NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fans of billionaire Warren Buffett line up each year to bid top dollar for the chance to have lunch with the famed investor, but sometimes they get far more than a meal — Buffett’s friendship.
“I’ve held about 9 or 10 of these and I’ve become friends with a number of nice people since,” Buffett said in an interview before sitting down to the annual lunch, which benefits charity, at Manhattan steakhouse Smith & Wollensky. “The lunches have always been fun — and frequently I have had contact later on.”
The lunches are usually dry affairs and have been known to go on for hours, said Buffett, sitting at the restaurant’s upstairs bar, sipping on Coca-Cola’s trademark drink. Buffett is a large investor in the company.
Buffett, chief executive of Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway, was in New York on Wednesday to dine with Mohnish Pabrai, Harina Kapoor and Guy Spier — and other guests. The trio last year bid a record $650,100 (329,100 pounds) for the honour.
“The lunch has gone as long as three hours — I never cut it off, it is up to them,” Buffett said. “They are paying a lot of money.
“I don’t think there ever has been (alcohol), but there is no rule against it,” he added.
The proceeds from the lunch with 77-year-old Buffett benefit the Glide Foundation, a nonprofit in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district that offers programs for the poor, hungry and homeless.
While Buffett and his guests dined, others were lining up bids for next year’s lunch. By Wednesday afternoon, the top bid was $77,100, but the auction, open to qualified bidders, is expected to fetch far more before it wraps up late Friday.
The auction began Sunday on eBay’s website and ends Friday at 10 p.m. The lunches have raised more than $2 million for Glide since going online in 2003. Previous auctions were held live, with winning bids of $25,000 to $32,000.
What is talked about at these lunches? Buffett said he also leaves that up to his guests, but he expected that family would be something that would come up on Wednesday.
“The interesting thing is that some have brought along, as is the case today, their spouses. We talk about family, we talk about raising children ...,” said Buffett, a father of three grown children.
“I’ve got enough experience now to talk about raising great-grandchildren,” laughed Buffett, who said he regularly spends time with his extended brood.
He takes 7 of his 8 great-grandchildren, the ones that live near him in Omaha, to Dairy Queen on Sundays. Dairy Queen is a Berkshire-owned company.
Speaking of the people he has met at these lunches, Buffett said: “They are smart people. I can learn from them. There is no question about that.
“Two that I am meeting with today have good records (for investing),” he added.
Pabrai, an Irvine, California-based investor has said he models his investment style on Buffett’s and saw the charity event as an opportunity to give back, much as Buffett has.
Buffett has pledged most of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and four family charities. He has said his Berkshire shares will go to philanthropy. Earlier this year, Forbes magazine estimated Buffett’s net worth at $62 billion, most of it invested in Berkshire.
Since taking over Berkshire in 1965, Buffett has transformed it from a failing textile maker into a sprawling insurance and investment company, with more than 70 businesses.
Berkshire products include Geico car insurance, Borsheim’s Fine Jewellery and Fruit of the Loom underwear. Its investments include American Express, Anheuser-Busch Cos and Wells Fargo & Co.
Editing by Andre Grenon