A crowd of 30,000 cheered the star’s arrival, while music played over the loudspeakers and film clips rolled on a giant screen. Fans dressed in wild costumes to show their love of the guest of honor and the empire he created. Finally, a bespectacled 82-year-old man emerged from the wings and took center stage. Warren Buffett had arrived at the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A) annual shareholder meeting.
The rock star treatment afforded Buffett is nothing new at the event. Known as “Buffettpalooza” in some circles, it is always one of the hottest tickets in the business world. At the exhibition hall, visitors grinned at the sight of Buffett’s likeness in everything from smartphone displays to products with a giant “Recommended by Warren” label. The meeting is a highly orchestrated celebration of the company’s success and a way of reassuring investors about the future.
Nonetheless, Buffett insisted there be a dissenting voice in the room for the shareholders meeting. One who would ask tough questions and offer opinions about what could go wrong with a powerhouse like Berkshire. Hedge fund manager Doug Kass had the privilege of playing devil’s advocate for the crowd and asked questions meant to highlight some of the negatives — if any — in the company’s outlook…
Kass predictably focused on succession issues within Berkshire, though Buffett played his hand close to the vest. On whether Berkshire would ever be broken up to be easier for a successor to manage, Buffett said it wouldn’t happen. In fact, Buffett promised that not much would change when he stepped down as chief executive. Kass also asked about the reasoning behind the choice to have his son lead the company — “Other than accident of birth, how is he qualified?”
Buffett simply replied that his son would be responsible for maintaining Berkshire culture, not running the company from an investment standpoint. Though he spent most of the day dodging questions on succession, the Oracle of Omaha did say that the board has chosen someone to take over. “We’re solidly in agreement as to whom that person should be,” he told the crowd. Whoever follows Buffett as chief executive, it’s unlikely he (or she) will receive the same rock star treatment.