a Make-A-Wish Foundation event.

Bauer MBA Candidates Lara Machemehl and Raiya Al Salmi organized a faculty vs. students kickball game to raise money for Teague Cox, center, who suffers from brain cancer. The money raised at Bauer College will allow Teague to go deep sea fishing with his family during a Make-A-Wish Foundation event. See more photos at whereawesomehappens.com.

Last week was a week to cherish. On Friday morning I received an email sent to our suggestions@bauer.uh.edu mailbox, and I smiled.  I know you will too when you read this.

Lara Machemehl is a full-time student in our MBA program.  On December 6, Lara and her colleague and friend Raiya (who is also in the full-time MBA program and is part of the Cougar Investment Fund student team) organized an MBA Faculty vs. Students kickball game.  The goal was to raise money to make a difference for children who make a wish, children who make a wish and hope that someone, somewhere, can help turn the wish into a reality.  In this case, Lara and Raiya wanted to help a child named Teague.  Teague is a 9-year-old boy who has brain cancer.  Teague wishes and hopes to go deep sea fishing with his family.  Lara and Raiya wanted to make it possible for Teague to go fishing with his family.  And they did. Raise money they did, and in Lara’s words:

“It was a big success, and Teague and his family came to the event and played as well! Professors Partha Krishnamurthy, Chet Miller, Steve Werner, Dusya Vera, Jeanna Abbott and Leiser Silva volunteered to play.”

Lara and Raiya were part of Chet Miller and Dusya Vera’s classes on leadership. Lara goes on to say that she and Raiya were inspired to do this in a final project that was part of Chet Miller’s Leadership Development class. She describes our faculty thus:

“They are truly an amazing group of professors!! … This was truly an incredible way to end my MBA experience at Bauer.”

She also notes that Jim Phillips kicked off the giving efforts, and through all their fundraising, both at the kickball game with our faculty and other students, and thanks to support from family and friends, this team has raised more than $7,300, so Teague’s wish is now more than just a wish!

Not only is it appropriate that David Williams (Bauer alum and CEO of Make-A-Wish Foundation) will kick off our speaker series this coming year (January 22, 2015), it is clear that thanks to the culture that our faculty create both in the classroom and outside, our students are inspired to make a difference, change lives and make awesome happen.

Thank you, Chet and Dusya, for inspiring Lara and Reiya.  And, thank you, Partha, Leiser, Steve, Jeanna and of course Jim (am curious to know if he participated in the game!).

And of course the big question in my mind – who won the game?

On Saturday, Associate Dean for Student Affairs Richard Scamell and I had the opportunity to have dinner in Cincinnati with an alum, Alan Davis, and his wife Jennifer Allen.  Alan graduated from Bauer College with an MS in Accountancy in 1976.  He served as CFO at Adena Health Systems and is now retired, living in Chillicothe with his wife, Jennifer, a retired pediatrician.  Together they now devote their time and energy to their kids and grandchildren (of course) and to building the HOPE Clinic.  The mission of the HOPE Clinic is to provide sound, quality medical care at no cost to those who need but cannot afford, those who have no health insurance in a climate that is accepting and caring.

Alan attributes his service, his career, his success to the lessons he learnt at Bauer, and needless to say, a big part of the credit goes to Jennifer! Meeting people like Lara and Raiya, like Alan and Jennifer, talking with them, talking about them, listening to them, being inspired by them — this will always be the best part of my role as Dean.


Bauer Pride Day 2014

November 5, 2014
See more photos from Bauer Pride Day at WhereAwesomeHappens.com.

See more photos from Bauer Pride Day at WhereAwesomeHappens.com.

Today we celebrated Bauer Pride Day — #Bauerpride14.  Thanks go to all our staff, including Sarayu Sundar, Kathryn Wheatley, Jonathan Shirley, Amanda Sebesta, Nicki Evans, Caleb Theimer, Carolyn Shaffer, an amazing communications team led by Jessica Navarro and a really great group of volunteers, who made it happen.

