Coca-Cola’s 2013 annual shareholders meeting started off like a fireside chat between the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, and the CEO and chairman of Coca-Cola, Muhtar Kent.
Warren Buffett’s presence at this meeting was a pleasant surprise for those attending the annual meeting at the Cobb Galleria Centre. Buffett has been on the board of directors of Coca-Cola for the last 17 years, and Howard Buffett, Warren’s son, has been a director since the year 2010.
Warren Buffett received a very warm welcome as he walked out onto the stage in front of 850 guests and shareholders.
“When you’re 82, they clap when you sit down because they’re not sure you’re going to get up,” said Buffett.
Kent asked Warren Buffett to tell everyone the story of how he first went into the Coca-Cola business at seven years old in Omaha. Buffett would buy a six-pack of Coca-Cola for $.25, then turn around and sell each bottle for a nickel to his friends.
Buffett has enthusiastically invested in Coca-Cola for decades.
“We’ve never sold a share of Coca-Cola stock, and I wouldn’t think of selling a share,” said Buffett. “I like wonderful brands if you take care of them.”
Kent then shared one of his favorite quotes from Warren Buffett: “What we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.”
He then asked Warren Buffett to provide some examples.
“I like to study failures,” said Buffett in regards to enterprises. “The biggest thing that kills them is complacency. You always want to be on the move. When you’ve got a great business like Coca-Cola, the danger would always be that you would rest on your laurels. I see none of that at Coca-Cola. Tomorrow is more exciting than today.”
Kent then brought up the political and economic challenges in the United States, and asked Buffett his opinion.
“We always have problems” said Buffett. “The luckiest person is someone being born in the United States today.”
Buffett also mentioned that the laws in the United States, the economic climate and the quality of opportunities have “produced an abundance that you can’t believe.”
The CEO of Coca-Cola then asked Buffett – who as a senior chose to invest much of his amassed wealth in philanthropy, about the global wealth transfer and the economic wealth shift. What kind of advice would Buffett give a company like Coca-Cola?
“You have to be accepted in countries around the world and focus on something that’s going to make their lives better,” said Buffett.
Kent then asked if Coca-Cola’s commitment to conservation and renewable energy is the right move to make.
“We have only got one planet,” said Buffett. “We are sitting in the shade of trees that other people planted. It’s obligatory that we plant a few trees ourselves. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good business.”
It was then requested that Warren Buffett talk about his early friendship with Don Keough, former Coca-Cola president that also stepped down from the board of directors during Wednesday’s annual meeting. Warren Buffett actually wrote the preface to his book: “Ten Commandments of Business Failure.”
Buffett mentioned that his greatest quality was the ability to connect with people from many generations.
Kent then quoted Buffett’s preface from the book: “If you wanted to invent a human personification of Coca-Cola, it is Don Keough.”
Kent mentioned that Coca-Cola’s goal was to double revenues by 2020. He asked Buffett if this was a sound move.
Buffett said it was the right approach, and he also said to “do it in a hurry because I’m 82.”
Warren Buffett then shared his business views.
“No business ever failed with happy customers,” said Buffett. “You are selling happiness.”
Kent’s last question to Buffett was about whether or not there was a chance of reforms passing through the U.S. Congress.
“I can promise you, 535 people can’t screw up 350 million,” said Buffett.
At this point, the crowd gave Buffett a standing ovation.
Buffett’s presence at the Coca-Cola annual meeting made it an unusual event, but thrilling all the same.
Dean Kamen, inventor, unveiled the EkoCenter at this event. This is a partnership with Coca-Cola to help develop small community centers that will provide electricity, clean water and communications to the impoverished areas all around the world.
There was much less negativity this year after Kamen’s presentation and the presence of Warren Buffett. Regular critics usually take the company to task for a whole host of issues, but the negativity was a lot more subdued this year.