Nothing Like a Berkshire Hathaway Meeting — Except a Grateful Dead Concert

Unknown-6Not often in a lifetime come back-to-back weekends in which the first centers on the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders meeting, drinking in the wit and wisdom of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger with 35,000 close friends followed by a Saturday in Los Angeles at a Dead show.

 The events have more in common than first blush might suggest.

 While the fashion tastes at the shareholder meeting will never echo those of a Dead show– the search would be fruitless for matted hair youths in tie-dye kilts, for example – but both sets of fans share a certain rabidness.

Routinely asked of total strangers at Berkshire meetings is, “How many have you been to?” or “Is this your first time?” Not all that different from, “How many shows, dude?”

However, as Charlie Munger said, when someone answers they’ve been going to Berkshire meetings since 1981: “What a nice, subtle way of announcing you’re very smart and very rich.”

 Not necessarily the case for persons who logged 147 Dead shows over three decades.

 images-7Both events have the ferment feel of Chautauqua – the carnival-like, tented, prayer meetings where the faithful come to hear the Word and be entertained as well.

At the Chautauqua in Omaha there’s bridge games, BBQ at the Nebraska Furniture Mart and a vast exhibit hall in which attendees can dance with the Fruit-of-the-Loom Singers, shop for See’s Candy and Justin boots or buy Geico auto insurance. Buffett reported that 68 of the faithful opened new policies – more than paying for the costs of the annual meeting.

 “People like to feel they’re part of something,” Buffett said May 3.

 At a Dead show, the non-musical entertainments are equally legion. The parking lot, in its way, is an enormous open-air exhibit hall at which wares of all kinds are displayed and sold. Twirling. Drum-beating. Simply basking in the delightful chaos.

 Both events share an informality and casualness among audience and performers.Unknown-5

The chair of Berkshire Hathaway, up until recently the richest man on earth, is routinely “Warren.” Munger is “Charlie.”

Hard to imagine a General Electric stockholder, unless a seriously major one, addressing the CEO as Jeff, rather than Mr. Immelt.

And its impossible to conjure a Deadhead, other than one who writes for the New York Times, to refer to the remaining band members as Mr. Weir, Mr. Lesh, Mr. Hart and Mr. Kreutzman.

The first-name-basis stems, in some measure, from the perceived bond between those onstage and those in the audience.

Both now and when Jerry Garcia was alive, the Dead routinely allude to the symbiosis between audience and band. A kick-ass solo or song spawning an outpour of appreciation from the crowd spurs even greater musical heights. It’s a team effort, a collaboration.

images-7“We want them (shareholders) to have a good time and we want them to feel like partners,” Buffett said at a May 3 press conference after the annual meeting. “They’re the owners putting up the money, we’re the ones working for them.”

There have been numerous instances in which members of the Dead have used similar words to describe their relationship with fans.

And that partnership comes from sharing common goals and values.

 For Berkshire shareholders, its something more than annually shooting profits through the roof, it’s doing so in the principled, disciplined and remarkably simple method championed by Warren and Charlie.

Similarly, the Dead and their fans want to go somewhere mutually beautiful – set a new musical floor, scale a new peak, tease out a new nuance, reanimate an old standard.

 Fans of Buffett and the Dead share a belief that their heroes are unique.images-6

 “There’s no annual meeting like this one anywhere else in the world,” said Munger, after the meeting.

Has a certain familiar ring: “There’s nothing like a Dead concert.”

Over the decades, what were both cult phenomenons – Buffett said 12 people, counting his Aunt Katie, attended the 1981 shareholders meeting – have grown significantly, their appeal now cutting broadly across many societal segments.

 From the 1970s almost until 1987, the Dead were an insular club in which it wasn’t uncommon to recognize – and greet – a number of people in line who’d been at a previous concert. Venues were intimate, relaxed, free-form.

The Dead’s popularitiy exploded in 1987. They had a hit with “Touch of Grey.”

The band opened the Giants baseball season with an a cappella rendition of the national anthem.

 “Like old hookers and bad architecture, eventually you get respectable,” Jerry Garcia said at the time.images-8

Now the shows feature the gray, senior-movie-discount original heads who may yearn for what was but know that while much is taken, much abides down the decades to the youth they once were hoping to partake of a vanishing American institution.

There were a record 35,000 attendees at the Berkshire meeting this year. The Friday reception at Borsheims, the upscale jewelry store Buffett owns, saw customers standing 10-deep at the bar. The temperature in the shopping center’s atrium, sauna-like. Lines for food, leviathan.

“We’re getting to physical problems,” Buffett admitted at his May 3 press conference.

Albeit in different threads, the Berkshire folks mirrored the cross-generational audience the Dead now attract. Octogenarians whose 1965 investment allowed them to send their kids through college – and a goodly portion of their kids’ kids as well – hang with MBAs, undergraduates and teenagers who appear less interested in derivatives than mingling.

There is also a contingent of foreign visitors: Canada, Korea, Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, Germany, England and elsewhere. Not unlike a European city, a polyglot of languages can be heard.

Like the Dead in the years before Garcia’s 1995 death, Buffett is coping with ever-increasing celebrity and the sheer mass of humanity descending on his hometown each year.

As he says simply: “The bigger the size (of Berkshire), the more prominent I become.”

Unknown-4While Buffett remains his avuncular and unfailingly polite self, steps have been taken to cope with the growth. There are more “overflow” rooms to accommodate those the 18,800-seat Qwest Center cannot hold.

Attendance was restricted at last year’s press conference and, at this year’s, only a finite number of reporters could ask questions.

The Dead’s popularity and that of Buffett also, sad to say, stem from an unspoken feeling best expressed in the Rolling Stones song the Dead cover: “This Could Be the Last Time.”

 Buffett is 78 though says he’s amazed he feels so good. Munger is 85. The Dead are in their 60s. These are icons that sooner rather than later won’t be able to be enjoyed live. Unlike the Dead, Buffett allows no recording, photography or videotaping of his annual five-hour performances so what permanent record that will remain is unknown. Hopefully, Berkshire at least records the meetings.

At the May 3rd press conference, Munger used the word “lollapalooza” twice. First, he used it to describe the economic disaster following the housing market disintegration.

 A lollapalooza, he said, is something whose “consequences come from a confluence of multiple causes.”

 But a lollapalooza doesn’t have to be bad. The second time he used the word it was to describe the Berkshire annual meeting whose consequences, do indeed, come from a confluence of multiple causes.

And if Charlie had ever been to a Dead show he would have described it as one helluva lollapalooza.






Filed under: Warren Buffett


  1. I want your life. Much more interesting than mine. Good analog. Wish you were in my shrinking news hole everyday. Oh well. Maybe when I retire I won’t care

    Comment by Barbara o\'c — 5.04.2009 @ 4:25 pm

  2. this is a truly memorable piece that needs to be published somewhere with broad distribution.

    Next challenge is to find out who goes to both. As we know there are deadheads everywhere and undoubtedly there must be some at berkshire.

    Comment by Rusty Selix — 5.05.2009 @ 5:50 am

  3. I think you can make the same case about a syphilis clinic and a Motley Crue show. But I digress. Awesome piece, G.

    Comment by Jim Evans — 5.05.2009 @ 6:13 am

  4. I agree, Greg at his best! Thanks for this.

    Comment by Peter — 5.06.2009 @ 1:02 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment