OMAHA, Neb. — The Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting is part celebration and part education, and more than 30,000 people gathered to hear Warren Buffett answer to investors Saturday.
Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger faced tough questions about Berkshire’s prospects for growth and acquisitions, as well as how Buffett handled a vote on pay packages crafted for Coca-Cola executives, a company in which Buffett holds a major stake.
Buffett abstained from voting Berkshire’s 400 million shares against the beverage company’s compensation plan even though he has long advocated against exorbitant executive pay, and after he described Coca-Cola’s as excessive.
"I thought this was the most effective way of behaving at Berkshire," Buffett said Saturday.
Buffett said he told Coke’s CEO privately that he opposed the compensation plan, but didn’t want to criticize the company publicly or join another Coke investor’s public campaign against the plan.
"We made a clear statement about the excessiveness of the plan, but we didn’t go to war with Coke in any way," Buffett said.
Shareholder Jake Kamm said the explanation Buffett offered initially for not voting against the beverage maker’s plan was not convincing.
"It’s a little bit of spin," said Kamm, who teaches finance at Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland, Ohio.
Buffett said the true test will come when Coke reveals its pay packages over the next year.
Buffett defended joining with investment firm 3G Capital last year to buy ketchup-maker H.J. Heinz Co. That deal represents a shift in Buffett’s investing style because Berkshire usually operates alone and leaves the companies it acquires largely unchanged.
"I do think 3G does a magnificent job running a business," Buffett said.
Since the acquisition, 3G has announced plans to eliminate roughly 2,000 jobs and close three manufacturing plants to improve efficiency. Buffett said he doesn’t expect Berkshire to use 3G’s approach, but the two may pair up on future deals.
Shareholders also asked about Berkshire’s failure to beat the stock market in four of the past five years, but Buffett said investors shouldn’t have been surprised that Berkshire’s results trailed the S&P 500 last year.
"We will underperform in very strong up years," Buffett said.
Shareholder Jack Lewis, from Holt, Missouri, said he’s happy with Berkshire’s performance.
"Berkshire is the kind of stock that’s not going to be a super growth stock," Lewis said. "It’s going to be a stock that will continue to grow."
While Berkshire’s top two executives answered questions, some of the attendees shopped for Berkshire products such as See’s Candy, Brooks running shoes and Fruit of the Loom underwear in an adjoining 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall.
Berkshire Hathaway shareholders overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have encouraged the conglomerate to pay a dividend.
Buffett shared preliminary voting results on Saturday. Roughly 97 percent of Class A and Class B shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway voted against the dividend proposal.
A shareholder had proposed that Berkshire should start paying a dividend to share some of the company’s roughly $48 billion in cash with investors.
But Buffett and Berkshire’s board opposed the idea. The board says the company regularly reviews the best uses of its cash.
Buffett has said he believes that reinvesting Berkshire’s cash is worth more to shareholders than a dividend. Buffett controls 34 percent of the voting power himself, so it’s difficult for proposals to pass without his support.