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April 07, 2008

MBA Advice from the Oracle of Omaha

David Kessler '08
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On March 21 I flew to Omaha — along with 150 of my classmates — to meet Warren Buffett, MS ’51, a man I have admired (some friends would say fanatically idolized) for close to 15 years.

After a tour of the Berkshire Hathaway-owned Nebraska Furniture Mart, we were brought to a room at the Omaha Field Club. Warren Buffett stood at the front — two of his five daily cans of Cherry Coke nearby — and for the next two and a half hours, answered our questions.

The questions covered a wide range of issues, including what he looks for in a business, the current financial situation, recent events at Bear Stearns, ethics, emerging markets, commodities, his relationship with Benjamin Graham and his typical day. His answers were a powerful reminder of his unique ability to distill complex issues down to their bare essence.

When asked about how long the current financial crisis would last, he replied, “I don’t know. I have never made money on macro calls.” Buffett said that even if he had perfectly predicted macro conditions in 1973–74, he would not have bought See’s Candies in 1972 going into a recession and would have missed out on a company that he has referred to as “the prototype of a dream business.”

After joking that our graduation was not perfectly timed, Buffett warned that we should not be discouraged from pursuing a career in finance. Finance is only going to become more important as time goes on, he said, and it is a field where one can truly stand out and be recognized.

He advised MBA students to learn as much about accounting as possible, adding that, “accounting is the language of business.” He also said that writing and verbal communication are extremely important in the business world and that students should seek out ways to improve these skills every chance they get.

Buffett urged students looking for jobs not to pay too much attention to salary. “Who you work for is extremely important, so choose carefully,” he counseled, adding that the most important decision of his own career was going to work for Benjamin Graham.

As MBA students, we are beginning our careers in an age where the image of a corporate executive has been bruised. Spending time with Warren Buffett — an astute businessman, a legendary investor, a rational and disciplined person and a generous philanthropist — afforded us the opportunity to learn much more than just how to pick stocks.

Before the trip, I was certain that no one could ever live up to the sincere, humble and generous image depicted of him in books, shareholder letters and TV interviews. I was wrong. Even that lofty image did not hold a candle to the man I was lucky enough to spend half the day with in Omaha.

Comments

by Shai Dardashti | April 07, 2008 at 11:47 AM

David, thanks a lot for sharing your reflections; most appreciated!

by Melissa | April 07, 2008 at 12:05 PM

Well written! Hopefully we will hear more of David's insights in the near future.

by Linda Cucher | April 07, 2008 at 12:39 PM

An illuminating, insightful recollection of Mr. Kessler's auspicious meeting with Mr. Buffett: a global business visionary and quintessential example of compassionate philanthropy. An apt mentor for a preeminent student!

by Tate Johnson | April 07, 2008 at 1:31 PM

Thanks for the writeup. Are you, or anyone else, going to write a comprehensive transcript of the meeting?

by Siming Yang | April 07, 2008 at 6:34 PM

First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek? ----Hannibal Lector, M.D. What Warren Buffett does is finding something that is appealing to his nature: a combination of businessman and investor. A good businessman doesn't necessarily need to know EBITDA or DCF to make a sound invesment. Most investors don't know warehouse management or JIT purchase.

by Kimi | April 08, 2008 at 11:21 AM

Dear David: Thank you very much for putting up your notes - I am deeply thankful for it. Best regards, Kimi

by John | April 18, 2008 at 12:34 AM

How come we don't have an Omaha campus? ;-)

by Bill Capece | November 24, 2009 at 8:42 AM

I'm not a Columbia student (yet) but i caught the interview on CNBC last night. Magnificent! This world needs more like Mr. Buffet, so keep churning them out. This article was not only well written but perfectly delivered. Kudos.

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