Speculation on Buffett’s Successor Heats Up Before Berkshire Annual Meeting

By Noah Buhayar | May 1, 2014

Two years ago, Warren Buffett, then 81, announced that the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. board had chosen his successor as chief executive officer.

The board, he said, also had two backups, but all three names were to remain a secret. This naturally led to a frenzy of tea-leaf reading, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in May 5 issue.

Speculation was particularly high at last year’s annual meeting, where three top executives were seated with the board of directors, away from the other managers. Could Ajit Jain, Matthew Rose, or Gregory Abel be the next CEO?

The seating arrangement put them closer to a microphone if questions arose about their businesses, which are among Berkshire’s largest. Jain, 62, runs a massive reinsurance operation — a main source of funds that Buffett has used to invest in his various stock picks.

Rose, 55, heads the BNSF Railway, which Berkshire Hathaway bought outright in 2010. Abel, 51, runs Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a utility Buffett purchased in 2000.

While Jain has been seen as a likely successor for years and Rose runs the largest single unit at Berkshire, Abel is a sleeper who’s seen as a rising star, and whose career speaks to a broader transition under way at the company.

For years, Abel worked in the shadow of his business partner, David Sokol, who was widely thought to be in the race until he resigned in 2011 amid a stock-trading scandal.

Abel is not in the shadows now. He led Berkshire’s second- biggest acquisition last year, paying $5.6 billion for Nevada’s largest electric utility, NV Energy. And he was named to the board of ketchup maker H.J. Heinz, which Berkshire took private with partners in a $23.3 billion deal in 2013.

Annual Meeting

On Saturday, May 3, the dance will begin again in Omaha as tens of thousands of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, money managers, investing geeks, and packs of journalists overtake the CenturyLink Center for the company’s annual all-day investors meeting.

If last year is any guide, Omaha’s Eppley Airfield will start filling up with private jets on Thursday and hotel rooms that usually fetch $129 a night will hit $450.

Buffett-heads will lace up special edition Brooks Sports sneakers with a picture of the billionaire on the insole for a 5K fun run and shop for products from Berkshire’s dozens of subsidiaries in an expo the size of three football fields. On offer this year: green Fruit of the Loom “Berky Boxers” adorned with cartoon images of Buffett and his longtime pal, Vice Chairman Charles Munger.

It’s not just a meeting to discuss results. It’s also an affirmation that bean counters can have fun; it’s like Coachella for investors.

‘I’m Going’

“If you’re a shareholder or investment manager, you just know in early May you’re going to be in Omaha,” says David Rolfe, who started attending about a decade ago and manages $7.5 billion as chief investment officer of Wedgewood Partners. “My wife asked me, ‘Again? Why?’ And at the end I just say, ‘Dammit! I’m going.’”

The main event, for which the line forms at 4 a.m., is a five-hour session in which Buffett and Munger, 90, field questions on business, the economy, and investing. Succession is almost assured to be among the topics.

Plenty of others have contributed mightily to Berkshire’s fortune over the past five decades — dozens of CEOs actually run Berkshire’s companies — but Buffett’s ridiculous success compounding wealth by sticking to a simple, rational approach to investing year after year has made him singular.

“It’s so easy to describe,” says Meyer Shields, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. “It’s so hard to do.”

Berkshire’s Breadth

Abel can’t do it — who could? — but that may not matter. He’s a manager, and that is increasingly relevant as Berkshire evolves from a company defined by the investment brilliance of its oracular CEO to one focused on striking the occasional megadeal and running a stable of mammoth operations.

As Buffett pointed out in the last investor letter, Berkshire contains eight companies that would be in the Fortune 500 were they spun out — and half of another, Heinz. Such a creature is too big for any manager to expand at the pace Buffett sustained for almost half a century.

“You can’t have a $300 billion growth company,” says Jeff Matthews, author of “Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett’s Omaha” and a Berkshire shareholder. “It’s going to become a big, boring conglomerate.”

Sokol has been almost silent since his resignation but agreed recently to talk about his former business partner. Although he demurs when asked whether Abel will be Berkshire’s next CEO, he unequivocally says the energy executive is one of the best he’s ever known, someone who could run “virtually any company in America.”

Shuns Spotlight

He’s aware, however, that Abel shuns the spotlight almost as much as his boss seeks it out.

