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Buffett's 'Ringmaster' Turns Grand Ideas Into Reality - 27 Apr 2015 17:34

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[[html]]April 27, 2015 12:56 p.m. ET<br><br>One morning in late 2011, shortly after he bought the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, Warren Buffett stopped by the desk of his second assistant, Carrie Sova, with an idea.<br><br>Mr. Buffett, a former paperboy, thought it would be "fun" if shareholders of his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. BRK.B -0.35 % got to test their newspaper-tossing skills against his at the following year's annual meeting.<br><br>The company held its first paper toss in May 2012, launching an annual tradition and with it the event-planning career of a woman the Berkshire chairman and CEO now calls the "ringmaster."<br><br>Berkshire's annual meeting stands alone. Part question-and-answer session and part trade show, it offers attendees not just a chance to listen to Mr. Buffett and his partner, Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, but also to browse and buy products from Berkshire's ever-expanding collection of businesses. About a decade ago as the event was beginning to draw tens of thousands of people to Omaha, Neb., Mr. Buffett created the role of meeting planner to oversee all the duties, from mailing credentials to transporting steers from Texas to a pen in the exhibition hall.<br><br>Four years ago with the circus format already in place, Mr. Buffett approached Ms. Sova about becoming the ringmaster. She "jumped at the chance," according to one of Mr. Buffett's annual letters, and since then she has been trying to turn increasingly ambitious ideas into reality. One year that meant figuring out how to park a working locomotive from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., the Berkshire-owned railroad, on a track outside the CenturyLink Center in downtown Omaha, where the meeting is held.<br><br>"She never took a course in this, and she stepped right up," Mr. Buffett said in an interview.<br><br>This year's meeting is a grander-than-usual show. Berkshire expects more than 40,000 people, which would be a record for an event that is Omaha's second-biggest draw after the College World Series, as it celebrates 50 years under Mr. Buffett's control. Attendees will begin showing up this Thursday before the May 2 meeting to eat at Mr. Buffett's favorite steakhouses and network with other shareholders. Saturday kicks off with a miniparade led by two Texas Longhorn steers, Jake and Norman, followed by a Wells Fargo stagecoach driven by four horses. Berkshire is a major Wells Fargo WFC 0.61 % Co. shareholder. Watson, the supercomputer owned by International Business Machines Corp. IBM 0.59 % , another company in which Berkshire owns a big stake, will be in the CenturyLink Center.<br><br>As usual, Ms. Sova will be in the thick of it, roaming the grounds with walkie-talkie in hand. Her main job on the day of the meeting is to make sure the roughly 40 Berkshire-owned or affiliated companies, spread over an exhibition hall bigger than three football fields, have what they need. "Every year people can't get a hold of me because my cellphone battery dies," Ms. Sova said.<br><br>Ms. Sova, 30 years old and a graduate of Creighton University in Omaha, first came to work for Berkshire six years ago after her sister, Mr. Buffett's previous second assistant, left and recommended her sibling as a replacement. Ms. Sova and Debbie Bosanek, Mr. Buffett's first assistant, share duties, but putting the meeting together takes up much of Ms. Sova's time for at least nine months of the year.<br><br>Despite Mr. Buffett heaping praise on her in his annual letters, Ms. Sova dislikes attention and insists she only executes "Warren's orders."<br><br>Ms. Sova and her Berkshire colleagues start kicking around ideas for the meeting's theme months in advance. With only 25 employees, Berkshire runs a lean operation at its Omaha headquarters, and many of them, including Chief Financial Officer Marc Hamburg, pitch in for the meeting.<br><br>Once a theme is chosenthis year's is "50 years of a profitable partnership"Ms. Sova and an external design firm hired by Berkshire turn their focus to allotting space to each exhibitor on the hall floor. Space is based on the popularity of a company's products, its display plans and whether it is a fully or partly owned business. See's Candies usually has the largest booth, while Kirby this year has about 50 square feet for its vacuum cleaners. Coca-Cola Co. KO -0.09 % , 9%-owned by Berkshire, had to settle for a 60-foot-by-20-foot display area after requesting more space for this year's meeting.<br><br>From the Archives<br><br>How Berkshire's feted annual meeting has grown over the years, and coverage of last year's event<br><br>"It's always a fight for space," said D'Ann Lonowski of Mint Design Group. "But if you say, 'that's all you get,' they don't fight or push much further."<br><br>One of Ms. Sova's first tasks after taking the meeting organizer's job was figuring out just how the newspaper toss would work. The game now involves throwing a specially printed copy of the Omaha World-Heraldfolded, no rubber bandfrom a distance of 35 feet to get it to land, pages intact, on a home porch provided by Berkshire-owned Clayton Homes Inc., a maker of manufactured housing. The winner gets a Dilly Bar from Dairy Queen, another Berkshire company. Mr. Buffett is undefeated.<br><br>Although he doesn't focus on details, Mr. Buffett has final approval on every aspect of the meeting. "The big picture—any of the really good concepts that make the meeting what it is…stemmed from Warren, and the little details of making all of it come together were worked out by our staff," Ms. Sova said.<br><br>There is plenty of last-minute scrambling. Last year, See's lugged a 7,000-pound fake lollipop onto the display floor. However, when employees unwrapped the 10-foot lollipop stick that had shipped separately, they discovered it was badly scuffed. "I remember running around wondering, 'where are we going to find white paint' " to cover up the marks, said Courtney Cohen, who handles the See's Candies exhibit. Fellow organizers eventually supplied a bucket of white paint and brushes.<br><br>It wasn't always such a production. The earliest meetings attracted no more than a dozen shareholders who piled into the cafeteria of an insurer owned by Berkshire. By the mid-1980s, as Mr. Buffett's acclaim spread and Berkshire's stock price soared, the number of attendees swelled to the hundreds. Many were lured by shopping discounts at Nebraska Furniture Mart, an Omaha retailer Berkshire had bought in 1983. In his letters, Mr. Buffett began enticing shareholders to the meeting with promises of discounts on Berkshire goods and services.<br><br>Shopping has become a central attraction, and many businesses offer products made for the occasion, notching record sales that day, so much so that Berkshire is opening the exhibition hall a day early so shareholders can buy even more stuff. This year, shoppers can choose from special gold-printed "Berkie" boxers with caricatures of Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger, running shoes with Mr. Buffett's face on the back and a toddler T-shirt that says, "The next Warren Buffett."<br><br>Write to Anupreeta Das at moc.jsw|sad.ateerpuna#moc.jsw|sad.ateerpuna<br><br><a href='http://www.wsj.com/articles/warren-buffetts-ringmaster-turns-grand-ideas-into-reality-1430153799?mod=rss_markets_main'>http://www.wsj.com/articles/warren-buffetts-ringmaster-turns-grand-ideas-into-reality-1430153799?mod=rss_markets_main</a>[[/html]] - Comments: 0


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