Reflections on A Journey to Omaha

journey to omaha
A review and some memorable quotes from this year's journey to Omaha and the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.
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I took my first journey to Omaha to attend Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder meeting in 20141. I’ll never forget the feeling I had that weekend. It was hard to believe I was there, listening live to two of history’s greatest investors. What makes me want to return as often as possible extends beyond attending the shareholder meeting. I appreciate the opportunity to connect with old friends and make new ones. A special thanks goes to Chris Bloomstran who I met through a friend on my first journey to Omaha. I was fortunate enough to be included in one of the dinners Chris organized which allowed me to spend more time with some of those old and new friends. You can view the meeting here. You can also listen to a podcast version (morning and afternoon).

Shareholder meeting weekend also includes several other special events. This year was Megan’s first journey to Omaha. We attended VALUExBRK 2024: Life Lessons from Charlie Munger, Mohnish Pabrai, William Green, and others, hosted by Guy Spier. I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend. Good fortune and a nicely worded email allowed Megan to be added to the guest list. After that, we attended a Q&A session hosted by Vitaliy Kastenelson. The shareholders’ meeting was on Saturday. On Sunday, we attended the Markel Group 2024 Omaha Brunch event.

I have often seen Berkshire weekend referred to as Woodstock for Capitalists. Warren Buffett’s investing track record speaks for itself. As a result, you might think the discussion is only about investing. That’s far from the case. It’s about much more than that. The many life lessons and timeless pieces of wisdom that Warren shares throughout the Q&A sessions help explain why he continues to be so widely revered and admired. As a Registered Life Planner, I appreciate all the life lessons he and others shared during the weekend’s events.

We both took notes at the events we attended. In a departure from the normal blog format, this week, we would like to share some of our favorite takeaways from the weekend. We hope you enjoy them!

ValueX 24 – First Stop on a Journey to Omaha

Our journey to Omaha started with ValueX 24. You can watch a video here. Guy organized ValueX as a tribute to Charlie. The first speaker was Monsoon Pabrai, the daughter of Mohnish Pabrai. Mohnish and Guy were the highest bidders for lunch with Warren Buffett. When she was introduced, we were reminded that only 1%-3% of money managers are women. This is somewhat incomprehensible, especially since the data shows they outperform their male counterparts.

Other speakers included the following:

  • William Green – author and journalist whose most recent book is “Richer, Wiser, Happier: How the World’s Great Investors Win in Markets and Life” and Michael O’Brien – an American photographer noted for his portraiture including a highly regarded photo of Charlie Munger.
  • Luca Dellanna – Author of a recent book on long-term thinking.
  • Chris Sparling – co-founder of Tiny Capital.
  • Robert Hagstrom – author of the “Warren Buffett Way.”
  • Gillian Segal – author of “GETTING THERE.”
  • Doerthe Obert –Charlie Munger’s assistant for more than 30 years.
  • Ariel Hsing – Olympic table tennis player.
  • Sheena Iyengar–author of the books “Think Bigger” and “The Art of Choosing.”
  • Rosie Rios – a former Treasurer of the U.S.
  • Andy Slavitt– the man behind the “Obama Dream Team” that turned around Obamacare.
  • Paul Johnson – Value Investing professor at Columbia Business School.
  • Mohnish Pabrai – Founder and Managing Partner of the Pabrai Investment Funds.

Top Takeaways

I tried to identify a favorite takeaway from each speaker and would like to share them:

William Green and Michael O’Brien

Hang pictures on the wall of those you admire. You’ll be less likely to do things that disappoint them.

Luca Dellanna

I appreciated this take on winning long-term games: “If you try to win every day, you’re less likely to win for the year.” In other words, thinking that maximizing the day will optimize the year is a false belief.

