On the road in Nebraska 5/20/92
It's May, I'm in Nebraska and it's tornado time around here. It's bad enough that I've been stuck riding into the wind the last few days but now, I have to worry about tornadoes. Of course, all the locals like to share with me their tornado horror stories.
Ameritas Financial Services
About 4 miles east of downtown Lincoln (population 180,000) on a 15-acre site sits the corporate headquarters of Ameritas Financial Services (revenues of $420 million in 1991) the holding company for Ameritas Life Insurance Corporation (formerly Bankers Life Insurance Company of Nebraska). About 800 employees work in the company-owned, 4-story 325,000 square foot structure built in 1963.
When the building was built back in 1963, it created a stir in Lincoln because the site was considered out in the sticks. Matter of fact, Doc Chaves, Assistant Vice President took me to the company's museum in the basement and showed pictures of a roadside fruit stand located on the headquarters site.
The company's logo is a bison, which explains why I counted five bison in various forms in Neal Tyner's office (he's the CEO). Tyner has a basketball in his office signed by the University of Nebraska basketball team plus, a plaque on his desk that reads; "no surprises". Tyner's office also has 5 plants (which are real as opposed to fake), a computer and a television (for watching CNN).
If you've never been to Omaha, Nebraska you probably think it's flat. Wrong. Omaha is one of the hilliest cities in the United States. Best thing I like about Omaha is it's Union Station--now Western Heritage Museum, which is the nation's first restored art deco railway station (built in 1931).
Omaha Steaks International
I added Omaha Steaks International to my list of companies to visit because I've seen their ads in various publications for years. They're the ones that mail steaks around the country. Headquarters is a 2-story, 75,000 square foot building in a light industrial area about 6 miles from downtown Omaha. The front of the building houses a small retail outlet. The majority of the building is a plant, which is where meats are sliced and boxed.
About 250 employees work in the building that was built in 1966. I was warmly received by Robert Bezousek, Director of Plant Operations and Alan Simon, CEO. The lunchroom area contains a 30-gallon aquarium, along with video games (which are free). The privately-held company has revenues somewhere between $60 million and $100 million.
Pamida Holdings Corporation
Pamida Holdings Corporation, which operates 178 general merchandise discount department stores, had fiscal 1992 revenues of $636 million. Headquarters is in a 2-story structure about 7 miles from downtown Omaha. I felt like I received the run-around from Frank Washburn-Vice President, Human Resources, who said he was busy the next couple of days and didn't have 10 minutes to talk. A visit with a business reporter at the local newspaper confirmed my suspicion; Pamida is known for being close-mouthed.
A large distribution center is evident at the corporate headquarters. Among the periodicals lying around the reception/lobby area: Discount Store News, Discount Merchandiser, Home World Business, Communications Week, Chain Store Age Executive, Dealerscope Merchandising, Retail Infosystems News, Mass Market Retailers and Madison magazine.
Data Documents, which was spun off from Pitney Bowes in 1988, is headquartered in a one-story brick building about a mile up the road from Pamida. About 85 employees work in the plainly furnished structure, which was built over 20 years ago. Behind headquarters is a plant that manufactures some of the company's computer forms. Very drab place. M.K. Romjue, Director-Human Resources, said the company had "about $200 million in revenues last year".
My reception at Godfather's Pizza was blah. Steve Frisbie, Manager-Public Relations, said he was short on time and only had a few minutes. The company occupies the 3rd and part of the 4th floor of a four-story glass office building about 12 miles from downtown Omaha. No outside signs identify the place, which is in an office park complex. About 90 people work in the offices.
System-wide sales in 1990 were $229 million. This is the first company visited where the CEO (Herman Cain) is a black man. Senior management, lead by Cain, bought the company from The Pillsbury Company in 1988.
Cain's corner office is the former office of the founder, who I'm told had gaudy taste. This would explain the stain glass (featuring flower petals) above Cain's desk (up with the light fixtures). I'm told Cain said it's cheaper to leave the stain glass up than to replace it. I counted four golf pictures in Cain's office (he's an avid golfer) along with an autographed picture of Julius Erving (famous former basketball player). Cain is also somewhat of a musician, I was given a cassette entitled, "Herman Cain, Live in Concert April, 1991". Cain does a live concert each year to benefit the Edmonson Youth Outreach Program.
Privately-held BeefAmerica, the meatpacking company with $1.6 billion in revenues, is headquartered at one of their plants. I'm stopped at the guard gate and that's as far as I get. I talk to Joseph Amore's (CEO) secretary and I'm told all the executives are off the property. I'm connected to the Manager of Personnel, who says he can't talk because he knows nothing about what I'm doing. I tell him Amore's secretary has background information on me but, he isn't interested in pursuing it. From my vantage point at the guard gate I can see offices on the second floor of the plant.
The Scoluar Company
The Scoular Company, a privately-held grain trading & storing company ($1.3 billion in revenues) is headquartered in downtown Omaha in a beautifully renovated 7-story building. Built in 1926, the Moorish motif structure served as a clubhouse for the Knights of Columbus. In 1944 the building became home of American Legion Post No. 1, the largest Post in the United States-with more than 25,000 members. In 1956, Northern Natural Gas (now Enron) bought the building. Finally, in 1987 The Scoular Company purchased the structure and was restored to it former grandeur. What makes the building so grand? Maybe it's the 7,000 square foot Ballroom with its full stage or the grain trading floor with its 20-foot high ceilings and rich ornamentation.
On the first level is a health club (open to the public),, which contains the original indoor pool, 4 handball courts and a basketball gymnasium.
About 40 employees occupy 2 and a half floors of the building. Why is Marshall Faith's (CEO) office on the second floor? I'm told it's for easy access by farmers. Instead of taking an elevator, farmers can walk up the marble steps to the second floor and presto-Faith's office is right their. Nothing fancy about Faith's corner office.
