In his recent annual letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, wrote with his typical matter-of-fact, homespun way of addressing big topics. Candor is a habit for Buffett, and his leadership in reporting annual results for Berkshire Hathaway was no different.
The format of that opening paragraph has been standard for 30 years. But 2017 was far from standard: A large portion of our gain did not come from anything we accomplished at Berkshire. (Click here to read the full letter.)
Right out of the gate, Buffett tackles major points: this year was extraordinary (as shown by the $65.3 billion gain in net worth in 2017), and also that they cannot claim responsibility for much of that success. Perhaps that’s uncomfortable for some to admit, but it’s the truth nonetheless and Buffett sticks to the truth.
He goes on to speak frankly about everything from new accounting rules, lessons learned, reasoning and rationale, and the honest admission that they sometimes report gains even when overall portfolio performance has been poor and vice versa.
Although the letter is long and includes many details, his candor makes the letter readable, even enjoyable. He is forthright about why he made specific decisions. He offers humor for clarity and uses a conversational tone to connect with his audience. He not only speaks in numbers and acquisitions – this “Oracle of Omaha” as he is called, shares his opinions in direct language:
Charlie (Munger, Vice Chairman) and I sleep well. Both of us believe it is insane to risk what you have and need in order to obtain what you don’t need.
Toward the end of his letter, Buffett outlines plans for the annual shareholder event (calling it a meeting is an understatement). The weekend includes everything from retail and service sales (for example, Brooks running shoes and GEICO insurance, both Berkshire companies), expositions, dining, entertainment, and a 5k race, in addition to the formal meeting and Q&A.
There is no one more important to us than the shareholder of limited means who trusts us with a substantial portion of his or her savings.
The Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting is attended by tens of thousands (so much so that airfare into Omaha is affected), and viewed in live feed by millions more.
Buffett’s candor cultivates loyalty and engagement among his shareholders far beyond their investment. All CEOs can learn from how Buffett speaks to and connects with his shareholders. You only need to own one share of stock to attend.