Sorry for the lag, but these two talks – part of my weekend in Omaha for the Buffett Sideshow – needed some thought before being put into writing. After lunch on Friday, April 29, our group visited the alumni center of the University of Nebraska-Omaha and enjoyed talks from Todd Simons, fifth-generation president of Omaha Steaks International, followed by Pete Ricketts, an angel investor and former Chief Operating Officer of Ameritrade. (As a side note, we drove past Warren Buffett’s house, and it wasn’t quite the “starter home” that has become a part of the Buffett legend.)
The thing that impressed me most about Mr. Simons was his enthusiasm for marketing. That’s a big compliment coming from me, because I generally refer to myself as a marketing guy when pressed for an answer to the question, “so what do you do for a living?” While clearly knowledgeable about beef and cows and grass and corn and fat and marbling and all the stuff that goes into understanding why one piece of steak is considered superior to another, it didn’t seem to be of any great interest to him. I later made the comment to Rob that the guy could have been selling used tires. It wasn’t the product that moved him, but creating a brand and customer experience.
So when he talked about advertising and brand building and social media and graphic design and consumer interfaces he was inspired. Out of all four of the really sharp gentlemen I was lucky enough to hear speak (and shake hands with) that day, the best quote came from Mr. Simons, “You can’t outsource customer service.” He discussed, in detail, how their call center worked, how OSI handled complaints and a myriad of other customer engagement tactics. Mr. Simons sounded like an amazingly hands-on type of executive. I’ll be checking in on OSI to see the results of some things he talked about still in the works.
Mr. Ricketts gave a very different presentation with a more subdued delivery. I was unaware at the time that he had been an unsuccessful candidate for senator from Nebraska. Knowing that now helps me put into perspective some of the negative comments I heard after he spoke. Right wing politicians able to bankroll their own campaigns often stir-up emotions in people that can lead to observations not germane to the conversation at hand.
He was very candid about his win-loss ratio as an angel investor (currently in the loss category), yet I found much of his talk interesting. Most appropriate here is likely his observation about how a business sets out to do one thing, but finds success along a different path as they move down the road. Mr. Ricketts expressed an interest in participating at the very earliest stages of a business – like when the office is still in the parent’s basement – and then moving on as the business gets some traction (or goes under). As is to be expected, it’s the 80-20 rule in this game, with one or two winners making up for the many losers. Clearly a man with a lot going on, angel investing was an interest, but not, it seemed, a passionate one.
In summary, it was a thoughtful collection of speakers who all did a fine job. From a man who bootstrapped his way to success in the trucking business, to a sharp business analyst with an eye for investing, to a fellow marketing guy and finally a gentleman looking at business opportunities before they really exist. It appears there are a lot of ways to be successful.