Finance

Michael P. Regan is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering equities and financial services. He has covered stocks for Bloomberg News as a columnist and editor since 2007. He previously worked for the Associated Press.

The most-expensive steak on the lunch menu at Smith & Wollensky in Manhattan is a $57 New York-cut sirloin, on the bone. 

If you want it with a side of folksy wisdom from none other than Warren Buffett, it'll cost you $3.5 million. That's what an anonymous donor just paid in the annual auction that benefits the San Francisco charity the Glide Foundation, which provides free meals to the hungry, and free child care, counseling, legal services -- even needles -- to those who need it. This brings the price of the lunch date back to a record, after a notable dip in the previous two years:   

Buffett Table
A charity lunch with famed investor Warren Buffett doesn't come cheap.
Source: Glide Foundation.
Note: Auction price paid for lunch; some years included additional gifts by winners of auction, and there were three sets of winners who each paid $25,000 in 2002.

Indeed, the cost of a lunch with Buffett has shown an astonishing surge of almost 14,000 percent since the tradition started in 2000. Class B shares of Berkshire Hathaway, on the other hand, are up about 200 percent. Surely any disciple of value investing should scoff at this lunch price, right? Well, maybe.

Power Lunch
Class B shares of Berkshire Hathaway are up about 200 percent since the lunch tradition began
Source: Bloomberg

But that was also probably true when Guy Spier, the chief executive officer of Aquamarine Capital Management, split the $650,100 tab in 2007 with fellow Buffett fans Mohnish Pabrai and Harina Kapoor. The encounter later inspired him to write a book called "The Education of a Value Investor."   

The thought of meeting his idol Buffett made him "so nervous I was sick," Spier told Bloomberg Radio in 2014. Winning the lunch auction caused Spier to start self-analyzing and changing his behavior months before he even sat down with the Oracle of Omaha. At the time a self-described "big egotistical New York City hedge-fund type," Spier sized up his companions at the coming meal and had the epiphany that he was the only one being paid a management fee. "And I just thought, 'This is egregious, I have to change it,'" he said. "I was there to confess to my master."

After meeting the master, he recalled, he never saw the world the same way again. 

"I had to see Warren Buffett in real life, one on one, to realize he was not making any compromises with his day-to-day personal happiness for the sake of making Berkshire a little bit bigger, making it grow a little bit faster," Spier recalled in that radio interview. "And in that instant I realized how many personal compromises I was making with my day-to-day personal happiness. And I asked myself, 'for what?'" 

Spier's tale highlights something important about why Buffett is such an emulated figure: It's not entirely about the money. After all, amassing great wealth in this day and age has not automatically led to the type of near-universal respect and admiration that Buffett enjoys. More often, it leads to scorn and envy.   

Make no mistake, Buffett is a shrewd businessman. But he has most likely developed an almost cult following for his inspiring personality rather than his inspring wealth. It's the self-deprecating self-confidence that gives him the poise to take the stage with his ukulele and sing a duet with Jon Bon Jovi like he belongs there; the confidence to pen an op-ed a month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, advising shell-shocked stock investors to "Buy American. I Am."; to tell jokes about full wallets being like full bladders; to amass one of history's greatest fortunes and then give it all away

Many, many investors have dedicated their careers to learning how to invest like Warren Buffett. Very few have taken Spier's route and actually tried to live their lives like him.

Maybe that's why, for some people, a $3.5 million lunch that will help feed thousands of hungry people feels like a bargain. 
 
"Get around the right people," Buffett told Spiers, "and you can't help but improve."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Michael P. Regan in New York at mregan12@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net