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OMAHA, Nebraska (AP) -Before facing questions from a crowd of more than 30,000, billionaire Warren Buffett started Saturday by being mobbed by fans at Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting.

Shareholders again treated the 82-year-old investor like a rock star at Saturday's annual meeting.

Admirers held their cell phones and iPads in the air as they surrounded Buffett in the meeting's 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall. A pack of security guards created a buffer around Buffett as he visited displays selling Berkshire's See's Candy, explaining BN SF railroad's virtues and highlighting some of the company's other 80-plus subsidiaries.

Andy Paullin, drove to Omaha from Milwaukee, Wis., on Friday to attend the meeting and learn from Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, just as he has done nearly every year since 2007.

"It's exciting to be here and listen to these guys," he said. "I can't believe more people aren't interested."

At the See's booth, Buffett got a lesson in making hand-dipped bonbons. Then See's manufacturing manager Steve Powell got Buffett to autograph his white uniform coat, demonstrating that employees are nearly as excited about meeting Buffett as shareholders.

"He was right there. Why not? It's Mr. Buffett," said Powell, explaining why he asked for the autograph. "He's wonderful."

Powell said he'll probably frame the coat and display it at work when he returns to California.

The Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting began humbly in 1982 with a crowd of 15 in an insurance company cafeteria. It has been growing steadily just as the company's stock price rose to become the most-expensive in the U.S., reaching $162,904 for a Class A share on Friday.

Karma Perrot of New Mexico arrives at a reception in Omaha for Berkshire Hathaway shareholders dressed as a Heinz Ketchup bottle. Heinz was recently acquired by Berkshire Hathaway.(Photo: Nati Harnik, AP)
Buffett will sit on stage with his 89-year-old business partner, Munger, to answer questions from shareholders, journalists and financial analysts for six hours.

Buffett hopes to keep the meeting interesting by adding a critic of his company to the panel asking questions. Buffett said in his annual letter that he was looking for an investor with a negative outlook on his company to ask questions at Saturday's meeting. Hedge fund manager Doug Kass responded to Buffett's letter and quickly got the job.

Kass said on CNBC Friday that he has done extensive research to develop his questions, and he is looking forward to it. Kass is the founder of Seabreeze Partners Management, and he writes a column on investing.

Amaury Fernandez and his best friend Rick Cabrera traveled to the meeting from Miami because Fernandez is interested in investing and admires Buffett and Munger.

"They are two of the most remarkable men I've ever learned about," Fernandez said. "We don't know how much longer these gentlemen are going to be alive."

Jim Weber, CEO of Berkshire's Brooks Running company, said he has been reading Buffett's annual letters to shareholders since the 1980s - long before Brooks became part of Berkshire. Weber had even attended four Berkshire annual meetings before Brooks was acquired in 2006 along with Russell Athletic.

"If you're in the business world, it's a bucket list item. There's no other annual meeting like it," Weber said.

In addition to admirers, there are also some protesters. Dozens of Utah coal miners are picketing outside the doors of Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting in downtown Omaha.

The protesters are member of United Mine Workers of America who work at Deer Creek mine near Huntington, Utah. The mine is run by Berkshire's MidAmerican Energy.

The union's contract expired in January. The company and union are negotiating, but disagree on health care coverage and safety checks. The protesters hope to influence Buffett.

Bernie Morris of Price, Utah, stood in the rain with others Saturday to hand out flyers. The 67-year-old Morris says he's worked for the coal mine for 28 years, but fears he and his wife won't be able to afford the monthly health insurance premium the company wants to charge miners and retirees.

Berkshire Hathaway reported Friday that its first-quarter profit jumped 51% as its insurance companies performed well and the value of its investments soared

The company said it earned $4.9 billion, or $2,977 per Class A share. That's up from last year's $3.3 billion net income, or $1,966 per Class A share.

The Omaha-based conglomerate says its revenue grew 15% to $43.9 billion from $38.2 billion last year.

5 students win contest to meet Warren Buffett

Five lucky students won the chance to consult Warren Buffett on their ideas for improving the health of their schools.

The students won a national contest and got to meet Buffett Friday on the eve of the annual meeting of his Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate.

The students are all Ambassadors for Fuel Up to Play 60, the wellness program backed by the NFL and the National Dairy Council. As part of winning the contest, the students will each receive $4,000 grants to implement their ideas.

Josh Miller, a fifth-grader from Maple Grove, Minn., says Buffett gave him several ideas about how to make his idea for a weekly half-hour exercise program successful.

Buffett says he was happy to play a part in the program because leaders need to be entrepreneurial.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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