(Ironwood, Michigan) Two Gogebic Community College business majors recently had what they both described as the “opportunity of a lifetime,” thanks to the generosity of a local entrepreneur and businessman. Tim Szot, a Sophomore Computer Information Technology major from Ironwood, and Michael Heise, a Freshman Entrepreneurial Major from Rhinelander, had the opportunity to accompany Mark Stephens, of Ironwood Plastics, along with his family, and attend the 2012 annual shareholders meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, held in Omaha, Nebraska, this past May. A highlight of this meeting was an opportunity to take part in an open question-and-answer session with Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire-Hathaway, which purchased Ironwood Plastics in 2010.
This annual shareholder’s meeting, sometimes referred to as the “Woodstock for Capitalists,” brought together investors, entrepreneurs, business executives and students from Brazil, China, Japan, Europe, and the U.S., among other countries. The highlight of the weekend was the chance to sit and listen to Buffett entertain questions from the audience, and he had a keen ear in the two GCC students who were able to attend.
Szot, who owns and operates Professional Computer Services, of Ashland, Wisconsin, was at the same time “blown away” by the opportunity to sit in the same room as the world’s third wealthiest person, while being able to relate to the Omaha, Nebraska, native’s grassroots business approach. “Mr. Buffett related well to every single person in that audience,” Szot said, “and was able to take complicated and technical business subjects and put them into laymen’s terms. I no longer look at myself and my business as just a ‘small business ,’ but one that can become as large as I dare to grow it.” Szot said that this experience has given him the confidence to expand his operations into Ashland county, while maintaining his customer base in Iron and Gogebic counties. The 2012 GCC graduate gained a lot of confidence from listening to Buffett, and regularly refers to one of Buffett’s works, A Few Lessons for Investors and Managers, which he purchased at the meeting.
Heise, a member of the men’s basketball team at GCC, said that this experience taught him the value of researching “the total value of a company, rather than just the current market value of a company’s stock. Buffett may be a billionaire, but he only buys those companies that exhibit the traits and values that he shares. He buys good companies, and lets them do what they do best.” The aspiring entrepreneur called the trip to Omaha “amazing,” and “one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had in my life.”
Szot and Heise both came away from this experience with renewed confidence in their own abilities to start and run a business, noting that “we felt like we had a semester’s worth of business knowledge crammed into one weekend. Mark and his family were extremely friendly, and the whole experience was just amazing.”
Stephens formed the idea of bringing a pair of GCC students to the annual Berkshire-Hathaway meeting in 2011, when he was invited to the annual meeting at Berkshire Hathaway. “I was blown away by the event that consists of an arena for Q & A and an attached auditorium where Berkshire Hathaway companies (CTB included) set up booths and are visited by shareholders all day long. I’ve been to business school, but I felt that I learned more during that one weekend about business and the world economy than I did in school. Knowing Mr. Buffett was 81 years old and that this meeting wouldn’t last forever, I thought about taking my kids and wife Denise to the meeting in 2012. Adding the GCC students was an idea that Denise and I had in lieu of a scholarship. So, we ended up with four young people in the 23-27 year old age group.”
Stephens had nothing but praise and admiration for the octogenarian Buffett, noting “he still lives in the same house in Omaha that he bought in the 1950’s for $30,000. The 53 companies owned by Berkshire-Hathaway employ 260,000 people and yet his corporate office has only 21 employees. His demeanor is to buy good companies and let them do their own thing.” Of the acquisition of Ironwood Plastics by B-H, Stephens remarked, “as I got older and realized that my brothers and I needed to think about a succession plan, we explored many options. First and foremost, though, was to make sure that IWP would survive and prosper. Being acquired by CTB/Berkshire has been a very good experience. Getting capital for equipment can be challenging, but we are left to run our business the same way we have for the last 32 years.”
Referring to the two GCC students, Stephens said “both of the young men that went with us were great. They really became part of our family for that weekend and we had several lively conversations at dinner. All of the ‘kids’ had an entrepreneurial spirit, but I sometimes think that we need to think ‘bigger.’ Going to this meeting certainly drives that point home.” Stephens’ generosity in making this opportunity available was not lost on either the students who attended this meeting or others at the college. In recent years, the college’s business division has worked hard at promoting and developing an entrepreneurial climate. Beth Steiger, who came to GCC from the corporate world at General Electric, has developed and incorporated classes and simulations in International Business, and hosts an “Entrepreneurial Bounce” each spring, where aspiring entrepreneurs get to make “pitches” to a panel of businesspeople from the region.
Ken Trzaska, Dean of Instruction at GCC and co-founder of the college’s Entrepreneurial Center for Innovation and Development, said “the opportunity for GCC students to have exposure and connection to global organizations is important. The generosity of Mr. Stephens in supporting our students to achieve this is appreciated, embraced, and is representative of the true meaning of promoting partnership and an entrepreneurial spirit that is so important to our region.”