For years, most Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders had to fly to Omaha, Nebraska, pay jacked-up hotel rates and line up early on a Saturday to hear Warren Buffett at the company’s annual meetings.
No longer. When “Woodstock for Capitalists” returns on April 30, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to stream video of the question-and-answer session online for the first time, thanks to a partnership with Yahoo! Inc.
As Buffett put it in his annual letter to shareholders two months ago, the arrangement could reduce attendance, which strained the event space last year. More importantly, it’ll allow a greater number of investors to check on the 85-year-old billionaire and his 92-year-old sidekick, Charles Munger.
“If we were partners with you in a small business, and were charged with running the place, you would want to look in occasionally to make sure we hadn’t drifted off into la-la land,” he wrote. “Shareholders, in contrast, should not need to come to Omaha to monitor how we look and sound.”
Consider it Buffett’s latest foray into the digital age. While the Berkshire chairman and chief executive officer has long joked about still having a flip phone and hardly bothered to update the company’s website from its 1990s dawn-of-the-Internet design, he did join Twitter in 2013. But, even there, he’s proven reticent to jump in with both feet: His account had just seven posts as of Monday afternoon in New York.
Yahoo will be handling the technical aspects of beaming the executives around the world. In return, it gets to sell ads and sponsorships alongside the live stream.
The webcast is the latest evolution of a meeting that drew a couple dozen people a year in the 1970s when shareholders gathered in the cafeteria of an insurance subsidiary. Because Buffett opted against splitting the stock as it soared in value, owning a piece of Berkshire meant being part of a fairly exclusive group.
That changed in 1996 when the billionaire divided Class A shares by 30 to prevent fund managers from carving them up in trusts and selling lower-priced interests. These “B” shares were later split 50-for-1 to help Berkshire facilitate its purchase of railroad BNSF in 2010. While the A shares trade for more than $200,000, a B share can be purchased for anyone with about $145 who is willing to settle for lower voting rights.
Attendance at the annual meetings has climbed steadily as owning a piece of Berkshire became more accessible. Buffett’s increased recognition as one of the greatest investors has helped, too. Last year’s gathering drew a record crowd of more than 40,000 people, filling the CenturyLink Center’s main arena and its overflow rooms.
Some investors already seem to be opting for the webcast. The Omaha World-Herald reported this week that hotels — especially those a bit farther from downtown — still had rooms available. That’s a stark contrast with last year when accommodations were so scarce that one couple ended up renting a guest room in a senior-living facility, according to the newspaper, which is owned by Berkshire.
For those who make the trip this year, attractions include a cookout, a 5-kilometer (3-mile) fun run and an exhibition hall the size of three football fields where Berkshire’s dozens of subsidiaries — from Fruit of the Loom to See’s Candies — sell their wares. There are also scores of informal gatherings during the weekend that allow investors to reconnect and swap ideas.
And, just like going to a favorite band’s concert, there’s the allure of being in the same room with Buffett and Vice Chairman Munger, rather than watching them online.
“It wouldn’t be quite the same,” said Bill Smead, a Seattle-based money manager who has been attending the meeting since 2012 and plans to make the trip again this year. “There’s just something special about getting together in-person with them.”