Illustration by Arnel Reynon
In June, an anonymous bidder at a charity auction paid nearly $3.5 million for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lunch with Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett. Like a caped superhero, the Oracle of Omaha is an almost mythic figure who can swoop in to save a company faster than a speeding bullet.
And of course, every superhero needs a city to save. Given recent moves by Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries, from Shaw Industries' winning $4.7 million bid for the remains of SportsQuest in Chesterfield and Berkshire Hathaway's purchase of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, along with 62 other Media General newspapers, who could blame the giants of Richmond business and government if it had been they who secretly got together and ponied up the $3.46 million for that famed lunch with Buffett. Maybe their motive wasn't "Tell us where to invest" so much as "Have we got an investment for you!"
Over a $119 appetizer of Wollensky's Grand Bouquet of shellfish, Gov. Bob McDonnell pushes Virginia's rich history and natural beauty, blah, blah, blah, before moving in for the kill.
"So, Warren. May I call you Warren? Have you ever considered getting into liquor stores?" And while the governor makes a play to resurrect his plan for the privatization of liquor sales in Virginia, hoping the mere whiff of some of Buffett's $44 billion fortune will turn the heads of uninterested lawmakers in the General Assembly, Mayor Dwight Jones jockeys for Buffett's attention with, "Are you a baseball fan?"
Jones tells Buffett of Richmond's exciting minor-league team, the Flying Squirrels. "Boy, does this organization know how to pack in the crowds and sell the merchandise. ... Such a shame that great team doesn't have a nice, new ballpark to play in ..."
The governor wrestles the conversation back from small-time baseball to the mighty NFL and the arrival next summer of the Washington Redskins' summer training camp in Richmond. "Golly, what a coup for us. The community is really buzzing about it. Now, if we only had a state-of-the-art facility for them. Come to think of it, a whole sports complex sounds like just the ticket ..."
By this point, lamb chops and hand-cut filet mignons are arriving, and Buffett is squirming a bit. Jim Ukrop senses this is his moment. These two self-made men from humble beginnings can relate to each other and to the pride of a family-owned business. Ukrop tells Buffett about his father, Joe, the grocer who started a small empire. Buffett surely loves those kinds of stories. Ukrop tells him about the beloved grocery chain the family built, which commanded uncommon loyalty among Richmonders. Then he shakes his head softly and says, "It's just not the same since we sold to Martin's." Everyone at the table nods. "Sure wish someone with some vision would buy those puppies back."
"But you look to the past," injects Derek Cha, owner of Sweet Frog. "We should be looking to the future."
Buffett perks up. "How so?" he asks.
"Mr. Buffett, I've opened more than 100 frozen-yogurt stores nationwide in just three years," Cha replies. "If you invest in my company, I can put a Sweet Frog in every shopping center in this country!"
"Where are they now?"
"In every other shopping center in the country. Together, Mr. Buffett, we can send our dancing frogs of joy and happiness to crush the Yapples and Red Apples, the Sweet Spoons and the Coldstones! We will bury Bev's and choke the last remaining gasp of air out of Dippin' Dots until there is but one frozen treat on the tongues of every man, woman and child in America! ... Fully relying on God, of course."
An awkward silence falls over the table, and Buffett reaches for something to say. Just then, a waiter steals all the attention as he carries over an outrageous flaming dessert.
He sets it down before Buffett and with a wide, slick grin, he asks, "Mr. Buffett, have you ever considered investing in a slavery museum?"