Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Oracle of Omaha's Best Bets

Just made my annual trek to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder's Meeting. After all the doom and gloom in the world with H1N1, the financial crisis, AIG angst, Madoff Madness, Detroit's downfall and global climate change, I was ready for something positive. For those that have never been to the BH meeting, it is one of the most exciting meetings. You sit in a room with 35,000 other people and listen to the wise words of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger as they field questions from 9 AM to 3 PM with a half hour break for lunch while drinking their coke products and eating their See's candy, and Dairy Queen Dilly Bars, all popular BH holdings. Just before their speech, they debut a 30 minute video showcasing all of their brands with snippets of Charlie and Warren interspersed doing interesting things. This year, Warren, caddied for Tiger Woods and tried to learn how to play golf like the pro. Simultaneously, in another room down the hall, BH is showcasing all of its brands reminiscent of a trade show. With well-known brands like Wrigley, Coca-Cola, Geico, See's, Dairy Queen, Net Jets, Clayton Homes, Shaw Industries, etc, they have some of the biggest names in the world. I have to say, that this is one of the great events, I look forward to every year, being in the presence of sheer genius and hoping that there is one snippet of something they say that helps me in my year moving forward. This year, was no different.

Warren said that Geico spends of $800M a year on advertising and that this year will be no different. He said that this is a great year for advertising because you get more bang for your buck with the current state of the economy. He said to be a household name, you must have your name in every market in every part of the world like Coca-Cola. He got several questions about the housing market because he has so many brands in that market. He said that it was going to come back in the next couple of years but the crash was a combination of two things, too much inventory for the current population, and loans to people that don't have the ability to pay. Warren said that too many people got accustomed to loaning people money that can't pay it back and everyone else did it because everyone else was doing it and no one would stand up and say, "this isn't right". He also kept saying that financial people have gotten out of the habit of using common sense. He said that finance is pretty simple. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. It really is that simple but people can't charge big bucks if they say that to their clients. They need metrics, etc to make themselves look like they are earning their money. This is the no nonsense way of life we need to get back to. Our world is not sustainable. Warren says that he doesn't employ lawyers or risk officers because he said to invest in another company is simple. If a company has solid managers and doing what they do best, they will be successful. There is a kernel or two of truth in all that Warren says, I think that is why we all hang on his every word. Two things that I have always thought we always are going to need is Water and Energy so I have always thought that preserving them is a good idea. It seems that this year BH companies are also moving in that direction. There were several BH companies worth noting this year that I haven't given much thought to in year's past.

One is BYD, www.byd.com, a Chinese Lithium Ion Battery manufacturer that has started manufacturing hybrid and electric automobiles. BH bought a 10% stake in the company. On the outside, the car looks nice enough, the technology behind the vehicle looks brilliant and the price points are $22K USD hybrid, and $35K USD electric. BYD is one of the hottest selling cars in China, pretty amazing feat. To bring this to market in the US is going to be a little tougher. One, China has been known to manufacture based on quantity, not quality and this worked when the US was on a wild spending spree without giving much thought to what they bought or from whom. More and more people are not interested in the poor quality of Chinese goods. It is one thing to buy a spatula made in China, but a car, is a major purchase. Two, China has already dampened its business reputation by selling us toxic products, ie., dog food, baby food, milk, children's toys and drywall. It is the reason that I pour over labels now to make sure I am not purchasing anything from China. Clearly, I know that I am not the norm with my spending habits but I do believe more and more people who have less and less discretionary will think like me and think twice before purchasing cheap goods from China. We all pay a price in the end, from more toxins in our air and water supply, to more health risks to ourselves and our children. Also, when you step into the BYD automobile, you smell a noxious odor that closely resembles that of volatile organic compounds VOC's off-gassing. I don't care how strongly Charlie Munger believes in BYD and its dynamic founder Wang Chuanfu, this is a problem with this vehicle that will have to be remedied before entering the American market. The vast majority of Americans that buy eco-friendly products will certainly pay attention to every component that went into the manufacturing of BYD. If BYD gets this one problem rectified, this could be a big hit!

Another BH company that I think is going to do really well over the next few years is Eco Water, www.ecowater.com. This company is a subsidiary of BH's Marmon Group. They manufacture and distribute commercial and residential water treatment system's. This is clearly going to be a direction people move toward. I put a system in my home in 2001 and it has paid for itself several times over. It delivers about the best tasting water you can find without being in a natural spring and there is no more desire to buy bottled water. With bottled water sales down this year, people are looking for alternatives and this is one of the best for saving money while getting good drinkable water.

