The Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders' Meeting in Omaha is truly to capitalists what Talladega is to NASCAR fans.
It's a spectacle, a tradition–over the top and reassuringly familiar to the faithful. At this writing, a Berkshire's class A shares price out over $121,000 for a single share, but a class B share is about $80. The good news is that either share will qualify you for a ticket to the annual meeting. And it's worth the share price, travel costs, and time to attend this crash-course in business excellence.
I attended this year's session in Omaha and got the chance to meet all sorts of great people–including the leaders of the various companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway: Dairy Queen, World Book, BNSF and many others.
I learned a lot from meeting and watching these CEOs and executives. Surprisingly, perhaps, the common theme is love.
Hollywood often portrays business leaders as stuffed suits, brusque and self-important. Not this group. They are on fire, accessible, warm and friendly. They seek and serve their customers and shareholders with genuine interest. Buffett likes to tell shareholders that the managers who run Berkshire's companies are all rich enough to quit any day; they stay for reasons other than money.
I got to talk to the founder of Pampered Chef for a moment. She pulled me over to show three different products on sale for half-price, $5 each. I have the leader of a billion-dollar company demonstrating a no-drip wine stopper as if we were in my home and she'd brought it as a host gift. And a Dilly Bar from DQ? Served with a smile and an enthusiastic "Still love 'em after all of these years!" from the CEO of Dairy Queen. The excitement hasn't left these people. They still love their products and services and can't wait to tell people about them.
Working the booth, talking to shareholders and customers, chatting with their staff, you would think you were attending an Up With People rally. The working of the floor is not beneath them or a burden. They love what they do and they bring the energy to everything they are doing.
Elbow to elbow with their front-line staff, these people were not followed by an entourage. If it weren't for the different color badges, you'd have difficulty picking out some executives from any other member of the team. Joking while jostled in the crowd, setting the pace for reaching out to customers, pitching in–it was clear that these leaders love their people.
I guess demonizing business and business leaders is in vogue. The picture of the heartless Gordon Gekko seems to still come to mind for script-writers when they are creating characters.
But I find these attitudes at many executive levels–from single-employee start-ups all the way to organizations with thousands of employees. Most often, in well-run organizations, when you get a few minutes with the leaders, you find love.