Chris Sparling

Chris negotiated with Charlie about merging with the Daily Journal Corporation – Charlie was the company’s longtime chairman. During the negotiations, he talked about how Charlie emphasized trust over profit as he’d say, “I don’t need the last dollar on this at every juncture.” Charlie kept the negotiations simple and flowing. When lawyers suggested professional valuations, Charlie retorted, “We’d find drunkards to rubber stamp everything.”

Robert Hagstrom

Robert spoke at length about Berkshire’s approach, calling it “business-driven investing.” This represents a unique investment approach. Buffett often talks about how investing is about owning shares of a business and not just pieces of paper. Business-driven investors are playing a different game. Perhaps they should be judged by different rules.

Gillian Segal

I loved Gillian’s story about the perseverance and resilience she exhibited to get a meeting with Warren so she could include him in her book. She told us how Buffett carefully guards his time. Doing so leaves lots of availability for what’s most important. You are who you are because you’re not overscheduled. This is an important lesson, especially for those complaining about not having enough time to finish things.

Doerthe Obert

I enjoyed her story about how she first started working with Charlie and the things she did for Charlie right up to the end. She told us that focus and attention were the keys to Charlie’s success.

Ariel Hsing

Ariel was a late addition to the list of speakers. She first played table tennis against “Uncle Warren” and “Uncle Bill (Gates)” when she was nine. She said the two most important lessons she learned from them were as follows:

  • Be and stay humble.
  • Find what you’re most passionate about.

Sheena Iyengar

Professor Iyengar spoke about an AI tool they are working on for evaluating options when none exist. The framework works like this:

  1. Choose a problem
  2. Break it down
  3. Compare wants
  4. Search in and out of the box – choice map
  5. Combine
  6. The third eye. Do others see what you see?

Rosie Rios

As a former Treasurer of the U.S., Rosie’s signature was on every US dollar bill. She said, “No one has made more money than me.” Did you realize America will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of its independence in 2026? Rosie is leading a team in the America 250 public initiative.

Andy Slavit

He talked about how the healthcare business is so tough that even Warren Buffett couldn’t make money in it – a venture led by Buffett, JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos failed.

Paul Johnson

I appreciated his presentation which focused on cash flow and how to value growth when evaluating potential investments. He also talked about why he appreciates the opportunity to teach. Teaching helps him learn. His best thoughts happen out loud.

Monish Pabrai

Other than Doerthe, Mohnish knew Charlie better than anyone who spoke. Mohnish had a unique take on charitable giving. He said we should take bigger risks in our charitable efforts as bigger risks can lead to higher returns. “These are tough problems. The only way to move the needle is to go at it with a sledgehammer and be willing to lose all you’ve put in. A breakthrough leads to a huge outcome change. Not failing means you’re not doing enough. You must be willing to go all in. Mohnish also shared some great stories about his times with Charlie.

A bonus thought from the ValueX portion of A Journey to Omaha

Not caring about building skills and relationships and only focusing on getting the most out of what you have now only works to a certain point. It could work for a few months or a few years. Then you discover that you can’t grow more than that. This happens because building long-term assets also requires building skills and trust in relationships. We don’t build long-term skills.

After ValueX 24, in our next step in our journey to Omaha we listened to Vitaliy Kastenelson’s Q&A session.

Vitaliy Kastenelson

Although he is a fund manager, Vitaliy is focused on living a meaningful life. He wrote Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life. The book delves into the thinking of the Stoics as well as contemporary thinkers.

The following represents our biggest takeaways from Vitaliy’s session:

  • A diet is something you do. Lifestyle change is something you do without thinking about it. We eat too much and eat a lot more junk food and processed foods than we used to. To maintain a desired lifestyle, you must create systems.
  • To do well you have to be both optimistic and realistic.
  • He is optimistic about value investing because of normal markets. It is rational to have interest rates above zero. Value investing is about being a contrarian and thinking differently.
  • When talking to clients about their portfolios, he asks them to be patient and let him do what he does. Their portfolios are essentially positioned for the “I don’t know” scenario. At the same time, he doesn’t invest in things that he doesn’t know.
  • He recommended Ellen Langer’s book on mindfulness.
  • As an investor, you need to have thoughtful arrogance. You earn the right to have arrogance (confidence) as an investor through research.
  • Why sell a stock:
    1. Things went your way, and it reached your assessment of fair value.
    2. Things did not go your way.
    3. Better opportunities somewhere else.
  • Date your stocks. Don’t fall in love with them.
  • Remember pain more than joy.
  • The worst thing you can do as an investor is buy low-quality companies because they are cheap. That’s compromising on quality.
  • In life, no matter how much money you make, you can always spend more.

On to the main event. Saturday’s annual meeting.

Journey to Omaha – The Main Event

This year’s meeting was different than any I attended before. Part of that was because of Charlie’s absence. It was felt and made the event a bit bittersweet. For all attendees, this was the first journey to Omaha without Charlie. Because it was a tribute to Charlie, it was also the first time the pre-meeting movie was live-streamed. Berkshire had to get approval to show it outside the arena from many of the famous people who appeared. It was quite a touching tribute. You can watch it here.

One of the morning’s most poignant moments came early on when out of habit Warren called on Charlie instead of Greg Abel to provide additional thoughts on a question about Berkshire’s energy operation. That was an emotional moment for all in attendance.

Some Thoughts About Charlie

  • Warren talked about how Charlie liked learning. He said he had more fun with things that failed because you had to work your way out of them.
  • “Charlie never had a voluntary day of exercise. He also never thought about what he ate.”
  • “We wouldn’t want to know it was our last day.” As Charlie is famous for saying, “Just tell me where I’m going to die, and I’ll never go there.”
  • “At 99, Charlie was not only interested in the world, but the world was also interested in him. He was peaking at 99.”
  • “Charlie lived his life like he wanted to. He liked having a podium.”
  • “Charlie and I missed a lot of things… We never worried about missing something we didn’t understand. Why should we be able to predict the future of every business any more than we can predict what wheat yields are likely to be in the next year?”

Some Thoughts on Life

  • “Figure out who you’d like to spend your last day with, meet with them now, and start spending more time with them today. Why wait?”
  • “In a partnership, you don’t want all success. It’s important to work together through the tough times, too.”
  • “If you don’t live a life where you surround yourself – and limit yourself – to people you trust, it won’t be much fun.”
  • “Start thinking about how you’d like to live your life. Get on that path today.“
  • “You want to have the right heroes. The people you want to be yourself.”
  • “It’s interesting how many mistakes you can make if you just keep going.”
  • “Think about how you want your obituary to read and start following an education path, the social path that points you in that direction. Associate with people – in his day it would have been marrying – the person that would best help you do that.”
  • “The opportunities in this country are limitless. You are lucky to be born when and where you are. This is the best world that’s ever existed.”
  • “If you’re lucky in life, make sure a bunch of other people are lucky, too.”
  • “Find people to share it with and things to participate in.”
  • “Find the job you would want to have if you didn’t need to have it.”
  • “Think about how you would want to look at your life and go from there today – and expect some difficulties along the way. If you’re thinking that way, you’re likely to get there.”
  • “Savings represent consumption deferred.”
  • “I know a lot of unbelievably smart people in their own arena that do unbelievably dumb things outside their arena.”
  • “It’s amazing how many mistakes you can make when you just keep going.”
  • He talked about the messages we get from our parents and compared what his parents told his sister versus what they told him. She was told to marry young while she still had her looks. Marry in school. If you don’t all the good ones will be gone. The same loving father gave his son the message that the world is your oyster.
  • “You have to be in love with the subject. You can’t just be in love with the money.” It’s important to figure out what your brain is best suited for – and then keep doing that. Especially when he was younger, Buffett loved going through thousands of pages of Moody’s manuals to find undervalued companies – that’s not something everyone wants to do.

