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.
- 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).
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.”
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.
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.