The third BH company to look out for is Clayton Homes i-house, www.claytonihouse.com. Clayton's architects took a California-based designer's mid century modern look with sustainable features and brought it to scale for the masses. In a time when people are looking for a bargain that looks good and functions even better, the I-House is one such product. This home is about conserving energy and resources while looking stylish and comes with options like PV solar with an integrated inverter, rain harvest, eco-friendly interiors, compact fluorescent lighting, Energy Star Appliances, paint without the VOC's, Aluminum roofing, composite decking, energy-efficient windows, tankless water heater and low flow faucets. Clayton has partnered with well-known brands including IKEA, Moen, Andersen GE, Ready Solar, Rheem and BH companies including: Shaw, Mitek, Kirby, Benjamin Moore, Johns Manville, etc. These homes average about $92 a square foot and are built in a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility with half the waste of site built homes. My only concern for Clayton, is that this modular home is far different than their standard mobile home and will appeal to an entirely different demographic than its core. I think they are going to have to market this in an entirely different way. I think they should seek out Eco-Ezines', Eco documentaries on public television in their major markets, well-known eco-celebrities and employ a sales team at every IKEA store in their markets. This alternative made for the masses home, is going to take alternative strategies to sell. I wish them luck. It is one of the most promising products I have seen in the US in some time! This is the type of Innovation that American companies need to bring back the confidence of America. Hats off to Clayton Homes.
For more info: visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf_hpsWsArc

Monday, March 30, 2009

NYC, The Good, the Bad, and the Smelly Cat, One Person's View of the Big Apple

Just met some friends in the Big Apple. The real reason for the trip was to see Jane Fonda's play 33 Variations, see previous post at http://sonasez.blogspot.com while celebrating my birth month. However, we wanted to catch some other cultural activities while we were there.

We stayed at the Le Parker Meridien, an upscale W Hotel without all of the uppity attitude. It was a perfect location, between Times Square and Central Park and close to 5th Avenue Shopping. We loved the hotel. It had everything: the Burger Joint, (one of the best burgers/fries/and draft in a diner style with unpretentious booths); Knave, a European Espresso/Bar that truly makes the best Cafe Americano in NYC; Gravity Fitness center (not really needed with Central Park next door); and large rooms. The smallest rooms are over 300 square feet, nothing to joke about in NYC. When the city's typical boutique hotels rooms are just shy of 100 square feet, we felt like we were at home in the spacious rooms. Since it was my birthday, they upgraded my room, never heard of that one, but really liked it. We entered the room to find a bottle of Champagne, fruit basket, flowers and a massage gift card, chocolate dipped strawberries, all from friends and family wanting me to celebrate well while in the Big Apple. All was great until we left the hotel. The NYC cab drivers get a bad rap for a reason. My stomach churns every time I get into one. I am not used to their driving. We were so excited to get tickets to the Martha Stewart show. The best thing about it was her audience warm up guy. Martha comes out, looks straight into the camera and gets down to brass tacks. She did not get her reputation from making subtle niceties with her guests. I don't think she looked at one person in the audience and certainly never interacted with them. Her guest on our visit was Ray Liotta, (Corrina, Corrina, Good Fellas). He even commented on how on edge Martha was. She rarely cracks a smile. Definitely not a visit I would repeat.

We went to Balthazar for some great European Pastries, and the almond and chocolate croissants are some of the best in the city. I had lunch there once at the invitation of chef Alice Waters and it was one of the best lunches of my entire adult life. What you realize when you visit a place like NYC is that there are so many great things but just like everything good, there is always a price to pay. The city has some serious smelly cats. At almost every turn, you smell a foul odor, I never have this experience in the ATL. When out and about in Manhattan, from Madison Avenue, to Harlem to Soho, or Central Park, there are always plentiful odors emanating: from the sewer vents, to the garbage, to the urine smells to doggie and horse poop all over Central Park. I guess the sheer number of people makes it a logistical nightmare to keep the city free from vile odors.

