FORTUNE — The drumroll for Warren Buffett’s annual Berkshire Hathaway meeting in Omaha started in the airport terminal back in D.C., where a father was explaining over sandwiches with his young redheaded son the concept of share classes: “But sometimes you can buy a smaller piece for a lot less money …”
And on the plane — perhaps the only weekend of the year where Omaha-bound flights are completely full, with most passengers in suits — the chatter was all Berkshire.
On the airport shuttle to the hotel, the conversation between strangers ranged from the market (“I’m sure there will be a dip, I’m just not sure when”) to how they’d first come to own Berkshire shares (“I heard about it from my neighbor … I originally sold when it hit $2,000”) to Buffett’s succession plan (“It’s pretty much assumed that it’s going to be Ted Weschler”).
The meeting itself, which begins with a brief discussion of earnings results and closes with the obligatory board vote, has become a full-blown festival that takes over Omaha the first weekend in May — a bonanza of an event that Buffett dubs “Woodstock for capitalists.” Indeed, for many of the shareholders who flock to the event from all over the world — especially the early investors whose Berkshire-driven wealth is often a footnote to an otherwise modest lifestyle — the weekend is a spree during which they are encouraged to do like Buffett. That generally involves (besides disciplined investing) dining on ketchup-laden sandwiches, See’s candy, and Coca-Cola — at any and all times of day — and loading up on discounted items from Berkshire companies in the name of frugality. As Buffett’s longtime business partner Charlie Munger put it, somewhat facetiously, “The more you buy, the more you save, at these prices.”
Among the Oracle of Omaha’s responses to dozens of shareholder questions at the meeting, here are some of his key insights:
Ted and Todd are being groomed for management.
As shareholders get increasingly restless for Buffett to name a successor, speculation has focused on his two portfolio managers, Ted Weschler and Todd Combs, who have outperformed Buffett himself for the last several years, but have yet to make an appearance at the annual meeting. Buffett continued to be demure about his pick, but said Weschler and Combs, who currently manage roughly $7 billion, “will be handling more money in the future than they are now.” Buffett also noted that he has relied on the managers to help with other parts of the business, such as negotiating with companies and executing ideas Buffett doesn’t “feel like carrying out myself.” Hinting further about Combs and Weschler’s expanding role, Buffett said, “They’ll be more important factors as the years go by.”
Don’t ask Buffett for a raise.
The Oracle may be a great boss in many aspects — he doesn’t micromanage and rarely makes layoffs, for example (more on that later) — but he seems to prefer employees who accept their salaries without complaint. On several occasions during the meeting he praised managers for doing their jobs well without asking for more. “Ted and Todd have both been very helpful in doing things beyond their investment management duties — they like doing it, they want to do it, they don’t ask for extra compensation for doing it,” Buffett said. And when Buffett acquired RV company Forest River, offering its CEO a certain compensation package, “he never suggested a change,” Buffett remembered fondly. To be sure, Buffett is known to pay pretty well.
Global warming is irrelevant.
Buffett’s railroads carry coal, but he stays out of the debate over coal’s environmental impact because the trains are required by law to carry it, so he couldn’t boycott it even if he wanted to. But he doesn’t see global warming as a problem for Berkshire anytime soon. “I don’t think that when making an investment decision on Berkshire Hathaway
, or all companies, that climate change should be a factor in the decision-making process,” Buffett said. Munger is even more skeptical: “I think a lot of the people who claim that climate change is going to cause more hurricanes and natural disasters are over-claiming,” he said, to much applause.
Billionaires are flying private more often.
Buffett’s private jet company, NetJets, grew very little because fewer new customers bought planes. Still, only a small segment of wealthy individuals can afford their own planes, and Buffett was encouraged by the fact that current owners appear to be using their jets more often, something that declined during the recession: “The flights have picked up — the owners are using the planes more in the last six months to a year,” Buffett said.
Self-driving cars threaten Berkshire Hathaway.
There are few things that pose a competitive threat to Berkshire Hathaway, and Buffett and Munger are loath to admit those threats. Still, there’s one development that could put pressure on Berkshire, according to Buffett: self-driving cars. Buffett is a huge fan of longtime holding GEICO, the auto-insurer. But the question of auto insurance for self-driving cars that don’t crash has not yet been answered. And if futuristic cars do put GEICO out of business, says Buffett, “at least I won’t be there to see it.”
Buffett is bullish on Airbnb.
While New York regulators wage war against Airbnb, the housing rental startup, Buffett is endorsing it for its power to lower hotel prices by increasing supply. After complaining that Omaha hotels were gouging Berkshire shareholders by jacking up rates during the weekend of the annual meeting, Buffett encouraged visiting investors to go to Airbnb — hoping increased supply would lower prices.