Thanks also go to all the students and student organizations that participated. The day ended with a session where Prof. Richard Scamell, the college’s Associate Dean for Student Affairs, and I listened to students talk about why they are proud to be at Bauer.

Here is a summary of their comments in response to my question — Why Bauer?

Because at Bauer we get an education, but we really get work skills, and we get life skills.

Because at Bauer we are like the tortoise in the story that slowly but surely beats the hare.

Because at Bauer there’s a track for everyone.

Because, no matter what you want to do, Bauer has the answer for you — finance, energy, there’s someone from Bauer no matter where you go.

Because Houston is Bauer.

Because at Bauer we don’t copy others; we celebrate our uniqueness.

Because at Bauer we respect diversity.

Because at Bauer it’s not just about school – it’s about working on an internship as we take care of our families, and it’s about participating in student organizations and taking that midterm.

Because at Bauer, seeing what everyone else has done is motivation by itself.

Because at Bauer you realize how much you can do and how capable you are.

Because at Bauer you learn how to handle all of the challenges life will throw at you.

Because at Bauer, we don’t ever stop, and we want to keep getting better.

Because at Bauer, we value creativity, and we are not cookie-cutter business students.

Because at Bauer, we have a great support system.

Because at Bauer everything is a great major, and everyone is equal.

Because at Bauer we are blessed with great talent, but we are also blessed with the ability to cultivate talent and to keep learning, and learning continuously.

Because at Bauer, we have the BEST BAKE SALES!!

The day-long event also included an essay competition. Students were invited to write a 500-word essay on the topic, “Because Ted Bauer Gave, I ___.”

Congratulations Jennifer Wang for the award-winning essay, reproduced below.

 

Because Ted Bauer Gave, I discovered potential in myself.

Ted Bauer saw something special in all future generations of UH business students before the students themselves even recognized what it was, and his generous gift to the business college has been able to provide students the opportunity to discover their full potential in a premier learning environment.

As an entering freshman, I was what the Chinese would call “a frog at the bottom of a well” that did not know how big the sky was, or more realistically put: how to survive being the first in my family to attend an American college. Even though my parents encouraged me as I chose to go into accounting, they had no idea what I was getting into. For a period of time, I felt the fear and helplessness; saying that I was merely lost would be an understatement. I felt utterly alone.

Luckily, at a university with a 40,000+ student population, I became a part of the Bauer community and my grim perspective began to change; I found comrades, mentors, friends who cared about my wellbeing and supported me as I went along the path of self-discovery and self-improvement. Through the tight-knit Bauer community, I was introduced to resources, opportunities, and programs that slowly built my confidence and challenged me to become more of a useful individual to the community.  Any Bauer student can probably relate to this stage of growth, which would not have been possible if our business college did not receive the funding from Ted Bauer to achieve its own excellence and then build excellence in its students.

As a current master’s student, I feel fortunate to have been a student leader in multiple business organizations, completed three internships at companies with very well-recognized brand names, and gained a valuable education and network that will continue to make me an asset to the community. Ted Bauer gave me a future to look forward to, and it was a future I never dared to envision before entering college.

My peers consider me to be a small success story and are inspired by what students like me who dug up from the bottom, but no one shall forget that Bauer made it all happen! The recently coined phrase “where awesome happens” used to describe Bauer, is very much justified and true.

During my years at this wonderful university, receiving my education from the Bauer College of Business, I was not only instilled a bottomless pride reserve for the university and the business college, but also a sense of accomplishment and pride for myself. In addition, I shared in the joy and accomplishments of my peers and professors. Because Ted Bauer gave, Bauer College of Business is not just an awesome environment to receive a Tier One education, it is also a great place students/faculty/staff alike feel comfortable calling their second home and can continue to thrive. Because of Ted Bauer, I am forever thankful. Because of Ted Bauer’s endowment (nerdy accounting reference), I am assured that Bauer College of Business will continue to expand and become recognized for its excellence, and more students, maybe even my posterity, will be able to enjoy the special Bauer community. #BauerPride14