Buffett, near 82, reflects on staying in Nebraska

August 29, 2012 - 4:37 PM
Buffetts Omaha

FILE - In this May 7, 2012, file photo Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, laughs during an interview in Omaha, Neb. Omaha won’t throw a bash for Buffett’s 82nd birthday on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, but his hometown is grateful the billionaire never considered leaving Omaha behind because he has bolstered the city’s reputation and attracted thousands of tourists. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Omaha won't throw a bash for Warren Buffett's 82nd birthday on Thursday, and that's just fine with the billionaire investor.

The decidedly low-key lifestyle in Omaha, where Buffett was born and where he's lived continuously since 1956, is a key reason he chose to remain there rather than trade up to a city with a splashier skyline or new digs closer to Wall Street.

"If I had to live some other place I'd be fine doing it, but I can't think of a better place to live than Omaha," Buffett said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Buffett was born in Omaha in 1930 and spent the first 12 years of his life in Nebraska's largest city until his father was elected to Congress. After earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska, Buffett didn't return full-time to Omaha until he got his master's in economics at Columbia University and worked in New York for a few years.

He and his first wife, Susie, wanted their children to grow up in Omaha, so they returned to the Midwest city to plant roots.

Buffett didn't plan to start an investment partnership until a few family members and friends persuaded him to do so. But his success with the partnership before he liquidated it allowed Buffett to take control of Berkshire Hathaway in the 1960s and gradually transform the textile company into a conglomerate that today owns more than 80 businesses.

Buffett is known for investing in quality businesses that have fallen out of favor with the market, and he said being in Omaha helped him do that.

"In some places it's easy to lose perspective. But I think it's very easy to keep perspective in a place like Omaha," he said.

Buffett said being far from Wall Street actually helped him.

"It's very easy to think clearly here. You're undisturbed by irrelevant factors and the noise generally of business investments," Buffett said. "If you can't think clearly in Omaha, you're not going to think clearly anyplace."

In the city of 415,000, Buffett can drive the 20 blocks from his home to his office in about 5 minutes.

"I would find a long commute quite irritating even if I did it under favorable circumstances — even if I had a driver," Buffett said. "I like being in the home and I like being in the office, and I'm not keen on in between."

Buffett said he's never been tempted to move, and that he doubts the company will ever move, either, because he said the two dozen people who work at Berkshire Hathaway's headquarters also like living in Omaha.

Previously, Buffett had said his successor should continue working wherever he or she thinks best, so it wasn't clear whether Berkshire's headquarters could move. Now, Buffett said he doesn't see any reason for his successor to move Berkshire.

"No, it won't be moved," Buffett said.

That's a relief to Omaha boosters who appreciate the people Buffett attracts to the city and the way he promotes the city outside of Nebraska.

The benefits to Omaha are most visible each spring when tens of thousands of Berkshire shareholders arrive for the company's annual meeting. No one knows exactly how much the company benefits Omaha's economy, but local business owners say it clearly does.

Diana Abbott, whose store sells books at Berkshire's annual meeting, said the event generates phenomenal sales, but the intangible ways Buffett helps Omaha may be even more important.

"You say Omaha, they think Warren Buffett," said Abbott, manager of the Bookworm. "It has really improved the reputation of Omaha, especially internationally," Abbott said.

Buffett readily lent his image to campaigns promoting Omaha, and he's featured prominently on the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's website.

"He's kind of our iconic image for the community," said David Brown, the chamber's president and CEO. "This is a special place because he's here."

Berkshire Hathaway has made a number of people wealthy, and many of its early investors were from Omaha.

Dozens of those early Berkshire investors have become philanthropists who focused their donations on Omaha. Many of the city's biggest projects over the past decade bear the name of Berkshire shareholders.

"That's an important asset for this community," Brown said.

Former Omaha Mayor and Congressman Hal Daub agreed that generous shareholders have helped the city.

"Where would Omaha be without Berkshire Hathaway?" he said.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss said the presence of Berkshire's headquarters is probably more important than the annual meeting because it helps improve the city's image nationally and boost philanthropy.

Of course, most large corporations, including Omaha-based Union Pacific and ConAgra Foods, employ hundreds or thousands of people at headquarters, not the 24 Berkshire employs. Berkshire makes up for its tiny headquarters with Buffett's visibility. When the so-called Oracle of Omaha speaks, investors listen, so financial news organizations readily travel to the city for Buffett interviews.

"It does bring greater visibility than other Fortune 500 companies," Goss said.

For Buffett, the decision to remain in Omaha seems primarily a matter of personal happiness.

"There's plenty of other places I like, but the one I love is Omaha," Buffett said. "The weather may be a little better some other place else, but that really doesn't make much difference to me in terms of how I feel about enjoying life."

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