Postcard: Omaha

It's a scary time for the economy, but Warren Buffett is as calm as ever--and his annual shareholders' meeting is just as festive. The world's greatest investor throws a party

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Danny Wilcox Frazier / Redux for TIME

Attendees check out a Berkshire Hathaway - owned bootmaker as Buffer's portrait looks on.

A 77-year-old Nebraskan who lives in a house he bought in 1958 and reimburses his company for personal telephone calls might make an unlikely candidate to be the most revered capitalist of our day. Yet that's what Warren Buffett is. And every year, devotees travel to the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting--part corporate event, part tent revival, part family reunion--to pay him homage.

A record 31,000 people from 50 countries made the pilgrimage to Omaha, Neb., this year, snapping up every hotel room within an hour's drive, all to spend three days in the orbit of the native son whose investing prowess has turned him into the world's richest man--and who has taken his shareholders along for the very lucrative ride. Attendees shopped at Berkshire-owned companies (Borsheim's Fine Jewelry, Nebraska Furniture Mart); ate where Buffett likes to eat (Gorat's Steak House); tried to beat him at bridge (they didn't); and spent five hours grilling him and his closest confidant, vice chairman Charlie Munger, on everything from owning 8% of Kraft Foods to how the price of tungsten will affect the Israeli toolmaker Berkshire invested in two years ago.

The cult of Buffett has always been strong, but this year there seemed to be a special longing for the reassurance of his folksy charm. Amid turbulent economic times, Buffett's style of unemotionally buying solid businesses for the long term--forever, ideally--provided a beacon of stability for the investors who packed Omaha's Qwest Center arena, even as he talked about the subprime-mortgage meltdown and the schizophrenia of the credit markets. "Capitalism without failure is like Christianity without hell," he said calmly, framing the recent tumult not as nauseating but as necessary. "You read all these things" about the markets, says shareholder Kip Van Kempen, an insurance broker from Toronto, "and you don't want to be in housing; you don't want to be in U.S. equities. Buffett reminds you not to panic, to be patient. That's a lesson you don't hear very often."

Berkshire hasn't been immune from pain. Last quarter, the conglomerate's earnings dropped 64%. Its housing-related firms--Acme Brick, insulation manufacturer Johns Manville, carpetmaker Shaw--have taken hits, with profits down as much as 41% for 2007. Buffett barely blinks. "Is a carpet business in a postbubble period worth less because it's earning less now? No," he says. "If you own a farm and you have a drought once every 10 years, you don't mark down the value of your farm 30% the year of the drought."

And so the annual meeting went on as usual. There was Buffett onstage with his trademark can of Coke--he used to prefer Pepsi, but that would be bad form now that he owns nearly a tenth of Coca-Cola. Next to him was Munger, his friend since 1959, whose acerbic attitude and tendency to soapbox only underscored Buffett's imperturbability.

In the adjoining 200,000-sq.-ft. (18,600 sq m) exhibition hall, dozens of Berkshire companies displayed their wares. Shareholders lined up to buy Fruit of the Loom underwear, find out how much they could save with Geico insurance and tour a Clayton manufactured home. See's Candies expected to rack up $100,000 in sales in a single day, while Benjamin Moore paints hawked its promotional teddy bears--the sort of thing that would be free from other companies--for $5. "We don't give things away here," said general manager Frank Strano. "Warren doesn't believe in that."

One day, of course, Buffett will be gone, but he has already lined up a group of (so far unnamed) people to take over. And if there is anything Buffett has taught, it is that you invest in the company, not on the news. The day Buffett dies or retires, the stock price will probably fall, says shareholder Carl Hagberg, who plans to do as Warren would: "I'll be calling my broker to buy more."

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