College of Business: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Jeremy Nuzzo '10 Chauffeured by Warren Buffett


11/19/2009

by John Hedeman


Last July, a Glide Foundation charity auction raised $1.68 million dollars for a prized lunch with Warren Buffett. For a whole lot less ILLINOIS’ Jeremy Nuzzo ’10 not only had lunch with Mr. Buffett, but was chauffeured by the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway in his relatively modest Cadillac. Because of Jeremy’s efforts, he and 26 other members of the College of Business Honors Program met with Mr. Buffett on Friday, November 6 in Omaha, Nebraska.

As a freshman, Jeremy contacted Berkshire Hathaway about the possibility of meeting Mr. Buffett. He was told about a program where Mr. Buffett hosts business students from universities across the USA. Now a senior, Jeremy’s wish has finally come true, for him and his honors mates in the College of Business.

The students visited the Nebraska Furniture Mart and Borsheim’s, two Berkshire Hathaway businesses, but the highlight of the trip was the time with Mr. Buffett himself. For two hours, Mr. Buffett answered questions from the students of the universities represented. Our University of Illinois students were joined by students from Texas Christian University, Boston College, University of South Dakota, University of Akron, and Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto. He talked about his investment strategies, his personal history, his view of the decisions made by the fed and the federal government to deal with the credit crisis and the resulting recession, and the reason he gives so much time to business students among other topics.

His easy going, warm approach put the students at ease. Just days after Berkshire Hathaway’s acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, Mr. Buffett opened his session by asking, "I hope you traveled by rail to get here?"

Discussing the recent economic problems, he gave credit to both the Bush and Obama administrations for acting to avoid an economic catastrophe. In his words, "the economy is still lousy, but the fear is gone." He credits those who had to make very difficult decisions with the compliment, "leadership really does count."

Asked about the recent purchase of the remaining shares of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, Mr. Buffett talked about his criteria for making such a purchase. The companies he invests in must:

• "have a durable, competitive advantage"
• "have honest management"
• "be available at attractive prices."

He showed us a copy of 1951 Moody’s guide that he bought on Amazon as a bit of nostalgia. (He was so down to earth that we could all imagine him looking for this book on Amazon.com himself.) He went to page 1433 which had an analysis of Western Insurance which he bought shares of in the early 1950s and explained that his strategy has not changed over time. With the growth of Berkshire Hathaway, the number of companies that he looks at today is much smaller because he needs to find bigger investments to continue returns for the shareholders.

In addition to his successes, Mr. Buffett talked about his mistakes, especially his inclination to still look at airlines even though he knows better. He told the students that "part of my business is making mistakes." He also told them to not "agonize over your mistakes." 

Warren Buffett’s modesty was in full view when he talked about his philanthropy. He claims to be a better investor than philanthropist. Therefore, he farms out this work to other foundations, especially the Gates Foundation. He believes "that money should go back to society" in a way each dollar spent improves the lives of the most people. He wants to support “a system that takes care of the people who drew the short straws in life." He also said that "when people stick their names on buildings I don’t understand why they do it."

A common theme in the presentation at the two Berkshire Hathaway companies and by Mr. Buffett himself was passion. He wants young students to be passionate about what they do and not wait until they have built an impressive resume before doing what they are passionate about. He told the group:  "Don’t save sex for old age. Do something you love when you are young."

After his question and answer session, Mr. Buffett stopped briefly at this office and then took the elevator surprising a few of our students who were in the same elevator. Cara White ’10 described her thoughts:  "While riding in an elevator with Warren Buffet, the thought came to mind that this is literally what everyone is talking about when they say you should have an elevator speech. The irony was not lost on Mr. Buffet either when I mentioned it on the short ride down."

Mr. Buffett demonstrated his passion for students at the lunch he chauffeured Jeremy to. In addition to hosting more than 150 people at Piccolos, an old-fashioned Omaha institution, he stood in the restaurant parking lot until the last student was satisfied, taking pictures with each student individually and with each group. He especially enjoyed being a ham by posing with the students for funny pictures.  When I had my chance to have a rather sedate photo taken with him, he whispered to me "You have a great group." I knew he was a genius.

Jeremy Nuzzo and the other juniors and seniors of the College of Business Honors Program had a priceless experience. They met a man of almost mythic status and unparalleled success, yet they discovered him to be a generous (think of the opportunity cost to Mr. Buffett for taking 5-6 hours out of his day to be with the students), thoughtful, down-to-earth individual with talent and a passion for what he does. 

One of the student guests asked Mr. Buffett why he spends so much time with students, he responded as a true son of Nebraska (home of Arbor Day) that we wishes to plant trees. He hopes that his time with students will plant some good ideas with them. He certainly planted many ideas in 27 students of the College of Business Honors Program. Brittany Metz ’10 summed up the feelings of all the College of Business students: "Traveling 9 hours on a bus each way to Omaha, Nebraska was by far one of the greatest experiences of my life! We found Mr. Buffett to be down to earth, modest, and hilarious! He inspired in us in just 2 hours to do what we love, shared his "secret" to investing success, and made all of us students in the audience want to be his friend."

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