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Students to Pick Warren Buffett's Brain

When billionaire investor Warren Buffett takes 20 University of Iowa students out to lunch Friday, he’ll likely treat them to his personal favorites: steaks, Cherry Cokes, and root beer floats.

Whether the students actually like those things, they’re probably going to eat them anyway.

“I think you’d at least eat the ice cream out of the root beer float or something,” said Vince Hahn, who met Buffett on a similar trip last year. “I certainly consumed all of it.”

About 10 Fridays each year, Buffett invites primarily Masters of Business Administration students from across the country to the Omaha, Neb., headquarters of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, where they tour some of his portfolio companies, have lunch and—the moment most of them look forward to—get a chance to ask the so-called Oracle of Omaha their questions about investments, business, or life in general.

This is the fourth consecutive year that MBA students from UI’s Tippie College of Business have been invited to attend the meeting, for which they’ll fly to Omaha tonight and return late Friday evening.

To determine who gets to go, faculty members scored students’ top three questions they’d ask Buffett. Professors also helped the students who were chosen to refine their questions so they’ll spur thought-provoking answers, said Hahn, an MBA student who organized this year’s trip but is not attending.

“I noticed on our last trip that if you ask a really technical question, he isn’t as excited about answering it compared to asking a question about life or career advice or leadership,” he said.

And that’s the point: learning the basic business practices that are the foundation for whatever the technology or trend of the day may be, said Cathy Zaharis, business director of UI’s Finance Career Academy.

“You can use more computer models today than you could 40 years ago, but there are some fundamentals and basics that are important, and he tends to focus on those,” said Zaharis, who went on the trip two years ago and now helps with planning. “Sometimes you can get too caught up in the technology and the advanced concepts we teach in class, and it’s good to have the opportunity to go back and talk about, ‘Why do you use those technologies?’ and, ‘When do you use them?’ and ‘How can you use them in the context of a larger picture?’”

Forbes Magazine named Buffett, 82, the fourth-richest person on the planet, with a net worth of $53.5 billion. He’s also well known as a philanthropist, having given a lifetime total of $17.3 billion as of July 2012, according to Forbes.

This year’s trip will include three company visits, Hahn said. First up is Nebraska Furniture Mart, a massive furniture and electronics store that Buffett purchased in 1983 with a two-page contract and the “Historic Omaha Handshake,” which, according to the company’s website, included “no audit of the store’s books, no inventory of its merchandise.” They’ll also tour the jeweler Borsheims, whose website says similarly that Buffett purchased the company in 1989 with a handshake, and finally, Oriental Trading Co., a party supply retailer that Buffett purchased in November 2012.

From there, they’ll have lunch at Piccolo Pete’s Restaurant, Buffett’s favorite, Hahn said.

Lastly, the highlight of the day: the Q&A session, which Hahn said lasted more than two hours last year.

“He talks about everything from finance to investing, career development, leadership, and just kind of general life advice,” Hahn said. “He is extremely lively, very sharp, and tells a lot of jokes.”

But Hahn said what really blew him away was Buffett’s humility.

“If you didn’t know who he was when you met him, you would have no idea that he’s the fourth-richest man in the world,” he said, “because he’s just very humble and down to earth.”

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