ATLANTA — Warren Buffett, who controls the largest stake in Coca-Cola Co., knows how to steal a show.
The billionaire investor showed up at the soda maker’s annual meeting last week to help sell the company’s message to shareholders in an on-stage interview with Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent. The surprise appearance drew a standing ovation as Mr. Buffett advised Mr. Kent to stay ahead of competitors by reviewing what made other businesses falter.
“I like to study failure,” said Mr. Buffett, 82. “We want to see what has caused businesses to go bad, and the biggest thing that kills them is complacency. You want a restlessness, a feeling that somebody’s always after you but you’re going to stay ahead.”
Berkshire Hathaway, which Mr. Buffett has led for more than four decades, owns 400 million Coca-Cola shares after a share split last year, with a value of almost $17 billion. Berkshire, which owns See’s Candies and an equity stake in American Express, favors companies that have loyal customers and can withstand competition, Mr. Buffett said.
“I’m the kind of guy that likes to bet on sure things,” Mr. Buffett told Mr. Kent. “If you take care of a great brand, it’s forever. Those are the kind of businesses I like.”
Mr. Buffett reminisced about how as a 7-year-old boy in Omaha, where Berkshire is based, he would buy and sell bottles of Coke. He joked that the only mistake he made was not putting the nickel he made on each six-pack into Coca-Cola’s stock. He would eventually make up for lost time.
Coca-Cola shares have risen 16 percent this year, compared with an 11 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
Mr. Buffett will host shareholders at Berkshire’s annual meeting next week in Omaha. The gatherings, which draw tens of thousands of attendees, are a forum for the billionaire to praise deputies for their performance and promote Berkshire as the ideal buyer for managers seeking to sell their companies.