Chesterton native Mark Hokanson, an MBA student in the online program at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, admired Warren Buffet since learning he continued to live modestly after amassing a vast fortune.
"I thought this guy's kind of interesting," Hokanson said. "The more I read about him, the more it really resonated with my own life and business career and the more I tried to pattern my own approach after him. He's my idol."
Hokanson, who now works as a new business development leader at Target's corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, got a chance to meet his idol in Omaha last month. He helped arrange for 20 students from the Kelley Direct Online MBA Program to sit in on a two-and-a-half-hour question-and-answer session with the titan of American business in a hotel ballroom in downtown Omaha.
"I admired how rational he is," Hokanson said. "In the 1990s, he didn't get caught up in the tech bubble. He stays to his course, to what he calls his circle of competence. He know what he's good at and has been remarkably successful. He compounds money faster than nearly everybody — at 20 percent, far greater than the S&P 500. He knows what he's good at and doesn't let what's trendy knock him off course."
Hokanson learned by reading one of Buffett's letters to shareholders that the 87-year-old multi-billionaire started meeting with MBA students to impart his wisdom. So he contacted Buffet's office to request an invitation.
"It's like when you're a kid looking up to a baseball player," he said. "Since I'm from Chicagoland, it would be like meeting Mark Grace. It's just a dream to shake their hand."
Knowing how busy Buffett is as chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and how many students and universities doubtless deluge him with requests, Hokanson wasn't optimistic his IU class would get an invite.
"I was at my desk when I read the email," he said. "I almost dropped to the floor. I could check it off my bucket list, I could meet my hero. I almost fell out of my chair."
Upon arriving in Omaha, the class ate at Buffett's favorite restaurant, Gorat's Steak House, where a cardboard cutout of the Sage of Omaha greets diners. Hokanson ordered his favorite meal, a T-bone steak with hash browns, "to harness his Buffett."
In the downtown Hyatt on that snowy day, Buffett fielded about a dozen questions, giving detailed, thoughtful responses that explained his philosophies of business, economic success and life.
"His answers were witty and clever," Hokanson said. "He was great, very humble and easy to laugh. It was inspirational. Hearing his stories, you felt you could truly make an impact on the world and chase down your passion."
Hokanson and the class got a chance to meet with Buffett afterward, engaging in small talk about University of Nebraska football and Indiana University basketball while they snapped photos.
His lessons still linger.
"He had just bestowed vice chairmanships on Gregory Abel and Ajit Jain and said those two measure success with what they can do for Berkshire, not with what Berkshire can do for them," Hokanson said. "He said Berkshire flows through their veins, and their loyalty and passion for the business will carry it along. ... One of his comments was the two most important things are love and time, and you can't buy either of those."