The following story was written and submitted by Deborah Gruca, Department of Economics Communications.
On Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, 20 members of Iowa State’s Economics Club and staff member Brent Moore traveled to Omaha to participate in a two-hour Q&A session with business magnate and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett. Club president Hieu Nguyen, a senior, and vice president Lauren Sendelbach, a sophomore, organized the trip, with help from Peter Orazem, University Professor of Economics.
In May 2014, club members were able to obtain enough passes to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting in Omaha. The students enjoyed hearing Buffet speak and Nguyen was amazed how well the company chairman was able to simplify complex financial concepts.
After the 2014 meeting, Nguyen wrote a thank-you letter for the passes and the opportunity to attend, including a copy of the published Economics department article about the club’s trip. He followed up with another letter — this time asking to participate in Buffett’s annual Q&A panel. To his dismay he learned there were already 200 other schools ahead of ISU on the waiting list.
Persistence and more polite letters paid off. Two months later, an email from Buffett’s office asked him to pick from several possible dates, which resulted in the group’s trip this month. The Iowa State students and those from seven other schools, including MIT and the University of Nebraska-Omaha, attended the two-hour Q&A session with Buffett on Oct. 16.
In preparation for the session, Nguyen and Sendelbach, aided by Orazem, narrowed the field of Iowa State students applying to attend by reading their submitted essays and proposed questions for Buffett. The final group met and eliminated from the compiled questions any that Buffett had previously addressed in his annual 20- to 30-page online shareholder investment reports.
After a tour of the Nebraska Furniture Mart (a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary) in Omaha, the group proceeded to the Kiewit building.
“Ironically, the president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, a $300 billion company, runs his organization out of rented office space with a 24-person office staff,” Nguyen said.
Seating for the eight schools was randomly assigned, and Iowa State’s luck continued.
“To my astonishment, Iowa State was in the very front section!" Lauren Sendelbach said. "One of my best memories is of seeing Hieu’s face when he realized that we were about to sit three feet away from Warren Buffet himself.”
Buffett does not require session questions to be submitted in advance, but takes questions as asked, rotating between the invited groups. Usually, each school is able to ask two questions in the allotted time, but the Iowa State group managed to get in a third question just before time ran out. The ISU club members asked Buffett the following three questions:
Where do you think investments can be made for the greatest common good? How can the United States remain competitive as manufacturing costs rise? You value honesty. When was a time when honesty did not play out in your favor?
Buffett impressed the students.
“Before that day, all I knew about him was what I read in the news, but to meet him in person and listen to him talk was something else entirely," Jack Alexander, a senior, said. "Mr. Buffett is one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. It’s clear to me now that his selfless and down-to-earth personality is what has carried him so far all these years, and it’s what I’ll remember most about the trip.”
“I was really surprised how humble Warren is,” agreed senior Jordan Nordby. “He commented that he was born in the right place at the right time. He was born in America during a time where there were opportunities for the skill set that he had. He is very down to earth and is willing to make fun of himself. This was an awesome experience to have.”
Allen Wang, a junior, was impressed by how much time Buffett spent talking about life, integrity, and character, "which was even more interesting than finance," he said.
Sendelbach added her favorite Buffett quote: “Communication is the greatest attribute you can have. If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark.”
Following the session, the group enjoyed lunch with Buffett at his favorite Omaha restaurant, Piccolo Pete’s.
“I was very impressed by the professionalism of all club members during the trip. All represented Iowa State in a very positive manner,” Brent Moore said.
Nguyen is already trying to figure out a way to make the experience an annual event for the Economics Club.