USD students visit with billionaire Buffett

Some area college students got some financial insight from one of the nation's premier investors Friday, Nov. 6.

Twenty-seven students from the Beacom School of Business at the University of South Dakota met with Omaha businessman Warren Buffett.

"One Friday a month for eight months a year, Mr. Buffett meets with college students," said Kumoli Ramakrishnan, Ph.D., associated professor of finance at USD. "So colleges around the country request the time with him and he selects a few schools. We've been fortunate in being able to go every year for the past five years.  … USD has been very lucky, because most schools don't get a chance to go year after year to see him."

Six universities from across the country take part in each meeting, which involves tours of Berkshire Hathaway-owned companies, an extended question-and-answer session with Buffett and a lunch.

Students also get a chance to take pictures with him.

"He's quite a showman," said Ramakrishnan. "There's some formal pictures, quite a bit of clowning around with him – handing his wallet over or pulling his pockets out like he's broke."

Business student Brad Jankord  – who has now met Buffett twice – said that during the photo session, "one guy made a comment. Mr. Buffett was kind of joking around with the students when we were taking pictures and he goes, 'He looks so out of character.'

"And I actually said, 'No, this is actually him IN character,'" Jankord said. "He's actually a really fun (person). He likes to joke around. You can tell when he's being very formal; he doesn't like it."

But the Q&A session is when students get the most from the "oracle of Omaha."

"He essentially takes questions from students – any question they want to ask about anything – and he'll respond," Ramakrishna said.

Within reason, of course.

"Mr. Buffett doesn't give any stock picks or forecasts," Jankord said. "The only thing he really talks about is the overall outlook of the economy, and where he thinks it's headed.

"In that regard, he doesn't believe like a lot do that there's going to be a double-dip recession," Jankord said. "He does feel that we're going to continue to grow out of this phase."

Ramakrishnan said that overall, "it's a pretty open, wide-ranging discussion. He's a very, very wise man. He enjoys spending time with the students. You can see that he gets a lot of energy out of that."

Friday was the first time business student Jessica Burchill got the chance to meet with Buffett.

"When I went in, I really didn't know what to expect," she said. "I knew we'd have a question/answer (session) with him, but I didn't know how he would talk to our level. He has so much knowledge, and he made it understandable for people our age. He made it fun. … He's a very well-rounded, well-educated person, and that made it interesting."

Ramakrishnan said Buffett holds these sessions as a way of "giving back." It's also a way for him to put things in perspective.

"He started out with $10,000," Ramakrishnan said. "With $10,000 you have a lot more choices to make money, (not like) with the billions now in the funds that he has managed. He said, 'My world is limited because, unless I buy something massive, it doesn't make a difference in my results.'

"So Berkshire can't really look at anything under $500 million or so, because even if you bought something and doubled it, it wouldn't make a difference the portfolio is so big. But if you start with $10,000, $20,000 you can find a lot of smaller investments that would give you a good return."

Burchill said she came away from the meeting with the "realization that anyone can do anything with their life. You don't need to be someone big and have things given to you to own a business or to become successful. You can start from the bottom and work your way up. You just need to be confident."

Ramakrishnan said that in meeting with Buffett, the students not only gain insight into the financial world, but also in how they can live their lives.

"What I like most about Warren is not just the fact that he's been successful for a long period of time, but he has retained his approachability," Ramakrishnan said. "He's a humble, nice human being. Overall, a good man. With that kind of money, he could do pretty much anything he wanted to do, but he still lives a very modest life. He still drives a regular car. And he looks at the money that he has as essentially belonging to society in some way, and he gives it back."

This makes Buffett a good role model for the students, Ramakrishnan said.

"We teach them how to succeed, how to make money and all that, but also how to deal with wealth and your obligation to society is important," he said. "Seeing someone who lives the talk has value, so that's what's so special about it in my mind."

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