In the late 1990s, Sokol recalls, Abel made a hole-in-one on a golf course that’s a regular stop on the PGA Tour. “The caddies were quite excited,” he says.

Later that day, Abel’s name was etched into a plaque on the wall of the clubhouse with the names of everyone who’d accomplished a similar feat. Some visitors were admiring it, and one began reading aloud, “Lee Trevino … Jack Nicklaus … Greg Abel. …” Then, Sokol relates, someone asked: “Who the f— is Greg Abel?”

For one of Buffett’s top deputies, Abel, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has stayed impressively under the radar. He grew up in Edmonton and earned a bachelor’s of commerce degree at the University of Alberta before becoming an accountant.

Abel’s Ascent

After a stint at PricewaterhouseCoopers in San Francisco, he took a job in 1992 as a controller at CalEnergy, a geothermal power company. Its CEO at the time was Sokol, who had ambitions of building the business through acquisitions and saw talent in Abel. In 1996, CalEnergy took over an electric utility in the U.K., and Sokol sent Abel to run it.

CalEnergy bought MidAmerican Energy, a utility in Iowa, in 1998, taking on its name. Two years later, Berkshire took a controlling stake that has since expanded to about 90 percent. (Walter Scott Jr., a Berkshire board member, and his family own 9 percent, with Abel controlling the rest.)

On April 30, perhaps in another sign of Abel’s growing influence, the company changed its name again, to Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

Buffett has said utilities are not a good way to get rich, they are a way to stay rich. That quip goes a long way toward explaining why Berkshire has invested so heavily in an industry that has good — but not spectacular — returns.

Makes Acquisitions

Under Buffett, Abel’s unit has gobbled up other energy businesses. Since 2000, it has bought natural gas pipelines that stretch from the Great Lakes to Texas, taken over electric utilities that keep the lights on in places such as Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, and committed $15 billion to renewable- energy projects, including a solar farm in California that will be one of the world’s largest when it’s completed next year.

In 2008, Sokol took on a broader role at Berkshire, and Abel was named CEO of the energy company. The promotion meant he had to scout deals and complete takeovers — something he’s since proven he can do.

Last May, he met with Jonathan Halkyard, NV Energy’s then- chief financial officer, CEO Michael Yackira, and their investment banker at a private airport terminal in Denver to discuss a possible takeover.

No Bureaucracy

At the end of the three-hour conversation, the executives from Nevada invited Abel to visit Las Vegas to tour their utility. He declined, instead making an offer by phone a few days later. The acquisition was announced publicly two weeks after that.

“What impressed me was the speed,” says Halkyard. “It was clear that there was no bureaucracy.”

Abel runs Berkshire Hathaway Energy from the 29th floor of a rust-colored tower in downtown Des Moines. He holds meetings as early as 6 a.m., spends about three days a week on the road, and reads voluminously, according to more than two dozen former employees, regulators, and others who have worked with the company.

In December, shortly after Berkshire Hathaway Energy purchased NV Energy, managers there started shipping off 30- to 50-page reports twice weekly to Des Moines with operating details, according to a former employee.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy has prospered under Abel. By operating more efficiently and selling power to neighboring utilities, it went more than a dozen years without requesting a rate increase in Iowa, meaning locals pay less for power than almost anyone else in the nation.

Profit Doubled

It did so while working with regulators, lawmakers, and then-Governor Tom Vilsack to expand the amount of energy it gets from renewable sources. By the end of 2015, about 40 percent of power at its Iowa utility will come from wind. Annual profit at the business has more than doubled since 2000.

“There’s a reason why he’s one of the people who’s often discussed as possibly taking the helm of Berkshire,” says Vilsack, now U.S. secretary of agriculture. “Those would be huge shoes to fill. But if anybody’s got the capacity to do it, it’d be Greg.”

Abel exhibits little of Buffett’s natural showmanship, and he tends his image warily. Jamie Van Nostrand, an attorney who used to work with the company on regulatory matters, remembers taking Abel to meet the utilities commission in Oregon.

Nothing Fancy

Abel flew in on a private jet and had a Town Car pick him up, but then insisted on getting into Van Nostrand’s car about a mile away from the meeting. He wasn’t “going to be seen dropped off by some fancy car in the commission parking lot,” Van Nostrand says.

No matter who is picked, a different kind of man will inherit a different kind of company than the one on which Buffett made his name.

