ATLANTA – Years ago, a business partner gave Warren Buffett a piece of advice that has since guided him throughout his investment career.
“He taught me to buy wonderful businesses at a fair price,” the “Oracle of Omaha” told nearly 700 fellow Coca-Cola shareowners today. “And if you’re looking for a wonderful business, it’s hard to beat Coca-Cola.”
Buffett appeared as an unannounced guest at The Coca-Cola Company’s annual shareowners meeting to share his thoughts on the company’s growth prospects, consumer trends and the rebounding U.S. economy during a 20-minute conversation with Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent.
Coke’s largest shareowner praised the company’s core business model and unprecedented distribution footprint. “When you’re selling 1.9 billion eight-ounce servings a day, you know you’re doing something right,” he said.
Long-term macroeconomic trends are working in the company’s favor, Buffett noted, with more disposable income leading to more consumers drinking more Coke products more often.
He said the company, which sells more than 3,600 beverages in more than 200 countries, must continue to adapt to evolving tastes and win over the world’s 7 billion potential consumers who will help map out Coke’s path to future growth.
“Every great company listens to its consumers, and this company has done that throughout its history,” Buffett said, citing the 1985 launch of his favorite drink, Cherry Coke, as one example. “It doesn’t require any change in your DNA.”
“We’ve still got the secret sauce… this is the mother lode of opportunity,” he said. “Real GDP per-capita in my lifetime has increased six-fold. I envy the baby being born in the U.S. today.”
During the depth of the recession in late-2009, Berkshire Hathaway acquired an American-owned railroad company. “At the time I said, ‘It’s an all-in bet on this country, and I can’t think of another wager I’d rather make," Buffett recalled. "I will always bet on this country.”
He also shared a few words about his friend and former next-door neighbor, Don Keough, who passed away in February. “You can sum up his life in three words: everyone loved him," Buffett said. "He had this inter-generational appeal… whether he was talking to my great-granddaughter or to me, you always felt he was listening to you and that he had your best interests at heart. If you want to study one individual, to pattern your behavior after, to make you a better person a better husband, employee or parent… study Don Keough.”
Before taking the stage, Kent introduced a prerecorded video of Buffett playing a ukulele and singing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke" as a tribute to the 100-year-old Coca-Cola bottle. Later, Buffett said he drinks Coca-Cola at the office and Cherry Coke at home.
“It's an incredible combination!" he said. "It has gotten me through 84 years... so keep it up, Muhtar.”
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