When Warren Waited

Jun 12, 2016 - 4:15 PM

I  once kept Warren Buffett waiting for me for half an hour.

OK, it wasn’t just me. I was among a group of business aviation journalists who were delayed en route to an important PR event.

It was in the late 1990s, shortly after Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought the parent company of the NetJets fractional-ownership program. His directive was, “Spend whatever it takes to be the safest and most secure. Then, spend whatever it takes to stay that way.” The company took that mandate to heart, and laid out plans for a multimillion-dollar operational nerve center at Ohio’s Port Columbus International Airport. Now the Oracle of Omaha was on hand to celebrate the facility’s groundbreaking.

NetJets was starting to expand the role of computers to keep track of its burgeoning fleet of jets, and the new center represented a leap in the company’s use of information technology. Besides riding herd on hundreds of flights per day, the facility was designed to track pilots’ hours, maintenance schedules, billing, insurance data, FAA records, and more. It seems rudimentary today, but close to two decades ago, the scope of the information to be processed at the new headquarters was mindboggling.

To help get the word out, NetJets had arranged to fly about a half-dozen of us journalists from New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, outside New York, to the ceremony, and back home the same day so we could meet our deadlines. Early that morning, the NetJets marketing director shepherded us onto one of NetJets’ Cessna Citations, and away we went.

The flight should have taken less than two hours, giving us plenty of time to listen to the speeches, take photos of all the men in suits and hard hats, and chat with Buffett before reboarding for the ride home. But Mother Nature had other ideas.

No more than 15 minutes into the flight, we all noticed that the Citation was making a 180-degree turn. Since all of us passengers (except Marketing Man) were pilots familiar with the area, we recognized that we were entering a holding pattern over the Robbinsville, New Jersey, navigation beacon.

It was a hot, humid midsummer day, the kind where thunderstorms erupt along the eastern seaboard like shouting matches at a campaign debate. A wall of dangerous storms had, indeed, formed between us and Columbus, and we’d just have to circle until the weather either moved on or dissipated—and controllers had time to sort out the resulting traffic jam.

These were stubborn storms, and with each turn of the holding pattern, Marketing Man’s expensive shirt got a little damper under the armpits. We understood his dilemma. How would it look if the press missed the festivities because their NetJets ride didn’t get them there on time? More than once, he made use of the on-board telephone, cupping his hand over the receiver, apparently so we wouldn’t be able to read his lips.

Actually, Marketing Man needn’t have been so panicked. As pilots, all of us in the back of that Citation understood that no event is worth butting heads with a vicious thunderstorm. And I’m confident NetJets would have gotten a pass on any negative PR, even if we’d missed the ceremony. In fact, the prudent pilots up front would probably have gotten an “all-thumbs-up” review from their passengers that day.

It was about an hour-and-a-half delay before we were finally released westward—and even then, we passed through some of the darkest and bumpiest clouds I’ve seen, before or since.

We all knew that the scheduled start time for the event was passing, even as we began our final approach through broken clouds and emerging sunlight. Marketing Man was on the phone again, and after a fast taxi through puddles steaming in the summer heat, he reluctantly agreed to a fast bathroom break before we’d board the van to the construction site.

As we slipped into a crowded tent, I could see Warren Buffett, rumpled suit and all, nibbling on a pig-in-a-blanket as he chatted with someone near the podium. Once we all got inside, someone passed him the high-sign, and he stepped up to the microphone, none the worse for waiting an extra 30 minutes to begin the program.

We still got our chance to sit down with one of the wealthiest men in the known universe, and he brushed off our apologies for making him cool his heels. In the years since then, his stewardship of NetJets has had its ups and downs, but he has never wavered in his appreciation of business aviation and understanding that safety always comes first. And so it was on the afternoon he sat waiting for me and my fellow journalists. A half hour of his time may have been worth more than the mortgage on my house, but he knew the reason for our delay and didn’t seem to mind a bit.

Mark Phelps, a managing editor at BJT sister publication Aviation International News, interviewed Taylor Guitars’ founders for our last issue.