When the second wealthiest person in the world walks into the room, you might expect some kind of fanfare or, at the very least, a bubble of bodyguards.
But when billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett strolled into the function room at Anthony’s Steakhouse in Omaha, Neb., on a recent Friday morning to meet with finance students from UMass Lowell’s Manning School of Business
and a half-dozen other schools from around the world, he couldn’t have been more unassuming.
“He just walked in like it was no big deal,” says senior business administration major Miranda Winter, one of 18 UML students in attendance along with Assoc. Prof. Ravi Jain
and Manning School Dean Sandy Richtermeyer
. “Suddenly he was right there in front of us. It was almost surreal.”
And it only got better. The 86-year-old chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., who’s known for his modest lifestyle and genial demeanor — not to mention his $76.5 billion net worth — spent the next two-and-a-half hours sharing his insights on business, the economy and life in general. The “Oracle of Omaha” then posed for group photos with the students, shook hands and treated everyone to lunch.
“It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says senior business administration major Jacob Ashley, who worked with Winter to organize the trip and raise nearly $7,000 in funds through the GiveCampus
website. “Not only did we meet Warren Buffett, but the entire group got to connect with each other on a whole other level outside of the classroom. You really can’t beat an experience like this.”
Buffett hosts the invitation-only lunchtime lectures for future business leaders several times a year in his hometown of Omaha. Schools must apply several years in advance and are then put on a waitlist. Jain, who also took a group in 2011
, says the opportunity for finance students to meet with Buffett is like physics students meeting with Albert Einstein.
“He’s probably the most important, the most respected and the most knowledgeable businessperson in America, if not the world,” Jain says of Buffett, who trails only Bill Gates
($86.3 billion) in net worth. “Being in the presence of such a hugely successful figure is very inspirational to students. When advice comes from someone like him that matters to students.”
Each of the seven schools, which also included the University of California, Berkeley and Peking University in China, got to ask Buffett two questions. Ashley, who spoke on behalf of the UML group, asked about the importance of succession planning for a company’s leadership and what he sees as the top challenges faced by boards of directors. While Buffett answered the questions in thoughtful detail, two of his overarching messages — optimism for the future and the value of investing in oneself — left the most lasting impressions on students.
Senior Yefry Matos, a business administration major with a concentration in finance, says Buffett’s words gave him confidence as he heads toward Commencement in May and a position awaiting him in banking analytics.
“As I start my career, I feel empowered by his advice to take initiative and develop my analytical skills,” Matos says. “This trip really broadened my intellectual horizons. Hearing Mr. Buffett’s perspectives will only help me challenge the conventional wisdom and status quo of how things are done.”
Graduate student Karima Filali, who is pursuing a master’s of business administration, was impressed by Buffett’s emotional intelligence, such as the empathy he displays when making decisions that could impact the lives of his employees and their families.
“Success requires knowledge; however, knowledge itself doesn’t guarantee success,” Filali says. “Knowledge and emotional intelligence combined are the keys for success, and Mr. Buffett has that.”
Following lunch, students toured Borsheim’s Fine Jewelery, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary based in Omaha, where they met with an executive. They also drove past the house where Buffett has lived since 1958.
As part of the two-day trip, Richtermeyer arranged for the group to have dinner with three UML alumni now working in the area: Steve Ducharme ’81, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Kristen Drescher ’90, a professor of medical microbiology and immunization at Creighton University; and Holly Rea ’11, a paralegal in Bellevue, Neb.
“I was pleased to meet with the students and learn about their interests and perspectives,” Ducharme says. “They impressed me as bright students and mature professionals who are taking an active and thoughtful approach to their education and professional development.”
“It was so nice for students to connect with alumni and share their experiences,” adds Richtermeyer, who required a 50-50 balance of male and female student participation on the trip (Buffett requires at least one-third female). “I was really impressed by how our students represented themselves, the Manning School and the university.”
While meeting Buffett in such an intimate setting may have been in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students, there may be a sequel of sorts. During his chat, Buffett invited all of the students back to Omaha in early May for Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting — an event known as the “Woodstock of Capitalism” that draws tens of thousands of people.
“It might be a little pricey, but I’ve spoken to some of the group and we’re seriously considering it,” Ashley says. “How do you pass up an opportunity like that?”