- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

OMAHA, Neb. — Warren Buffett is known for shrewd financial deals, but the world’s second-richest man also invests some of his time to help guide business students.

Mr. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. made an average of $23.4 million a day last year, yet he plans to spend the better part of 20 days this year answering questions and offering advice based on decades of stunningly successful experience.

It’s time the Oracle of Omaha thoroughly enjoys.

A group of about 35 University of Tennessee students recently spent four hours with Mr. Buffett between the question-and-answer session at his offices and lunch at Gorat’s — Mr. Buffett’s favorite steakhouse in Omaha.

“I was surprised at how personable he is,” said senior finance major Laura Cole, who got to sit near Mr. Buffett for a while at lunch. “And he talked about communications skills being the most important skill.”

Mr. Buffett also paid for lunch for the Tennessee students and for about 90 University of Iowa students who met with him at the same time.

Chandler Summar, a first-year master’s degree student from Tennessee, said he was surprised Mr. Buffett was willing to pose for countless pictures and wasn’t anxious about his schedule.

“He said for the first job, don’t look for the money,” Mr. Summar said. “Look for something you love, and if you’re good, the money will come.”

At least one group from the University of Kansas has tried to make the time profitable — literally — for the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.

KU professor Mark Hirschey has turned the Buffett visits into the culmination of the security analysis class he teaches, and his students come to Omaha prepared to pitch companies that Berkshire Hathaway might buy.

“He is a very kind and generous person, and he’s all about ideas,” said Mr. Hirschey, who plans to bring a group of his students to Berkshire’s annual meeting in Omaha on May 6.

The Kansas students are trying to outdo a Tennessee class that gave Mr. Buffett a signed copy of self-made billionaire Jim Clayton’s autobiography that led to Berkshire’s $1.7 billion purchase of Clayton Homes, which makes manufactured housing.

Mr. Buffett mentioned the Tennessee group in his 2003 letter to Berkshire shareholders, spurring Mr. Hirschey and other professors and students to arrange their own visits. And those Tennessee students each received a Class B share of Berkshire Hathaway stock as a reward, and their professor, Al Auxier, received a Class A share. In trading on the New York Stock Exchange Friday, Class B shares closed at $2,972 and Class A shares closed at $89,200.

Debbie Bosanek, Mr. Buffett’s assistant, said she had scheduled 35 of these meetings for this school year spread over 19 or 20 days. About 2,000 students will visit Mr. Buffett this year.

Mr. Buffett can’t accommodate all requests. But he usually meets with two or three student groups at once. He declined an interview for this story.

The meetings are typically held at Berkshire Hathaway’s headquarters in Omaha, but sometimes Mr. Buffett will agree to events elsewhere, such as when he teamed up with his friend and bridge partner, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in September.

During that visit to his alma mater, Mr. Buffett mixed wit with wisdom as he responded to serious questions — “How do you evaluate businesses to buy or invest in?” — and lighter ones: “What one superpower would you want?”

When a student asked why long-term interest rates have remained low despite repeated increases in short-term interest rates, Mr. Buffett turned to humor.

“I was hoping you’d tell me,” Mr. Buffett said.

He added that he sticks to issues that are knowable and important to his business, so he doesn’t have to understand long-term interest rates.

University of Wisconsin professor Mark Fedenia brought 20 master’s students to Omaha last fall. He described Mr. Buffett as a principled person who has a message for those about to start their careers.

“He got people motivated to go out there and do something,” Mr. Fedenia said.

Mr. Auxier, the Tennessee professor who brought the group responsible for Clayton Homes, recently made his eighth trip to Omaha with students.

Mr. Auxier started bringing students to Omaha in 1999 after trying unsuccessfully for more than four years to get Mr. Buffett to speak on campus in Knoxville, Tenn.

Mr. Buffett is open when he meets with students and rarely evades questions, Mr. Auxier said, but he doesn’t offer investment tips or talk about his current investments.

“He’s generous with his ideas, but doesn’t mention specific stocks,” Mr. Auxier said.

After meeting Mr. Buffett, Mr. Auxier said students may model their investing after the billionaire’s value investing philosophy and model their lives after his ethics.

“I look at these trips as a major life-changing event,” Mr. Auxier said. “I think he knows that he’s having an impact, and that’s part of why he does this.”

Mr. Buffett’s daughter, Susie Buffett, has a simple explanation.

“He does it because he loves it,” she said.

The meetings make Mr. Buffett feel good about the world, his daughter said, because he gets to talk to bright students eager to get started.

Mr. Buffett cited his enjoyment in last year’s shareholder letter.

“They are keenly interested in business and investments, but their questions indicate that they also have more on their minds than simply making money,” Mr. Buffett wrote. “I always feel good after meeting them.”

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