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OMAHA, Neb. — Before facing questions from a crowd of more than 30,000, billionaire Warren Buffett started TOday being mobbed by fans at Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting.
Admirers held their cell phones and iPads in the air as they surrounded Buffett in the meeting's 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall. A pack of security guards created a buffer around Buffett as he visited displays selling Berkshire's See's Candy, explaining BNSF railroad's virtues and highlighting some of the company's other 80-plus subsidiaries.
Josh Miller, 11, of Maple Grove, Minn., couldn't see over the throng of people, reporters and cameras that moved through the exhibition floor crowd. But he knew who was at the center.
"Warren! Warren!" he called, holding up his iPad to get a shot of the Oracle of Omaha.
At the See's booth, Buffett got a lesson in making hand-dipped bonbons. Then See's manufacturing manager Steve Powell got Buffett to autograph his white uniform coat.
The Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting began humbly in 1982 with a crowd of 15 in an insurance company cafeteria. It has been growing steadily just as the company's stock price rose to become the most-expensive in the U.S., reaching $162,904 for a Class A share on Friday.
Now the annual meeting regularly fills Omaha's 18,300-seat arena and every nearby overflow room. Buffett likes to call it "Woodstock for Capitalists."
It's the one day of the year when the 82-year-old Buffett gets treated like a rock star while his friend Bill Gates, who serves on Berkshire's board, can wander through the crowd without much recognition.
Buffett again shared the stage with his 89-year-old business partner, Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, to answer questions from shareholders, journalists and financial analysts for six hours.
Some of the questions again focused on the future of Berkshire after Buffett and Munger are gone, but mostly the questioners just wanted to hear what the two men thought about the economy, the Federal Reserve and life in general.
Buffett said he thinks Berkshire will continue to thrive after he's gone because the company's employees and managers will resist any attempt to change the way it runs.
"The key is preserving the culture, and having a successor as CEO who is smart and energetic," Buffett said.
The U.S. economy should continue growing at a steady pace just as it has since the fall of 2009, Buffett said, but the Federal Reserve's efforts to stimulate growth are likely to eventually create inflation.
"We've encountered far worse problems than we face now," Buffett said. "This is not our toughest hour."
Outside the meeting, dozens of Utah coal miners picketed. They are members of United Mine Workers of America who work at Deer Creek mine near Huntington, Utah. The mine is run by a subsidiary of Berkshire's MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co.
The union's contract expired in January, and the union and company disagree on health care coverage and safety checks.
A mine spokeswoman says the company is committed to a fair solution but won't comment on specific proposals.
Bernie Morris of Price, Utah, stood in the rain to hand out flyers. The 67-year-old said he's worked for the coal mine for 28 years, but fears he won't be able to afford the monthly health insurance premium the company wants to charge.
Back inside, Amaury Fernandez and his best friend Rick Cabrera said they had traveled to the meeting from Miami because Fernandez is interested in investing.
"They are two of the most remarkable men I've ever learned about," Fernandez said. "We don't know how much longer these gentlemen are going to be alive."
Jim Weber, CEO of Berkshire's Brooks Running company, said he has been reading Buffett's annual letters to shareholders since the 1980s — long before Brooks became part of Berkshire. Weber had even attended four Berkshire annual meetings before Brooks was acquired in 2006 along with Russell Athletic.
"If you're in the business world, it's a bucket list item. There's no other annual meeting like it," Weber said.