National Indemnity Company Building
With humble beginnings in a two‐room office with a staff of four, the National Indemnity Company was founded in 1940 as a specialty insurance firm. In just a decade’s time the business had grown to 50 employees operating in 35 states, and founders Arthur and Jack Ringwalt saw the opportunity to build a more substantial headquarters in midtown Omaha. The company engaged architect Leo A. Daly to take a forward‐thinking approach to the design of the new building, planning for future upward expansion.
Completed in 1952, the two‐story headquarters boasted a two‐story gymnasium on its eastern end, along with a knock‐out area by the entry lobby that could one day accommodate two elevators. By the 1960s, with 180 employees operating in 44 states, the company had outgrown its space and the time was right to expand. Construction began in June 1966 and by mid‐1967 the new four‐story addition (built atop the original two stories) was ready for occupancy. Because the columns of the original building protruded through the roof, the addition was constructed with little disruption to workers in the existing structure.
It was during this mid‐1960s expansion that Warren Buffet made an $8.6 million offer to purchase the company, making National Indemnity Company the first Omaha‐based organization to be acquired by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Berkshire was, at the time, a relatively small holding company, but shrewd business moves like acquiring National Indemnity allowed it to grow into an influential multinational conglomerate. During these early days, Berkshire Hathaway was so under‐the‐radar that, from 1969 to 1979, it used the fourth floor lunchroom at the National Indemnity building for its annual shareholders meeting with approximately 20 attendees. You knew the shareholders meeting was underway because a hand‐written sign was taped to the closed doors reading “Meeting in Progress.”
As Berkshire’s portfolio and prestige grew, so did the annual shareholder meeting with people gathering to hear the Oracle of Omaha’s straight talk on investing. What began as a 20‐person gathering in National Indemnity’s lunchroom had multiple evolutions throughout the years: from the Red Lion Hilton, to the Witherspoon Concert Hall in the Joslyn Museum; from the 2,000‐seat Orpheum Theater, to the Holiday Inn Convention Center and later the 10,000‐seat Civic Auditorium. In 2004 the meeting moved to its current home at the Century Link Center (formerly the Qwest Center) with a capacity of 20,000 in the main arena and supplemental meeting space for 20,000. The space was completely sold‐out at the 2014 conference. The 2015 shareholders meeting was streamed live online, easing the demand for seats at the Omaha event and creating a more expansive platform for Berkshire’s globally recognized brand.
The National Indemnity Company holds a special place in the history of this iconic organization, from hosting Berkshire Hathaway’s original 20 shareholders, to being one of the firm’s first strategic investments. As Berkshire Chairman Warren Buffett once wrote in the company’s 2004 Annual Report, “Indeed, had we not made this acquisition [National Indemnity Company], Berkshire would be lucky to be worth half of what it is today.”
NuStyle Development has acquired this Omaha landmark, and is working to preserve and adapt the historic building into 48 residential units. The lunchroom doors that for a decade welcomed Berkshire Hathaway’s founders will remain in place, marked by a commemorative plaque describing National Indemnity Company’s role in the group’s transformation into a global financial powerhouse. Though the Berkshire shareholders have long since moved out, 48 families will soon move in, breathing new life into this iconic space.