‘Empty chair feeling’ to pervade Berkshire meeting without Munger

Fans of Charlie Munger inevitably talk about memorable lines he delivered over the years.  (Getty Images)
Fans of Charlie Munger inevitably talk about memorable lines he delivered over the years. (Getty Images)


Warren Buffett’s longtime friend and business partner, Charlie Munger, died in November at age 99.

Shareholders and onlookers agree: Without Charlie Munger, the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting on Saturday won’t be the same.

For decades, attendees of the yearly gathering in Omaha, Neb., relished listening as Warren Buffett and Munger, his longtime friend and partner, spoke for hours about investing, business and life. Munger was 99 when he took the stage for his final annual meeting last May. He died in November, just shy of his 100th birthday.

Buffett is the company’s chief executive and the more famous investor, but Munger held a special place in the hearts of Berkshire fans. They heard wisdom in his thoughts on everything from the commercial to the personal. They loved that he was unafraid to speak his mind. And his sense of humor, sometimes biting, made them laugh.

The pairing of Buffett’s lengthier and more diplomatic remarks with Munger’s acerbic one-liners, along with the clear camaraderie between the two men, could make their appearances feel like episodes in a great buddy comedy of capitalism.

“I feel like there’s going to be a place in my heart missing when we don’t see Charlie up there," said Lyle McIntosh, a farmer who lives in Missouri Valley, Iowa, and first attended the meetings in the 1980s. “Of course we’ll all adapt to it, but this first year especially it’s going to be kind of like an empty-chair feeling."

Buffett paid tribute to Munger in February when he prefaced his annual letter to shareholders with a page titled “Charlie Munger—The Architect of Berkshire Hathaway."

Given Munger’s trademark confidence and bluntness, a reader could believe it when Buffett wrote that Munger “told me—correctly!—that I had made a dumb decision in buying control of Berkshire," then a faltering textile operation. “But, he assured me, since I had already made the move, he would tell me how to correct my mistake."

The key, Munger told him, was to “give up buying fair businesses at wonderful prices" and instead add to Berkshire “wonderful businesses purchased at fair prices."

Buffett went on to build Berkshire into a sprawling conglomerate with business ranging from insurance to rail to utilities, from paint to soft-serve cones to underwear. It has a mammoth stock portfolio with big holdings in Apple, Coca-Cola and Bank of America, as well as a mountain of cash.

Through it all, Buffett wrote, “Charlie never sought to take credit for his role as creator but instead let me take the bows and receive the accolades."

The friendship between the two men, who laughed and told stories together on stage, helped the gatherings feel more personal than a regular corporate meeting.

“Who alive has had a friend—a best friend—for 65 years?" said Lawrence Cunningham, a retired corporate governance professor who has written books about Buffett and Berkshire. “They modeled that and they celebrated it."

When John Bailer, deputy head of equity income and a portfolio manager at Newton Investment Management, attended his first Berkshire meeting in 2010, he was struck by the adoration the crowd showered upon Buffett and Munger. People clapped, cheered and leapt from their seats to greet the two men.

“When Warren and Charlie walked into that arena, it was like the Beatles coming to America," Bailer said. “It’s just unbelievable how much love there was in that place for both of them."

Fans of Munger inevitably talk about memorable lines he delivered over the years.

In 2000, a questioner asked if speculation in technology would have consequences for the broader economy. Buffett spoke for several minutes before offering Munger the floor.

“If you mix the mathematics of the chain letter or the Ponzi scheme with some legitimate development, like the development of the internet, you are mixing something which is wretched and irrational and has bad consequences with something that has very good consequences," Munger said. “But you know, if you mix raisins with turds, they’re still turds."

“That’s why they have me write the annual report," Buffett quipped.

Sometimes Munger offered up life lessons, as in 2014 when the pair discussed business partnerships.

“I always say the way to get a good spouse is to deserve one," he said. “To get a good partner you deserve a good partner. It’s an old-fashioned way of getting ahead."

During the 2015 meeting, Buffett said people incorrectly think he would want to talk up Berkshire’s investments. If Berkshire will likely buy more or if a company whose stock Berkshire holds may repurchase shares, why would he want the price to rise, he asked.

“Warren, if people weren’t so often wrong, we wouldn’t be so rich," Munger replied. The crowd loved it.

Buffett won’t be alone on stage this weekend. He wrote in his February letter that Greg Abel, who runs Berkshire’s noninsurance operations and is in line to succeed Buffett as chief executive, and Ajit Jain, who heads the insurance business, will also appear before the crowd, as they have in recent years.

But for many attendees, Munger’s absence will loom large—in some cases making them consider the future day when Buffett no longer leads Berkshire.

“It’s kind of transitioning to a new era," said Jerry Beyke, a senior investment analyst at Scharf Investments who has attended most Berkshire annual meetings since 1983. “People need to have more familiarity with the next generation that’s taking over."

Write to Karen Langley at karen.langley@wsj.com

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