A Memorable Closing

I’m going to close with one of the most meaningful answers to a question Warren gave. He was asked, “With the life experience you have now if you could start all over again, would you set your priorities any differently? If yes, how and why?

If you take nothing but this from what I shared in this blog, you will be better off. (Courtesy of Steady Compounding.)

I don’t think, I mean, I can figure out all kinds of things that should have been done differently, but so what,… I’m not perfect. I don’t believe in lots of self-criticism or being unrealistic about either what you are or what you’ve accomplished or what you’d like to do. You do… a lot of things. And there are somewhat different trade-offs.

You just can’t, you can’t. You don’t know what the paths would have led to. I don’t think there’s any room to beat yourself up over what’s happened in the past. It’s happened and you get to live the rest of your life and you don’t know how long it’s going to be.

And you keep trying to do the things that are important to you. If I was a doctor, or if I was in all kinds of different professions, I might do different things, but I really enjoy managing money for people who trust me. I don’t have any reason to do it for financial reasons. I’m not running a hedge fund or getting an override or anything, but I just like the feeling of being trusted. Charlie felt the same way.

You know, that’s a good way to feel in life, and it continues to be a good feeling. So, I’m not really looking to change much. And if I’m very lucky, I get to play it off for six or seven years and it could end tomorrow. But that’s true of everybody.

Although the equation isn’t exactly the same. But I don’t believe in beating yourself up over anything you’ve done in the past. And I don’t believe in, well, I believe in trying to find what you’re good at, what you enjoy. And then I think the one thing that you can aspire to because this can be done by anybody and it’s amazing, doesn’t have anything to do with money. But you can be kind.

You can be kind. And then the world’s better off.

I’m not sure that the world will be better off if I’m richer, but there’s no question that kind people, aspire to be more. Or I’m sure many of you are yourself, but just aspire to be more. So. And I guess we can take one more question from Becky, and then we’d wind up.

Then came the day’s final question:

On March 4, Charlie’s will was filed with the county of Los Angeles. The first codicil contained an unusual provision. It reads, averaged out, my long life has been a favored one, made better by duty, imposed by family tradition, requiring righteousness and service. Therefore, I follow an old practice that I wish was more common. Now, inserting an ethical bequeath that gives priority not to property, but to transmission of duty.

If you were to make an ethical bequest to Berkshire shareholders, what duties would you impose and why?

I’d probably say read, Charlie’s. I mean, he’s expressed it well. I would say that if they’re not financially well off, if you’re being kind, you’re doing something that most of the rich people don’t do, even when they give away money. But that’s on the question of whether you’re rich or poor. And I would say, if you’re lucky in life, make sure a bunch of other people are lucky, too.

He ended with this:

So we only got 33 questions, or whatever it is. But thank you very, very much for coming, and I not only hope that you come next year, but I hope I come next year.

That last line represents another example that Charlie’s death has Warren thinking even more about his own mortality.

On Sunday, we concluded our journey to Omaha by attending Markel Corporation’s event. I have a couple of final takeaways to share:

“You can fake caring, but you can’t fake showing up.”

Two signs of good corporate culture are “low turnover” and “endurance.” Both these characteristics can be found in companies like Berkshire and Markel.

A Journey to Omaha – Closing Thoughts

The overall feeling at the Berkshire meeting was different this year – as the sense of mortality was more present than ever before. Charlie was certainly missed this year – and will be missed going forward. Despite that, this year’s journey to Omaha was still chock full of wonderful messages and the opportunity to meet with old and new friends.

I hope this gives you a taste of why so many of us journey to Omaha as often as possible. If you haven’t been, I suggest planning to go next year. It’s well worth the trip.

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  1. In full disclosure, Phil has been a shareholder since September 1998. He has also purchased shares in many client portfolios he manages that include individual stocks.

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Reflections on A Journey to Omaha

A review and some memorable quotes from this year’s journey to Omaha and the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.

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