I was given a sample bag of "Vic's Corn Popper". Why? The company bought Gourmet Popping Corn Company in 1987 and it does business under the trade name "Vic's Corn Popper". Good popcorn.
Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society
Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society (1991 revenues $657 million) owns and is headquartered in the tallest building in the state of Nebraska. Built in 1969, the 30-story 370,000 square foot structure easily towers above everything else. The company's name is in large letters atop the sides of the building. Woodmen occupies floors 20-27, along with a 7-story adjacent building connected via a skywalk. About 500 employees work in the two buildings. John Bookout, CEO, has a great view from his corner office but, his office is very spartanly furnished. The United States flag in Bookout's office is significant. Why? Did you know Woodmen is the world's largest purchaser and distributor of United States flags?
Two Peregrine falcons live atop the 30-story high-rise. A camera has been placed above the nest and visitors in the first floor lobby can watch their nesting habits via a television screen. Here's some facts on the Peregrine: As with most birds of prey, the female bird is larger than the male. The Peregrine has been clocked at speeds of 200 miles per hour in a dive.
Well, before I tell you about my visit to Berkshire Hathaway I have to recount the first visit five years earlier. From 1987-1990 I visited the 650 largest privately-held and publicly-held companies in the United States. In 1987, I visited Mutual of Omaha and Con-Agra in Omaha. Back in 1987, Berkshire Hathaway didn't qualify to be on my list of companies to visit (revenues had to be OVER $1.5 billion). Warren Buffett wasn't as well-known back in 1987 as he is now but, I was familiar with him and his famous letter to the shareholders in the company's annual report. I had also read about the frugal Buffett bringing his own sack lunch to work.
So here's the scenario: I'd just finished visiting Mutual of Omaha and it's lunchtime and I suddenly remember Berkshire Hathaway being headquartered in Omaha. I look up the company's address and find I'm only a few blocks away. Headquarters is on the 14th floor of Kiewit Plaza (which is a drab, greenish, plain-looking building). Coming off the elevator on the 14th floor I see various office doors (no windows or glass). I find suite 1440 and a plaque on the door reads, "Berkshire Hathaway Inc.", along with the names of the top officers. Do I open the door and walk in? Nope, it's locked. Next to the door is a buzzer, with a speaker box. Up on the ceiling is a close-circuit camera. I buzz the buzzer. A woman's voice says "yes?". "Hi, I was wondering if I could talk to Mr. Buffett", I said. The voice answers back, "he's out of the country". "Oh", I said. I paused about 5 seconds and said, "I was wondering if I could get an annual report?". There's silence for about 20 seconds then, the door opens-just far enough for this arm to reach out with an annual report. I take the annual report from this mysterious arm and boom, the door closes. Boy, did that ever strike me as being tacky.
So, it's five years later (1992) and I'm going to find out if things have changed. Berkshire Hathaway's revenues have shot up considerably ($3.1 billion in 1991) since my first visit. As you may or may not know, several weeks before I anticipate arriving at a company's headquarters-I send an introduction letter along with some news clippings I've received. The news clippings usually includes the front page write-up I had in the Wall Street Journal and clippings from USA Today and the New York Times. I've found these clippings (especially the Wall Street Journal) give my trek a degree of credibility. In other words, I send 'em because I don't want them to think I'm a "wacko".
Coming off the elevator I see the same set-up except for they've added another close-circuit camera on the ceiling. I buzz the buzzer and a woman's voice says, "yes?". I say, "hello" and then, "boy, I hate talking to someone who can see me but I can't see them". I explain what I'm doing and ask her if she could find out where or to whom my letter to Warren Buffett trickled down. After about a 10 second pause, the woman's voice says, "we aren't interested". I ask if they had received my material and she says, "yes we have and we aren't interested".
I can't believe this is the headquarters for a publicly-held, $3 billion in revenues corporation! Having visited (so far) over 1,100 companies, Berkshire Hathaway makes the top of one of my lists: Tackiest Reception Received At A Company.
Peter Kiewit Sons', Inc.
Leaving Berkshire Hathaway, I took the elevator down to the first floor lobby. That's where the main reception area is for Peter Kiewit Sons', Inc. The privately-held construction, energy and coal mining company has almost $2 billion in revenues. Michael Faust, Assistant to the Chairman, said they're the world's largest highway contractor. Corporate headquarters is a 15-story, company-owned structure built by the company in 1961. To me, it looks like it's time for a new headquarters because it's looking pretty drab. About 350 employees work in the building, which is 80%, occupied by Peter Kiewit Sons'. A bronze bust of Peter Kiewit is located near the first floor reception area. Walter Scott, Jr., CEO, has a pretty spartan corner office. The company has three corporate aircraft, which are all Falcons.
While in Omaha I did do a little research on Warren Buffett. I obtained his home address and rode by his home. It's about two miles from his office and it's a nice-looking Tudor-style home. You know why he hasn't moved to a bigger spread? It's probably because of the location. Consider this: the street out front of his home is one of those reversible streets. In the morning from 7 am to 9 am traffic goes one way into downtown. From 4 PM to 6 PM it reverses and is one way going out of downtown. The guy has it made! Guess what else I found out. Buffett is a man of routine. On the weekend he goes to a Rexall drug store about a mile away and gets a milk shake at the old fashion soda fountain inside the store. It's where they mix the milk shake in the metal container and after pouring your shake into a glass, they give you the metal container to drink the excess. I dropped by the place, ordered a milk shake and asked the waitress if she waited on Buffett. "Nah, he comes in on the weekends and I only work Monday through Friday", she said. By the way, the milk shake was fantastic AND it's only $1.50.