Despite the ever-persistent smelly cat, we had some very tasty food while in the city. The Modern at MOMA is one of the best deals for Foodies in NYC. They have a great wine list, a beautiful restaurant and bar, and exceptionally good tapas size dishes for a good price. The duck breast with pistachio truffle oil, the fish of the day, and the tarte flambee are all winners. The service was exceptional also. Our next highlight was sitting in the Orchestra Box at the American Airlines Theatre. After all of the Lincoln at the Ford Theatre jokes, all of my friends thanked me for the great seats. If only the play had been worthy. We saw Hedda Gabler. We thought it had to be good with one of our favorite Showtime actors, Mary Louise Parker (Weeds, Fried Green Tomatoes). We should have known from Ibsen's first run of the play in 1891 opening to negative reviews, that it wasn't going to be any better this time around. We never could figure out the point of the play. It was supposed to be the story of a free spirited 19th Century Woman who gets what she wants. In the end, she talks her previous lover into killing himself to find out that he was killed by someone else in a drunken state at a brothel using the gun she gave him to kill himself. When an evil judge decides to have his way with her because he knows who's gun it is, she decides to shoot herself in the temple. It seemed like a story about an unhappy housewife that was bored with life. This play should have never been on Broadway, maybe not even off, off Broadway. If you ever have the chance to see it, don't... It is definitely not worth it even in the Orchestra Box and with Mary Louise Parker as Hedda Gabler.

We also shopped all up and down Madison and 5th Avenues. We couldn't get into the Cartier store because we were 3 minutes before opening time. I thought we were in a recession but clearly, Cartier does not need the business. We also were met with great skepticism at Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, David Yurman and all of the other supposedly fine stores in NYC. The only place where we were welcomed was Thomas Pink's Shirt store. The retail sales people in NYC should all be sent to the ATL for a lesson or two in courteous retail training. You would never experience the utter rudeness at Phipps or Lenox that we experienced in the Big Apple. We left Madison Avenue to check out Harlem. We kept hoping to run into President Bill Clinton, but no such luck. We only ran into more rudeness and chocolate salesmen. About the best thing about our trip to Harlem, was our trip back out of there. We tried to experience all the Big Apple has to offer in 3 days and I think we got around to some of the highlights. Would love to hear about your last trip there.....

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Big Apple and 33 Variations

Organized about 20 friends for a trip to NYC to see Jane Fonda's play 33 Variations. Fonda plays a modern day musicoligist Katherine Brandt in search of reasons for Beethoven's obsession with "Diabelli's Waltz", a supposed mediocre composition that fascinated Beethoven. He created 33 variations over a three year span out of something everyone else thought was an unimaginative, repetitive bore. I loved the way the play paralleled the lives of Beethoven's fixation on Diabelli's Waltz, while suffering from his deafness and Brandt's fixation on Beethoven's obsession with Diabelli's Waltz as she struggled with her illness, ALS. The duality on stage was very powerful! While people thought Beethoven was mocking Diabelli's Waltz, he was actually admiring it, thus the reason for so many variations over such a long period of his life. Brandt's examination of Beethoven's work and her struggle with her own illness, helped her to realize that the true beauty of life can come out of the seemingly mundane.

Jane was absolutely brilliant as she is in everything she does. I have never really seen Jane in her professional element, acting other than a few of her films, On Golden Pond, Monster-in-Law, and Georgia Rule. I had the great fortune of working for her public charity for a couple of years and was always excited by her passion to a cause she believed in, her dedication to educating others on the cause and her brilliant, moving speeches! Every time I heard her speak, I would become even more committed to the cause. After seeing her in this play, I realized for the first time, she must continue sharing her craft with the world. Her work on stage touches so many people. I saw many people with tears, and everyone was talking about her incredible performance. One person I ran into, was there for the fourth time because he was so moved by it. Jane belongs on stage where the masses can enjoy her talent. I feel so blessed that I was lucky enough to cross her path during my lifetime and hers. It made me want to get a year subscription to Netflix just for Fonda on film. If you haven't seen 33 Variations, you need to. If you have, would love to know your thoughts on the play...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Free at Last, Free at Last"

With Bush moving out of the White House, Obama moving into the White House, and me leaving a job that took more than it gave back, I can't help but think about MLK's words, "Free at Last, Free at Last." I am sure for many people these words have many different meanings. Forty six years ago, when MLK, Jr made his historic "I have a Dream" speech, I was just a year old. Even though, I don't remember that historic moment on the Mall in Washington, I can only imagine what it meant for so many slaves that were served such an injustice in the supposed land of the free and the home of the brave.

