When some 40,000 investors showed up at the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, Nebraska last weekend, the unlikely talk of the meeting was a prominent Philadelphian known locally more for runner-up mayoral finishes and historic documentaries. That’s thanks to a piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, headlined “Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders: Have You Thanked Samuel Katz?”
The piece chronicles Katz’s long ago effort to make Warren Buffett’s investing genius accessible to middle class investors. Back in 1996, shares in Buffett’s exclusive club were trading at $20,000 per share. Katz’s idea was to set up something like a mutual fund that would solicit contributions from small investors and use the proceeds to purchase Berkshire stock.
The Journal revisited the story—which I wrote about in Philadelphia magazine in 1997—because this year marks the 20th anniversary of Buffett’s B shares; in order to rebuff Katz, Buffett created a new class of stock, essentially beating Katz to the punch and making his stock accessible to mid-level investors. As the Journal points out, you can buy a “B share” today for $147, while the original shares trade for $220,000 apiece.
“It was the democratization of Berkshire Hathaway,” Katz says today, noting that, as the story chronicles, the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in 1995 attracted 5,000 investors, compared with 40,000 last year. That’s because of the B shares—which wouldn’t have happened without Katz and his disruptive idea.
Buffett unveiled the B shares after failing to intimidate Katz into walking away. Katz had been a longtime admirer; he even naively wrote a fawning fan letter to Buffett, alerting him of his plan. Soon thereafter, Katz received a phone call from Buffett’s right hand man, Charlie Munger, who told him, “We understand you have political aspirations. Have you considered the consequences of having Warren Buffett on the other side of your next campaign?”
“Mr. Munger,” Katz said, “I don’t think you know who you’re talking to. I’m f@#*%ing nuts. I’ve lost two elections on my own. I’m quite sure I can lose again with Warren Buffett on the other side.”
Now, 20 years later, it’s an odd story of an accidental legacy. When I caught up with Katz yesterday, he’d received some 300 emails, some from Philadelphians who had no idea he’d once tussled with Buffett, and many from Berkshire Hathaway investors, thanking him for making them rich. “It’s a wonderful story,” he said. “It was an unpleasant experience at the time. This article came out of the blue and represents closure and reconciliation.”
Katz’s son, Ben, is a pilot stationed at an Air Force base near Omaha. When he’s visited, Katz has driven to Buffett’s house. “I didn’t have the nerve to knock on the door,” he says. “I didn’t want to invite some type of confrontation. But now I’m sending Warren a note. Maybe we can grab a cup of coffee next time I’m in town.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Buffett split the stock in 1996; actually, he started offering B shares.
Photo header: YouTube/Biraz Ordan Birazda Burdan