Scoring a Prime Seat at Buffett's Big Party Requires Tactical Innovation

By Nicole Friedman Features Dow Jones Newswires

Justin O'Kane has perhaps the most elaborate plan in the world to watch Warren Buffett munch on peanut brittle, answer shareholder questions and share life lessons.

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Mr. O'Kane, 49 years old, first flies from Melbourne, Australia, to Los Angeles and then to Omaha, Neb., a trip of about 20 hours.

Instead of staying at an Omaha hotel, the Australian investment manager stays in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The Council Bluffs gambit, he says, saves him time because it's closer to the CenturyLink Center -- where Mr. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. holds its annual meetings.

On Saturday, he's up by 3 a.m. and arrives at the convention center by 4 a.m. to secure a good spot in line. He uses an entrance for upstairs seating that, he says, saves him about 20 seconds. He positions himself near a middle door because, he says, the outer ones sometimes don't open right away.

When the arena opens at 7 a.m., he dashes down a flight of stairs, across the arena, up another set of stairs and past the front two rows to his favorite seats -- all while songs such as Pink Floyd's "Money" blare through the sound system.

"If anybody does it better than us, I'd like to see it," said Mr. O'Kane, who has attended the meeting seven times and has spent years refining his tactics with Victor Velkov, a friend from Brisbane, Australia.

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It's no secret that Berkshire shareholders and fans of the company's chairman, Mr. Buffett, line up for hours to get into CenturyLink's main arena for the annual gathering -- which takes place this weekend. The company expects more than 40,000 to attend, although just 18,000 get seats inside the arena. Less intrepid fans will watch the show from the rafters or in overflow rooms.

Lesser known, however, is a special class of Berkshire acolytes whose efforts to secure prime seats might best be described as "extreme Buffetteering."

Preston Pysh of Bel Air, Md., is getting his own plan ready. Being in line early is a "badge of honor" among Berkshire devotees, he said.

Mr. Pysh is co-host of the Investors Podcast, a show about stock investing. Recently he sent detailed instructions to listeners who plan to attend the annual meeting, complete with a map showing where to gather at 4:50 a.m. on Saturday, to beat the 5 a.m. crowd.

"Walk (run) right until you get to a set of stairs," the manual says. "Go up the stairs." He insists that even with those directions, the group's preferred seats are in a secret location.

"It's physically taxing to get to that area," he said, so attendees who aren't part of his group are unlikely to find the spot. "It's 100% legitimate, but it's not a way somebody would want to go."

This chaotic sprint, which some have dubbed the "billionaires' dash," shows no signs of fading -- even if arena security isn't happy about it. "We do not allow running for safety reasons," a spokeswoman for the CenturyLink Center said. "We keep a close eye on venue entry...As people enter, our staff is there to kindly remind people of this rule."

In the 1970s, Berkshire annual meetings were held in a lunchroom at the offices of one of Berkshire's insurance subsidiaries. As Mr. Buffett's profile has grown, so have the meetings. A $1,000 investment in Berkshire in 1965, when Mr. Buffett took control of the company, would be worth more than $13 million today. Meeting attendees get to watch an hour-long movie about Berkshire starring Mr. Buffett and various celebrities, which isn't available online. Past videos have featured boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., actress Susan Lucci, and the casts of "The Office" and "Desperate Housewives."

Even people who don't care much about Mr. Buffett find good reasons to pay attention on Berkshire weekend. Adam Messerole of Omaha was serving tables at the nearby Old Mattress Factory Bar & Grill the night before the 2015 annual meeting when a customer made an unusual proposal: he offered Mr. Messerole and a friend $300 to hold a spot in line. The pair got to the convention center at 9 p.m., saw no one in line and headed to a local bar. They got back in line around 2 a.m. with sleeping bags and snacks. "We didn't really have to do anything at all," Mr. Messerole said.

At one point, another person in line offered Mr. Messerole and his friend extra tickets to attend the meeting but they declined the invitation and went home to sleep.

While Mr. Messerole doesn't plan to go back this year, he said he did make another score at the meeting. Many dashers bring gear with them, like folding chairs or sleeping bags, but abandon them outside to avoid getting held up by security. Mr. Messerole still uses a chair one of them left behind.

Of course, shareholders could get a good look at Mr. Buffett by staying home. Berkshire started live-streaming its annual meeting on Yahoo Finance in 2016. People who stand outside for hours in the dark say they do it to pay their respects to a company they admire and to mingle with like-minded investors. "It's amazing to me that when the weather's lousy, they do it," Mr. Buffett said in an interview. But "they come in a good mood, and even if they have an inconvenience, they seem to stay in a good mood."

A year ago, some dashers' plans were thwarted when the arena opened its doors ahead of schedule to help the early-morning crowd get out of the rain. Berkshire also beefed up security screenings.

With this year's festivities expected to once again bring in thousands, entrepreneurs have stepped into the line-sitting business. InLine4You LLC, an Omaha-based service, says it has more than 40 reservations for sitters, who will show up at a requested time and stand in line on behalf of a meeting attendee, up from five last year. The service costs $110, including $50 for InLine4You and $60 for the line sitter, said company founder Darren Hromadka.

Paying someone to stand in line is "probably what I would do," Mr. Buffett said.

When asked why he goes to all that trouble to get upper-level seats, Mr. O'Kane, the Australian investment manager, explained that he prefers them to seats on the arena floor because they put attendees "eye to eye" with Mr. Buffett, and Charles Munger, Berkshire's vice chairman. "If we're going to come all this way, we want to see their faces."

--Erik Holm contributed to this article

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 04, 2017 12:21 ET (16:21 GMT)