Fidelity gets its own Buffett DayMarch 23, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
At the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting last year, Fidelity investment pros gamed the system and threw an outsized number of questions at Warren Buffett. Instead of getting even, Buffett invited them to Omaha for their own private party.
By Carol Loomis, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- Thousands of business students, from scores of American colleges and from countries like Brazil, China, India, and Israel, have experienced the thrill of a Buffett Day in Omaha. The drill is always the same: tours of two Berkshire Hathaway retailers, the Nebraska Furniture Mart and jeweler Borsheim's; a two-hour Q-and-A with Warren Buffett himself; and lunch on him at Piccolo's (formerly Piccolo Pete's, which is a clue that any kind of dress will get you in).
These events are always held on Fridays. But this week, the action is moving to Saturday, when more than 100 people from Fidelity are coming for a Buffett Day. Yes, that's the Fidelity that runs mutual funds and ETFs, manages 401Ks for corporations, and is a broker-dealer.
Most of the attendees are from Fidelity's headquarters in Boston, among them the senior vice-president of equity research, Chris Bartel; two chief investment officers, Joseph Desantis and Bob Litterst, 13 portfolio managers; and a Fidelity board trustee, David Thomas. But there are also five analysts coming from Hong Kong and seven assorted professionals from London.
And how did this happening get on the calendar? To begin with, Buffett got an inkling last year that Fidelity was sending reams of people to Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting and had figured out a way to ask a disproportionate of questions from the floor (even though these are supposed to be randomly distributed among all shareholders). And then the Wall Street Journal independently learned about Fidelity's strategy and last December wrote an article about it.
Not delighted about any kind of subterfuge, but recognizing that the Fidelity approach was a brand of compliment, Buffett decided on a soft response. He asked his financial assistant, Tracy Britt, who used to work at Fidelity herself, to tell the company that if its people were that interested in asking questions, they could have their own version of Buffett Day. Buffett put no limit on the number of people who could come. "As many as they like," he told Britt.
On New Year's Eve, Britt e-mailed Buffett's invitation to three Fidelity people she knew, including research executive Bartel, and that same night pleased e-mails came back. (So you thought New Year's Eve is a holiday?). Within days the event was scheduled for this Saturday.
From the start, Buffett laid down one rule: He didn't want the Q-and-A to turn into an analysts' meeting centered on Berkshire (of which Fidelity owns lots), so he put Berkshire (BRKA) questions off-limits. But the sky's the limit otherwise: the economy (including Europe's), investment strategy and philosophy, politics and policy. And can we guess there will be at least one question about Buffett's controversial opinions on income taxes?
After picking the crew it would bring, Fidelity asked each person selected to frame a question. At a recent lunch, the group narrowed the questions to the ones judged the best. The winning question-writers will get to do the asking themselves.
Two personal matters about this Buffett Day will be different from the college events. First, Buffett observed a while back that the colleges attending usually brought a preponderance of male students. So he began requiring that at least one-third of each group be women.
Fidelity will not meet that standard. Its list of attendees indicates that no more than 10% of those coming will be women. That proportion is consistent with Fidelity's reputation for not having large numbers of female professionals on its staff.
The second personal matter concerns the tour of Borsheim's, which is the last event of the day. We can guess that the college students who walk covetously through the store's aisles don't have a lot of spare funds to make purchases. But the Fidelity group? Hmm. Could this be the real reason Buffett thought up this day?
FORTUNE senior editor-at-large Carol Loomis, who wrote this article, is a longtime friend of Warren Buffett's, a shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, and editor of Buffett's annual letter to Berkshire's shareholders.