Simons: Buffett, Munger set standard for clean, honest businessmen

A week ago today approximately 27,000 people gathered in Omaha, Neb., to hear the ideas, philosophies, vision and concerns of two men: Warren Buffett and Charles Munger.

The meeting was held at Omaha’s handsome Qwest Center, and the parking lots started to fill at 5 a.m. with groupies, stockholders, pilgrims and/or believers standing in line by 6 a.m. to get well-located seats in the 18,000-seat arena.

There wasn’t sufficient seating to handle the crowd, and large convention-style meeting rooms with huge television screens accommodated another 9,000 for a total of more than 27,000 attendees at the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Buffett is chairman and CEO, and Munger is vice chairman of the super successful investment company headquartered in Omaha. Stock in the company is selling for more than $100,000 a share.

The success of these two men in selecting companies to buy or invest in is legendary. The list of companies they have targeted reads like a who’s who of America’s top “blue chip” successful corporate names.

Buffett and Munger sat alone at a small table at the end of the arena’s basketball court, bathed in spotlights in the darkened hall. Berkshire Hathaway directors were seated in a small special section directly in front of the two men. At 9:30 a.m., Buffett and Munger started answering questions from the audience. Thirteen microphones were scattered throughout the arena and adjoining rooms, and those in attendance were invited to ask whatever they wished. There was no screening of the questions, and the two unassuming investment gurus did not hesitate to offer quick, succinct answers.

All the while, they were popping open cans of Coca-Cola (one of the companies in which Berkshire Hathaway is a shareholder) and munching on candy by See’s (another Hathaway company). They went on for two and a half to three hours. There was a short break for lunch and the Q and A resumed until about 3 p.m. – nonstop.

The questions covered the waterfront. Quite often, those asking the questions prefaced their queries by thanking the two men for being so open and honest in discussing their business philosophies and the way they run and represent Berkshire Hathaway properties. Audience members were quick and enthusiastic in their applause, because they, too, wanted to thank Buffett and Munger for the huge success all stockholders have enjoyed through the astute management by the two super successful businessmen.

There was nothing pretentious about these two men, who did a magnificent job of shooting straight with those in attendance. They had a warmth about them that made everyone in the audience feel their two super heroes were talking directly to them. It was obvious they were sincere and down to earth, offering their best advice. There was nothing phony, arrogant or rude about Buffett or Munger as they fielded every question, often with a quick smile and sometimes with a humorous twist.

This went on for five or six hours, and attendees would have stayed longer, but Buffett and Munger had to leave to host a special reception for about 800 stockholders from Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia.

This country has seen many embarrassing, tragic and costly corporate failures in recent years with management of many big companies getting a black eye for the manner in which they run their companies, as well as the manner in which they present themselves to the public and their stockholders.

A course on the Buffett-Munger/Berkshire Hathaway method of running and managing a company ought to be required of all individuals about to assume leadership of this country’s top corporations. If more senior executives had the manner, smarts, honesty, openness and frankness of Buffett and Munger, this country would have far fewer corporate disgraces, far fewer leaders retiring with black eyes or by serving prison sentences. The public would not hold “big business” in such low esteem if the leaders of big business were to adopt the honest, genuine and sincere manner of Buffett and Munger.

Another business leader who has this manner about him is Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co. This Lawrence native displayed his openness at a recent presentation at KU’s Lied Center. He has a huge job ahead of him in trying to return Ford to its former position in the automobile business.

He presents himself not as an arrogant, know-it-all executive but rather as an individual who has enjoyed success in his previous job (Boeing) and who is positive and confident about his efforts to restore Ford – with the talents and cooperation and hard work of thousands of Ford employees. He makes it clear he cannot get the job done alone. He portrays himself not as a miracle worker, but rather as a straight shooter who will be upfront and honest with stockholders, employees and the public.

Once again, it’s too bad more American business executives do not follow the example of Buffett, Munger and Mulally in the way they view their jobs, opportunities, responsibilities and what they believe they should give back to society.

In addition to business executives many in higher education should take a page out of the Buffett, Munger, Mulally playbook in how they view their jobs and how they conduct themselves.