Next Year in Omaha (2024 Edition)

It is time to plan for my annual pilgrimage to Omaha! I am very sad because, for the first time, Warren Buffett will not be joined onstage by Charlie Munger, who passed away in November.

It is almost spring and time to plan for my annual pilgrimage to Omaha! I am very sad because, for the first time, Warren Buffett will not be joined onstage by Charlie Munger, who passed away in November, a few weeks before his 100th birthday. In his annual letter, Buffett appropriately called Charlie “the architect of Berkshire Hathaway.” Berkshire would not be what it is today without Munger. I wrote about this years ago in the essay “The Values of Value Investing.” 

I will miss Charlie dearly. I want to write an essay about what I learned from Charlie Munger, but it will require a significant investment of time, because I want to do it right.

These trips to Omaha were never about trying to catch the latest insight from Buffett or Munger. Maybe, when I went for the first time in 2008, I was there at the BRK annual meeting to see them on stage and immerse myself in their wisdom. Today, I can watch the annual meeting live from the comfort of my own couch, with beer and nachos. 

No, the annual meeting is just an excuse for me to spend time with my friends and the value investing community. And as a special bonus, my son Jonah (22) will be joining me for the fourth time.

Breakfast in Omaha: In 2022, I started a new tradition, and so this year too I am hosting my readers for breakfast in Omaha on May 3rd. It’s a very informal gathering; there will be free breakfast, and then I will answer questions from readers for an hour or so. 

This year the demand has been so huge (value investors love free food) that we had to break it up into two sessions: 7:30 to 9:00 and 9:30 to 10:30. 

If you’d like to come, register here. Invite your friends, but they’ll need to register. If they have not read my essays, they can catch up on investor.fm, where they can also download PDF almanacs of my essays. 

I will be speaking at the YPO event at the Holland Performing Arts Center on May 5th from 4–7pm. I will be joined on stage by Tom Gaynor, CEO of Markel; Tom Russo, a terrific investor in superbrands; and Larry Cunningham, author of The Essays of Warren Buffett.

tLarry masterfully edited Buffett’s annual reports into this wonderful book. If you would like to read Warren Buffett’s writings, this is the book for you. Unfortunately, admission is limited to YPO members and their friends. Larry edited another book, The Warren Buffett Shareholder. He asked me if I’d share my experiences of going to Omaha. When the book was released, I was shocked to discover that I shared pages with Jack Bogle, Joel Greenblatt, Jason Zweig, and other terrific people whom I admire. Today, I am going to share with you this essay.

Next Year in Omaha

“Next year in Jerusalem” is a phrase sung by all Jewish people at the end of Passover.

“You left Russia 24 years ago and this is your first visit to Israel?” the Israeli border officer at Ben-Gurion Airport snarled at me as she thumbed through my American passport. Yes, like most Jews, I had kept singing “Next year in Jerusalem” but had never followed through on it. Now it was 2015 and I hadn’t even set foot in my holy homeland yet, and already I was overwhelmed with Jewish guilt!

Just as for Jews Israel is a homeland that we know is always there, for value investors, Omaha turns into our homeland for three (usually) sunny days in late April. For me the first pilgrimage was in 2008. I had just finished my first book on value investing and my editor at John Wiley & Sons had recommended I participate in a book signing at the Omaha Dairy Queen during the BRK event weekend. Yes, the DQ. I was a bit perplexed when she mentioned it. I had labored over this book for two years, just to do book signings at fast food restaurants? Maybe, after DQ, I’d graduate to Burger King.

She said, “You’ll see.”

When I arrived at the DQ it was packed with authors and book lovers, media, and ice cream. Somehow it felt natural: value investors (who usually love books) come to the DQ to meet authors, buy books, and scarf a Deluxe Cheeseburger. But then the event quickly drew so many people that the DQ simply couldn’t handle the traffic, and so we were moved to Creighton University. But for a while, if you had written a value investing book and you wanted to shake the hands of your avid readers, there was no better place in the world to be.

Several things came out of this DQ visit. 

Before that day I was indifferent to Dairy Queen’s ice cream. Since then, however, I’ve been taking family, friends, colleagues, and clients to DQs not only in Denver but all over the US. I’d take a client to a fancy restaurant; we’d skip the dessert and go to DQ. I’d tell him the story about the DQ signing in Omaha, and suddenly repairing to the DQ after a fancy dinner would seem normal to both of us. 

I met Jim Ross, the owner of Hudson Booksellers, who put together the book-signing event. Hudson Booksellers is a small store in the Omaha airport. It is probably the only airport store in the world that has every value investing book in print. This BRK visit turned into a series of small traditions. Every single year when I step off the airplane, my first stop is to say hello to Jim and thumb through new books. I may even sign a few books of my own that they diligently carry.