MLK, Jr also spoke of "the lonely island of poverty that the Negro lives on despite the vast ocean of material prosperity." If he had only known about the years to come under the two Bush's, and Clinton, with NAFTA, all of the debt from the wars, the financial and business corruption, and Madoff's fraud on Jews, he would have been careful what he wished for. While it is very exciting to see Bush exit with his head tucked between his tail and for Obama to become the first black commander-in-chief. It is also bittersweet. For many, there has never been a time in the past 50 years more uncertain, more chaotic, and more bleak. It is unbelievable to me that we still live in a world with those in power positions try to break us with disparaging racial slurs. In trying to take their rightful place, they end up being guilty of wrongful deeds, because they are still drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred that MLK, Jr warned against. It is my hope that on this day February, 5, 2009, that we can move on as individuals and as a nation. Now, is the time that we should seek to be judged by the content of our character rather than by the color of our skin. Yes, then, and only then, will we be "free at last, free at last."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Happy Birthday Ted

Just began reading Media Mogul and Philanthropist, Ted Turner's Book, Call Me Ted. I had the good fortune of working for Ted Turner under the Turner Broadcasting System, Inc, brand before the AOL/Time Warner Merger. I was laid off the day after the merger.

Prior to the merger, it was so exciting going to work everyday! Ted was such a visionary! Ted had a way of making every single employee feel like they were part of something bigger. Our company was always making money while also giving away millions of dollars to charity. It was such a great place to work. Ted has been quoted as saying "that if he had not been lied to by Gerald Levin and AOL/Steve Case had not "cooked the books", he would still be there." Ted also said that if you were one of the ones that had been laid off, not to be too sad. He was Time Magazine Man of the Year twice and made the company millions of dollars. He was still laid off also. Ted tells the story that when Gerald Levin told him that he was going to pay him a million dollars a year for the rest of his two year contract. Ted didn't have to do anything as he would be Chairman of nothing. Ted told him he would not take money for doing nothing while people making $40K a year were being laid off. You don't hear Chairman and CEO's of big corporations in America saying that. Think Enron or more recently, financial companies, Detroit automakers, and AIG. There are not many men like Ted Turner that would turn down millions of dollars for doing nothing. He truly is one-of-a-kind.

The thing besides Ted's brilliance and generosity that makes him such an interesting person, is that he always says exactly what's on his mind. You are never perplexed or wonder where he stands. We need more people like Ted who will say what they mean and mean what they say.

As Ted Turns 70 this week, he could take his billions, buy a yacht , sail around the world, with a full staff. Instead, he still gives his time, talent and treasury to those with less. He has inspired so many people. He is the reason why Warren Buffet and Bill Gates finally invested their billions in foundations that do good for others. Ted likes to say that he was cable before cable was cool. While watching the news this week or your favorite cable show, think of Ted, and send him good wishes as he turns 70. I know I will raise my glass to him and thank God that I had the chance to cross his path during my lifetime. Happy Birthday Ted! Hope to see you over the next 70.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Gasoline Shortages in the ATL

Last Sunday, in anticipation of the upcoming work week, I went to several neighborhood service stations to fill up. To my dismay, none of them had gas. So I got up early Monday, and started out again. I never anticipated, living in one of the top 50 cities in the US (by population) and not being able to find gasoline. This only happens in third world countries, I thought. Eleven stations later, and 16 miles from my home, I found gas. I was so depressed about this, I went back home, turned on my laptop and started working. I let my boss know of course. I had two meetings that day so I had them come to my home. They apparently had fuel. I checked the CNN news section and saw that our governor, Sonny Purdue, had just flown off to Europe. I can't find gas in my state and my governor has flown to Europe, WOW!. I then ran across the Pickens Plan for energy independence. This billionaire oil man in Texas has a plan to reduce America's independence on oil, but is anyone listening? We have a plan and this is the first I have heard of it. It got me to wondering about conservation of everything from water to oil. I built a solar house with geothermal, rainharvest, greywater harvesting, etc, etc in 2002 and I remember how difficult it was for me to get permits to use greywater and rainwater to water my plants. First we have the mortgage crisis, then the gas crisis. I am certain water is next. In the ATL, we have had a drought for 2 years. It reminded me of Janelle Monae's song Sincerely Jane and its powerful words "Are we really living or are we walking dead now?" We have all of these problems in America, "Are we really living or are we walking dead now?" You tell me...