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It's not easy to get the ear of the second-richest man in the world. Warren Buffett has accumulated mind-boggling wealth through investments and is an icon in the business world. Investment bankers would give their eye-teeth for a minute of his time, but on January 13 Buffett was busy hosting a group of students for hours.
Forty-one McGill students travelled to Omaha for a two-hour question-and-answer period with the 75-year-old behind Berkshire Hathaway, and to present a pitch for him to acquire a Canadian company.
"The purpose was to provide a peak experience for the students," says Karl Moore, globalization and marketing professor and associate director of the Advanced Leadership Program. When Moore heard that Buffett sees groups of students, he jumped at the opportunity to get McGill students an audience with the "Oracle of Omaha."
MBA and BCom students from McGill and the University of Toronto spent two hours with Buffett before having lunch with him at his favourite steakhouse (yes, he picked up the tab). A team of MBA students also met with Buffett to make a 20-minute pitch to convince him to purchase a Canadian company. Showing their own sense of hustle, the BCom team did a short three-minute pitch to Buffett during lunch. Moore says Buffett is considering both options the students presented, though no one is mentioning any names of the companies discussed.
Second-year BCom student Matt Hertz says he has been fascinated by Buffett since Grade 8 when he did a book report on The Warren Buffett Way. Like the other McGill students, Hertz won the chance to meet Buffett by submitting an essay stating why he wanted to meet him. Hertz had read about Buffett's personality but said it was great to get a first-hand look at the man behind scenes. "He is 75 years old but is all giddy and making jokes and able to relate to college students. He was so open to everyone and said 'I'm here to answer questions. Be as hard as you want, ask me about life, about personal, about business - anything you want to ask.'"
Second-year MBA student Jamie Wald says Buffett moved from table to table at lunch chatting with the students. Wald says what really stays with him about Buffett is his down-to-earth approach and lack of over-the-top luxury. As an example, Wald mentions that Buffett drives his own car and entered the room with neither bodyguards nor an entourage.
"It was kind of like a rock performer with a bunch of MBAs crowded around him," laughs first-year MBA student Heather Powers, describing the many photos students took with Buffett. She was particularly interested in his philanthropic work, since he intends to donate the bulk of his estate to charity. With her background in nonprofit and fundraising work, she was curious about what a man like Buffett would do with his money. "He wants to work on problems that are too big to be worked on anywhere else and where there's not a clear funding constituency. As an example, he mentioned nuclear disarmament." Powers adds that this was definitely a highlight of her time in academia. "This [experience] is the kind of thing that will create a lifelong connection with McGill."
MBA student David Derlachter says another student asked Buffett whether it's good to go for a job because it'll look good on the resumé. "Buffett said you have to go where your passion is. Basically, if you're not going after what you want it's a big waste of time." Derlachter says it was inspiring to see someone so successful telling you to do what you love.
While the students were impressed with Buffett, Moore says he was pleased with how the students handled themselves. "They represented McGill really well. They did an outstanding job," says Moore. "[Buffett] said it was an opportunity to give back to young people, and clearly the energy of the young people and the enthusiasm they had for him was something undoubtedly he got energy from as well."