For decades the business was dominated by insurance subsidiaries that sold policies and funneled the premiums to the CEO to invest. Having great underwriters and one of the best stock pickers helped Berkshire increase its book value per share by an average of about 20 percent a year for almost five decades, propelling the value of its Class A stock (which never split) to $192,545.

Buffett, the company’s largest shareholder, is so rich that if he were a publicly traded company, he’d be the 61st-largest in the U.S., ahead of Morgan Stanley, Dow Chemical Co., and Ford Motor Co. His fortune is estimated to be $65 billion, almost all of which he has pledged to charity.

Investment Managers

To ensure Berkshire has stock-picking expertise going forward, Buffett hired two former hedge fund managers, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, in 2010 and 2011, respectively. They’ll take over the whole investment portfolio when Buffett’s no longer around and help the next CEO on deals.

“In some ways that makes the succession issue a little clearer,” says Cliff Gallant, an analyst with Nomura Holdings. “Being able to be a great stock picker is less of a requirement. It’s more about being able to run the holding company.”

Rose, who heads BNSF, is an obvious candidate. The railroad contributed $3.8 billion of Berkshire’s $19.5 billion profit last year and employs 43,500 people.

Because BNSF touches almost every major industry — it hauls everything from cars, wheat, and coal to iPads — Rose would be well equipped to understand the needs of Berkshire’s wide-ranging subsidiaries.

In December, the railroad announced that he was becoming executive chairman and handing over the CEO title he’d held for 13 years. Analysts and investors speculated that the shift would free him up to take a larger role at Berkshire.

Jain’s Job

Then there’s Jain, who runs Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group, working with a bare-bones staff in Stamford, Connecticut. He built it from scratch and is known for taking on obscure and difficult-to-assess risks.

The group provides a backstop for insurance companies’ potential losses from natural disasters, asbestos liabilities, and terrorism. In the process he’s racked up billions of dollars in underwriting profits.

Buffett and Jain talk almost daily, and Buffett publicly showers him with praise. On a visit to India in 2011, he said Jain wasn’t angling for his job, but that “if he was, the board of directors would probably put him in there in a minute.”

‘Totally Honorable’

He added that the executive had always acted in a way that was “totally honorable” — a phrase that gained new meaning in light of Sokol’s departure. (Sokol resigned right after Buffett’s India trip; a board investigation later found that Sokol had broken the company’s insider-trading rules, though the Securities and Exchange Commission did not pursue any enforcement action.)

Still, Jain may not want the responsibility of running a business with more than 300,000 employees that has its every move scrutinized. Jain and Rose declined to comment.

Berkshire may need a grinder now, and Abel could be that man. (A hockey player and nephew of Detroit Red Winger Sid Abel, he would understand the position, a hardworking player who isn’t asked to sign many autographs.)

He’s shown at Berkshire Hathaway Energy that he knows how to manage thousands of employees, keep public officials happy, and deploy billions of dollars in projects that earn attractive returns.

He may need even more than that. Overstating Buffett’s influence on the company is difficult; he is his own economic force. Stock prices jump when he reveals a major holding. President Obama seeks his advice on economic policy. He manages to touch total strangers on a deeply personal level.

Life Changer

“Warren Buffett changed my life,” says Charlie Tian, a former physicist who started following Berkshire a decade ago after losing money in the dot-com crash. He now runs a website devoted to value investing.

Perhaps most impressively, Buffett is the kind of person who can convince the investing public that a conglomerate such as Berkshire Hathaway is a good idea.

Conglomerates have been out of favor in the financial world for decades. Charles Bluhdorn built an empire under Gulf + Western, assembling companies as diverse as Paramount Pictures, Consolidated Cigar, Madison Square Garden, and Simmons Bedding, among others. The parts sale began soon after he died of a heart attack in 1983.

In most cases these days, there is suspicion about even the most sympathetic marriages, as with Carl Icahn’s recent attempts to separate the apparently well-matched, well-managed PayPal from EBay.

Buffett’s successor will be one of the richest and most influential people in the U.S. Among dozens of companies, he will control BNSF and Dairy Queen, H.J. Heinz and Benjamin Moore, Geico and Nebraska Furniture Mart, Fruit of the Loom and the Pampered Chef, NetJets and the Buffalo News. And he will have to get up every morning and convince the rest of the world they belong together.

There is no other position like it.

 

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