Students pay court at Buffett bash

? In the magical world of Buffett-land, geckos and ice cream cones dance while investors talk about hedge funds.

Millionaires joke with cowboys on stilts and get their photos taken with fruit-shaped underwear mascots, then ask advice on real estate and gold acquisitions.

The king of the land is none other than Warren Buffett, the second-richest man in the world, and during the annual meeting of the Berkshire-Hathaway holding company Saturday, shareholders and others were hanging on his every word.

Those included more than 100 Kansas University business students, who were invited by share-holding alumni and Buffett himself. It’s an annual trip organized by business professor Mark Hirschey.

“I never imagined there would be an annual shareholder meeting like this,” said Brent Mason, a KU student pursuing a master’s of business administration degree. “This is more like an all-day festival or rock concert.”

Indeed, Buffett, the company’s 74-year-old CEO, drew more than 19,000 people to the Qwest Center arena, just as superstar rock band U2 and former Beatle Paul McCartney will later this fall.

Often called the Woodstock of Capitalism, the meeting melds entertainment with serious business for participants, who include both shareholders and guests from around the world.

In the Qwest Center’s convention area, Berkshire-Hathaway companies held a capitalist carnival of sorts, exhibiting their products and entertaining visitors. The Geicko insurance gecko, Dairy Queen ice cream cone, a cowboy on stilts representing Justin Brands Inc. western wear and mascots from Fruit of the Loom were all on hand.

Words of wisdom

Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett plays the ukulele Saturday at the Fruit of the Loom stand at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb., while touring exhibits before the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.

Next door in the arena, Buffett and Charlie Munger, the company’s vice chairman, spent more than four hours answering questions from attendees. Buffett, known for his plain talk during the meetings, sounded off on everything from the health of his company — whose holdings also include Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, See’s Candies, NetJets and Acme Brick — to the Republicans’ Social Security plan.

“With these guys, what you see is what you get,” said Patrick Quinn, a KU senior from Andover.

Buffett, who is worth about $43 billion, said he had nothing to hide, though he said he would refuse to answer specific questions about the last Nebraska football season, specific companies he was thinking of buying or selling or the investigation into subsidiary General Reinsurance Group, which is being investigated for an improper transaction with American International Group.

“There are no secrets in this business that only the priesthood knows,” he said. “It’s all out there in black and white. It’s a simple business.”

Annual event

For KU students, the meeting has become an annual pilgrimage since their first trip to Omaha in 1990. This year’s event held particular interest for the students because they’ll return to Omaha on Friday, when Buffett invited them back to Omaha for a private, 90-minute question and answer session at his office.

Most of the group on Saturday was at the Qwest Center by 6 a.m. The first person waiting in line was Leo Khayet, a KU senior from Overland Park who arrived at 3:18 a.m. to be ready for doors to open at 7 a.m.

Last year, he said, the first person in line was interviewed for the corporate video, which includes plenty of self-deprecation and shameless product placements.

Mark Hirschey, Kansas University professor of business, checks his watch as he plots a strategy for getting the best seats to the Berkshire-Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha, Neb., with Leo Khayet, a senior from Overland Park. Khayet was at Qwest Center at 3:18 a.m. Saturday to be the first person in line.

“I’d like my 15 seconds to speak to the wealthiest collection of people ever assembled,” he said. “Do you realize how much money is here this weekend?”

The on-camera interview didn’t happen this time, but the front-of-the-line position allowed students to mad-dash their way to a set of seats close to the stage. Most were seated in the first seven rows, just to the right of where Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the wealthiest man in the world, was seated.

“I’ve never seen so many people in business suits running up stairs,” said Adam Hall, a junior from Overland Park. “I had overweight guys in business suits plowing me over.”

Hall said it was worth the effort to get a fourth-row seat to see Buffett.

“Very few people can do what he did,” Hall said. “But everybody has the opportunity to do what he did, because anybody can play the stock market.”

Khayet said he’s hoping to return to the meeting in the future — but not as a guest.

“Next year,” Khayet told two friends, “we’d better have our own share.”