Berkshire’s repellent shareholders

By Felix Salmon
December 23, 2009
here. It's another pilgrimage-to-Omaha story, but this one has a twist: Schwartz finds that Buffett's folksy wisdom really isn't the slightest bit contagious.

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Warren Buffett probably won’t be particularly happy with Mattathias Schwartz’s cover story in the latest Harper’s, behind a subscription firewall here. It’s another pilgrimage-to-Omaha story, but this one has a twist: Schwartz finds that Buffett’s folksy wisdom really isn’t the slightest bit contagious.

Among the pilgrims are RJ Meurer Jr, a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley who storms into Buffett’s barber with his entourage, telling the Brazilian man getting a shave that “You got to get out. We got this barbershop booked.” Or there’s Matt Kelley, a Chicago public-school teacher, who failed at trading in and out of a single Berkshire B share at the same time as conspiring to lose $200,000 of his $150,000 net worth trading on margin; he eventually maxed out his credit card to continue to make leveraged bets.

But Schwartz saves the worst for last, when he finds Talia Eisenberg, along with her father’s girlfriend, getting thrown out of an Omaha bar for being drunk. Talia is the daughter of Robert Eisenberg, who himself is the son of an early investor in Berkshire. With her unearned riches she has opened an art gallery on the Lower East Side; she also receives glowing press from NYC society blogs, complete with comments extolling “her generous heart”.

She’s not going to be happy about this:

“Do you even know who we are?” Talia asked. She thrust her hand into her purse. Out came a grip of shareholder credentials.

“I don’t care,” said the manager. “You’re getting out of this restaurant. Now.”

The women strutted out to a black Mercedes-Benz. As Talia drove, she enumerated a few of her present frustrations. She hated the tacky nowhereness of Omaha. She hated the gawking shareholders who think they own it for a weekend. Most of all, she hated Gorat’s for unjustly ejecting her from the premises. “They thought I was a whore because I’m good-looking and rich!” she exclaimed. “What can I do?”

“They never see the likes of us around Omaha,” replied Tanya.

“We have more shares than all those fuckers,” Talia said…

“Where were you at the cocktail events?” Talia asked me. “We were there with all the ballers. The real deal. You didn’t go to Borsheim’s, did you? That’s where all the suckers go, with one baby B share. The big parties are up at the houses.”

This is what happens to the millions of dollars that Buffett earns for his earliest and most loyal investors: they end up fueling the very snobbery and condescension that Buffett himself could never abide.

Talia’s young, and she was drunk (and she was driving drunk, to boot), but maybe it’s only the young and drunk shareholders who will ever come out and say — to a journalist, no less — what most of the people “up at the houses” are thinking.

All of which only confirms me in my view that once Buffett has gone, Berkshire Hathaway will not remain long in its present form. Look at its owners, ex Buffett and Munger, and you see people who simply don’t have the constitution to patiently make careful, idiosyncratic, multi-billion-dollar bets with century-long time horizons. The ghost of Buffett might hang around for a while, but eventually the new CEO will start talking about “shareholder value”, and that will be the end of that. Not that it’ll make any real difference either way to the likes of Talia Eisenberg.

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