Morning with a Billionare
By Nick Johnson
The Tippie MBA Program offers ample opportunities for students to learn from some of the brightest minds in business. However, none compare to the opportunity to sit down for a two-hour question-and-answer session with Warren Buffett in Omaha. As one of 20 lucky Tippie students to participate, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet the world’s most famous investor.
The University of Iowa students have been invited to meet Mr. Buffett each of the last four years. Prior to that, they were invited every other year. Open to first- and second-year MBA candidates, the “Warren Buffett Trip” is a two-day event requiring students to apply over a month in advance. Each candidate submits three questions (graded by faculty) on the basic knowledge of Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway, as well as relevant questions on business, careers, and leadership. Students with the best questions are selected to pose their question directly to Mr. Buffett during a Q&A session with eight other schools.
On April 12, our excursion began at Nebraska Furniture Mart, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway since 1983 after being founded by Rose Blumkin in 1937. Mr. Buffett famously purchased the store for $60 million without an audit and sealed the deal with a handshake. Popular for its wide selection, our group learned some of the difficulties transitioning a family business to a corporate-owned subsidiary, as well as the importance of updating displays and showroom space. In addition, management discussed its plans to open the largest furniture store in the U.S. in Dallas/Fort Worth in 2015.
Next stop was the Field Club of Omaha for the highlight of the trip: meeting the Oracle of Omaha. While many questions focused on business and investing, Mr. Buffett’s answers were wide-ranging and focused more on life and career decisions. His philosophy was clearly based on the foundation of fairness and equality. He puts his trust in individuals who love their job and not the money that they earn from it. Packed with jokes, Mr. Buffett’s discussion is often self-deprecating and humorous, but every student in the room closely listened to his sage advice.
Mr. Buffett treated all the students to lunch at his favorite restaurant, Piccolo Pete’s. He encouraged students to drink Coke products and use lots of Heinz ketchup during the Q&A session, then students enjoyed lunch, which included steak and root beer floats. We ended our time with Mr. Buffett with a group picture.
Our day in Omaha continued with a tour of Borsheims, an Omaha jewelry store opened in 1870 and purchased by Berkshire Hathaway in 1989. Their team was preparing for the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders’ meeting, which is the store’s biggest weekend of sales. Our group learned about the changing jewelry market, preparing inventory, and careers in the industry. Finally, we got the chance to tour the showroom and view their spectacular merchandise.
The last trip of the day was to Oriental Trading Company (OTC), a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary since December 2012. The nation’s largest direct merchant of party supplies, arts and crafts, and toys, OTC shipped 77 million units in 5.6 million orders from the facility in 2012. The firm offers more than 40,000 products to businesses, schools, nonprofits, and individuals. We toured their 750,000-square-foot facility and learned about their “explode and assemble” fulfillment methodology. They capped the trip off with a gift of rubber duckies resembling Warren Buffett and his partner, Charlie Munger.
While visiting these companies provided a unique insight into three very different businesses, learning about Warren Buffett’s business and life philosophy highlighted a wonderful trip. It was a tremendous opportunity to sit down and meet one of the greatest investors of all time and hear his personal take on a variety of questions. This trip represents a gift for Tippie students to experience business firsthand.