Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders in the audience Saturday for the company's annual meeting will ask only one-third of the questions of Chairman Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger.
Photojournalists no longer will roam free in the convention hall at the CenturyLink Center while Buffett tours Berkshire company exhibits.
And journalists won't have a chance to ask questions at a post-meeting press conference.
Those are the most obvious changes in this year's meeting of Berkshire shareholders, alterations designed to improve safety, to free up more of Buffett's and Munger's time and to provide better information to investors.
It's Berkshire week. Click here for a list of shareholder events and to upcoming World-Herald coverage.
It's the latest in the continuing evolution of the Berkshire annual meeting since the first was held in 1982 at the National Indemnity Co.'s cafeteria in Omaha and 15 people attended. As many as 35,000 are expected this year.
In 2010, for example, Buffett discontinued a reception he had hosted for foreign shareholders as a reward for people who traveled long distances to Omaha. The reception took up too much time, he said.
This year, the change in the question-and-answer system will be the most visible change for shareholders.
Over the years, investment professionals have been frustrated by questions that focus on Buffett's personal ideas. Some shareholders' “what's the meaning of life” questions have drawn charming or funny answers, but not the economic or business information that is important to money managers.
Last year, more than 40 Fidelity Investments employees entered the random drawings that determine who in the audience gets to ask questions. The Wall Street Journal reported that Fidelity employees ended up asking six of the 27 questions posed from the audience.
“There's no question they figured out how to game the system,” Buffett told the Journal. He said he didn't like Fidelity's ploy because “it's not in the spirit of the meeting.”
Then he moved to change the system to keep ordinary shareholders from being shut out yet still answer questions money managers might have.
For this year's meeting, he added a panel of financial analysts who will ask questions: Cliff Gallant of KBW, Jay Gelb of Barclays Capital and Gary Ranson of Dowling and Partners.
(It turns out he must not have been that upset with Fidelity officials. Fortune reported in March that about 100 people from Fidelity were headed to Omaha for a Buffett day that included a two-hour Q-and-A.)
As they have since 2009, journalists Carol Loomis of Fortune magazine, Becky Quick of CNBC and Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times also will take turns asking questions.
That means this year's questions will rotate among journalists, analysts and shareholders in the audience. The journalists solicit questions from readers and viewers, and include some of those in the questions they ask.
“Neither Charlie nor I will get so much as a clue about the questions to be asked. We know the journalists and analysts will come up with some tough ones, and that's the way we like it,” Buffett wrote to shareholders.
The camera restrictions apply to large cameras, both still and video, and related equipment.
Buffett walks through the convention hall before the meeting, and in recent years about a dozen photojournalists have jockeyed for position along the way, competing with a hoard of cell phone-pointing shareholders. To keep Buffett in view, cameramen often walked backward, bumping into people behind them.
Although no serious injuries have been reported, the potential was there because of the crowds and the sometimes-frantic movement of people and equipment surrounding Buffett.
This year photojournalists will work from restricted areas with viewing angles as Buffett stops at the various booths during the walk-around.
Since 1999, Buffett and Munger have held press conferences on the Sundays after the annual meetings, giving reporters covering the meeting their only chance to ask him questions. That's canceled this year because of time constraints and other events Buffett, 81, and Munger, 88, attend that day.
Age or fatigue were not mentioned in canceling the Sunday press conference, but in recent years Buffett's voice sounded gravelly after two days of almost nonstop talking. Many of the journalists came from foreign countries and asked questions about possible investments by Berkshire in their home countries, usually receiving similar answers.
At the end of the press conferences, many of them approached Buffett and Munger for autographs. The sessions were closed to photographers, but many of the reporters there took pictures anyway.
Munger, for his part, cited his age in deciding to end his annual meetings of Wesco Financial, which he has held in California for many years. Last year Berkshire acquired the shares of Wesco that it had not owned, so there is no longer a separate group of Wesco shareholders.
Munger has said he will continue attending the Berkshire meetings, however.
“This is likely to be the swan song,” Munger told The World-Herald last June, speaking of the Wesco meetings. “I'm 87 years old, and there comes a time.”
The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
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World-Herald coverage of Berkshire week
Friday: Join an informal gathering of fellow Buffett-watchers with Jordon from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the lobby of The World-Herald, 1314 Douglas St.
Saturday: Pick up Saturday's World-Herald for a special section on Berkshire, Buffett and the meeting expected to draw as many as 35,000 shareholders. Join in a live chat with reporter Ross Boettcher, who will be providing live coverage of the meeting. Then from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., Jordon will join the chat to give his take and answer questions.
More: See full coverage of the meeting and related events online and in print Sunday, plus stories Monday on the final events of Berkshire weekend.
Friday, May 4
6 p.m. to 9 p.m. — Cocktail reception at Borsheims Fine Jewelry, 120 Regency Parkway
Saturday, May 5
7 a.m. — Doors open at CenturyLink Center Omaha, 455 N. 10th St., Buffett walk-through of convention hall, World-Herald newspaper-tossing competition
8:30 a.m. — Video in arena
9:30 a.m. - 4 p.m. — Annual meeting
5:30 p.m. - 8 p.m. — Berkshire Bar-B-Que at Nebraska Furniture Mart, 700 S. 72nd St.
Sunday, May 6
9 a.m. - 4 p.m. — Borsheims shopping day, with brunch at 9 a.m.
1 p.m. - 10 p.m. — Gorat's Steakhouse, 4917 Center St.
4 p.m. - 10 p.m. — Piccolo Pete's restaurant, 2202 S. 20th St.
Shareholder discount periods
Nebraska Furniture Mart: Tuesday through May 7
Borsheims: Monday through May 12
Other related events
Value investing conference, 3 p.m.-4:30 p.m. Friday, Creighton University's Harper Center, 602 N. 20th St., reception following; reservations at business.creighton.edu/vip.
Value investing lecture and book signing, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Friday at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Mammel Hall, 67th and Pine Streets. Reservations for lecture from email@example.com