Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) held its annual meeting -- dubbed "Woodstock for Capitalists" -- in Omaha, Nebraska, over the weekend, and shareholders celebrated Warren Buffett's 50th anniversary as chief executive officer. The 84-year-old, known as "The Sage of Omaha," along with his second-in-command Charlie Munger, 91, spent hours in an arena with 40,000 people, fielding questions from shareholders, analysts and journalists about the economy, business and the CEO’s future.
Berkshire, which has a market value of $350 billion, oversees and manages some 80 subsidiary companies, in markets ranging from food, insurance, energy to railroad. The company owns investments in Coca-Cola Co., International Business Machines Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and American Express Co.
Here are five key takeaways from the meeting:
1. Berkshire’s Future
Berkshire’s massive success has been five decades in the making. It was in 1965 when Buffett and Munger took over the troubled textile company and began transforming it into the massive conglomerate it is today.
Buffett and Munger said the company’s success will continue for decades to come because of its strong culture, even after the two executives are gone. “Berkshire’s culture runs as deep as any large company,” Buffett said. "I think Berkshire's going to be fine after we are gone," Munger added.
One key omission: Buffett didn't give hints about who might replace him as chief executive.
2. Buffett Doesn’t See ‘Smiles’ at Whole Foods
Coca-Cola Co. has long been a favorite of the legendary investor, as Berkshire has 400 million shares of the Atlanta company, a stake valued at more than $16 billion.
When questioned about America's sugar concerns, Buffett said a fourth of his calories come from Coke. “I'm one-quarter Coca-Cola," he said. Buffett explained that food and beverage companies must respond to changing consumer tastes, but said happiness is important and that consumers enjoy Coke products.
Referring to his own fondness for junk food, he said: “If I lived my whole life eating broccoli and Brussels sprouts, I probably wouldn’t live as long.” Buffett added: “I don’t see smiles on the faces of people at Whole Foods,” he said, referring to the supermarket chain that specializes in organic and healthful foods.
3. ‘No Apologies’ For Clayton Homes Lending Practices
Buffett defended predatory lending practices at Berkshire-owned Clayton Homes, which was criticized recently in a Seattle Times article for predatory lending practices. The company’s manufactured housing unit has said the story was “misleading.”
“I make no apologies whatsoever for Clayton’s lending practices,” Buffett said. “Clayton has behaved very well.”
4. Buffett Defends Relationship with Brazil's 3G Capital
"The Sage of Omaha" also defended Berkshire's multiple partnerships with Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital, which has come under scrutiny for cutting jobs at companies it acquires. Berkshire and 3G in 2013 bought H.J. Heinz Company, which is now buying Kraft Foods Group Inc. for $46 billion, creating world’s fifth-largest food and beverage company with annual revenue of $28 billion.
"The 3G people have been successful in building marvelous businesses," Buffett said. "I don't know of any company that has a policy that says we're going to have a lot more people than they need."
5. Buffett Admits Being Wrong About Interest Rates And Inflation
Buffett admitted his surprise that low interest rates have not caused inflation, warning that stock prices will appear expensive if rates rise from their current historic low levels.
“So far, I have been wrong on interest rates,” Buffett said. “It is so hard for me to believe that you can drop money from a helicopter and not have inflation, but we haven’t.”
“If we get back to normal interest rates, stocks at these prices will look high,” Buffett said.