On that day in DQ I was approached by a good-looking man who looked just like me. We started talking and he told me that his name was Ethan Berg, from Lennox, MA. Due to our similar looks people had been confusing him for me. He’d be at a value investing conference and people would come up to him and say “Vitaliy, would you sign my book.” At first he’d say, “I am Ethan.” However, after the first few times, he started saying “Sure!” and signing the book. The DQ was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Ethan and me.

As I discovered, the DQ signing was just the tip of a huge iceberg – there were opportunities to learn and to meet interesting folks at dozens of different events all over Omaha.

I’ve been lucky to be able to participate in some of these events as a panelist or speaker. I’ve been a panelist on a value investing panel at Creighton University for five years. One year I was an accidental guest speaker for the CFA Society of Omaha. My friend Whitney Tilson, who was scheduled to speak with Robert Hagstrom, got delayed. Somehow the CFA Society knew I was in town and asked me to step in. The Robert Hagstrom book about Buffett was the first book I’d read about him, and suddenly I was sharing the stage with its author. Only in Omaha!

My favorite event is when I get to take the stage with two Toms (Gayner and Russo) at an event organized by YPO that takes place at the Omaha Performing Arts Center. Tom Gayner is CIO of Markel, and Tom Russo is a legendary manager who runs a fund that specializes in consumer brands. Tom Russo knows more about consumer brands than the people who sell them. He has owned shares of Nestle since World War I – okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but he has probably owned them much longer than he’d care to admit. Markel is a specialty insurance company that has modeled itself after BRK and that has been an incredible investment thanks to great underwriting and wise investments by Tom Gayner.

For about an hour, the two Toms and I answer questions from the audience. It’s one of those cases where I do more listening than speaking while I’m on stage. The event is sponsored by Todd Simon, CEO of Omaha Steaks (he is the third-generation Simon to run the company).

Something interesting happened to me in Omaha in 2017. I was supposed to give a presentation at the GuruFocus conference, a day before the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. I was more nervous than usual. I had agreed to give this presentation because I wanted to push myself to explore a brand new topic. I wanted to zero in on the investment process. GuruFocus seemed to have the right audience for me.

I need a looming deadline to build the pressure to unleash my creativity. Two days before I was to leave for Omaha, I wrote a nine-page speech titled “How to Stay Rational in an Irrational World.” A day later I created a 40-slide PowerPoint, which I was still tweaking an hour before my talk.

The GuruFocus conference was at the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Omaha. There were maybe two hundred attendees packed into a typical hotel ballroom. A few minutes into my talk, the power went out. Though the lights came back a few seconds later, my microphone and projector were still dead.

The speech that followed ended up being the best presentation I have probably ever given – and I have given plenty of them over the last ten years. Charlie Tian, who runs GuruFocus, emailed me and said, “Went through the surveys we collected from the attendees and found that you were rated one of the best speakers.”

I am sharing this with you not to brag – not at all. The point is that I find that small, often random moments shape the journeys of our lives. When the lights came back on and I realized that the projector and mic were out, to my amazement my blood pressure dropped. I felt calmer than I had ten seconds before. A weight fell from my shoulders. Suddenly I was no longer burdened by switching slides. I didn’t have to follow bullet points. I could just talk. Tell a story. My 40-slide presentation had been a huge distraction. Until the lights went out, the attendees weren’t looking at me; they were trying to read my bullet-point-packed slides. Their eye contact was with the screen, not with me.

If I were to redo that presentation, it would have five slides: a “Hello” slide, three slides in between with pictures, and a “Goodbye” slide. That’s it.

On my first trip to Omaha in 2008 my goal was clear: I wanted to see and hear Buffett and Munger speak. Getting up at 5 AM, standing in long lines rain or no rain (too early for sunshine), sitting in an uncomfortable seat for six hours in a humongous sports arena – All of that came with a certain sense of adventure the first few times. However, when year after year you hear the same questions and answers, the annual meeting becomes the least important event of the BRK weekend.

But all in all, I look forward to the BRK weekend more and more each year. Buffett and Munger are not the main attraction anymore, but they have created an enormous value investing ecosystem by bringing 40 thousand  investors to a cow town that most people would otherwise not be able to find on a map.

The BRK weekend is a rare opportunity for me to see friends who come to Omaha from all over the world – from the UK, Australia, Germany, Switzerland – the list goes on and on. We share meals; we debate stocks. We make new friends.

As I get older I have begun to appreciate that the most important things in life are relationships. A lot of my relationships are rekindled and nurtured in Omaha, and that’s why every year I say “Next year in Omaha” and mean it.

Please read the following important disclosure here.

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2 thoughts on “Next Year in Omaha (2024 Edition)”

  1. EVs are not new……they were first……EVs are essentially overpriced golf carts…..and are a good idea. The problem is the lack of infrastructure support…..The ICE support system (gas stations) took about 50 years to build so that refueling could be accomplished almost anywhere. The grid is woefully unprepared to support any meaningful number of EVs at the present time. Since the greenies thoughtlessly forced the closure and difficulty of construction of nuclear power plants we have no way to produce enough power to make large scale use of EVs.
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