May 3, 2021
Abel's 'extreme competence' seen as ticket to following Buffett
Buffett says Greg Abel likely his replacement at Berkshire if he steps down
Replacing the irreplaceable Warren Buffett won’t be easy.
But that’s the path ahead for Greg Abel, a Berkshire Hathaway Inc. vice chairman who was publicly identified as the successor to America’s most renowned investor for the first time on Monday. Buffett said the 58-year-old executive will take over the $630 billion business when he steps down.
Abel’s more than two-decade track record at the conglomerate includes high-profile dealmaking and overseeing its sprawling non-insurance businesses, from the BNSF railroad to Dairy Queen. But Buffett’s aphorisms and stature as the Oracle of Omaha have earned him a reputation as the avuncular face of capitalism, and secured him a following that Abel may find hard to replicate.
“There’s only one Warren Buffett,” David Kass, a professor of finance at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, said in a phone interview. “But he brings other strengths to the table,” Kass said of Abel. “He exudes extreme competence.”
While Buffett has still given no indication his departure is imminent, succession questions have long loomed over Berkshire, which counts two nonagenarians as its top executives: Buffett, 90, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 97. Buffett has left a trail of crumbs pointing toward the answer, with such moves as the promotion of Abel and Ajit Jain to vice chairmen in 2018. But the biggest hint was the one Munger inadvertently dropped at Saturday’s annual meeting.
“Greg will keep the culture,” Munger said, responding to a point made by Buffett about how decentralization only works at companies such as Berkshire because of their culture.
Buffett later confirmed what Munger had let slip.
“The directors are in agreement that if something were to happen to me tonight, it would be Greg who’d take over tomorrow morning,” Buffett told CNBC. “We’ve always at Berkshire had basically a unanimous agreement as to who should take over the next day.”
Berkshire didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Abel declined to comment through an assistant.
Whitney Tilson, a longtime Buffett watcher at Empire Financial Research, said he doesn’t expect the CEO to step down for at least five years.
When Abel ascends to the top role, he’ll run a company renowned for its size and breadth -- an empire with businesses including auto insurer Geico and retailers such as See’s Candies and Oriental Trading. But he’ll also need to convince many loyal shareholders, and potentially some newcomers, that he’s the man for the job.
Berkshire already is facing pushback from shareholders with two proposals at Saturday’s meeting, one urging the company to better address climate-change risks and the other about diversity and inclusion. Both were voted down.
“The big challenge for Greg is going to be hold off what I perceive to be the increased risk of activism sort of banging on Berkshire’s door,” said Cathy Seifert, an analyst at CFRA Research. “Greg’s tenure at Berkshire is probably going to start with a heightened amount of pressure and activism.”
Buffett has spent more than five decades building Berkshire, with its array of seemingly unrelated businesses, into the massive conglomerate it is today. He’s also sought, in past letters and meetings, to explain Berkshire’s structure and all the reasons the corporation makes sense set up the way it is.
But the stock has lagged the S&P 500 in recent years, stoking criticism about the structure and the lack of investing opportunities for such a massive company. Buffett has been struggling to find ways to deploy a near-record cash pile of US$145.4 billion into higher-returning assets. Those factors could bring calls from activists or shareholders to break up the company, issue a dividend or find other ways to deploy cash.
Part of the strategy for the post-Buffett era is already decided. Buffett has previously suggested that one of his sons, Howard Buffett, should take over as non-executive chairman to keep the culture intact. Warren Buffett has historically handled Berkshire’s investments, but has added two deputies, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, in recent years to help him with the US$282 billion stock portfolio. The pair could continue to help when Abel takes over.
Investors got a glimpse of Abel’s style at the past two annual meetings. This year, he put up a presentation to talk about the energy businesses’ climate disclosures. His demeanor is more formal than the humor that marks presentations by Buffett or Munger.
But Abel’s level of insight into Berkshire’s businesses and his formality could give investors a useful level of transparency, according to Jim Shanahan, an analyst at Edward D. Jones & Co. Plus, Buffett has been cutting back on travel in recent years, and Abel’s younger age might afford him the chance to visit the operating businesses more frequently.
“There’s a chance here that he’s a more traditional CEO, not a chief capital allocator or stock picker,” Shanahan said. “He’s operationally a more traditional CEO, and there’s maybe some opportunity here for him to have a substantial impact on bottom-line operating results at these operating companies.”
Abel rose to prominence at Berkshire as a key manager of the energy operations, building those units into a business that now has more than 23,000 employees. He joined a predecessor firm in 1992 and later became part of Berkshire when Buffett bought MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. in 2000. The executive, who grew up in Canada, is also an astute dealmaker, helping the energy business buy a Nevada utility, NV Energy, and an electric-transmission company in his native Alberta.
Now, Abel has an even wider mandate. He holds roles as a board member at Kraft Heinz Co., the packaged-food company that counts Berkshire as a key shareholder, and sets compensation for the CEOs of the company’s non-insurance businesses. Both Abel and Jain were named vice chairmen in 2018 in promotions that Buffett said at the time were part of the “movement toward succession.” Abel was picked to oversee all the non-insurance businesses, while Jain ran the insurers.
Jain, 69, isn’t out of the picture. He was also on stage Saturday, detailing Geico’s battle with Progressive Corp. and joking about how he wouldn’t want to write insurance with Elon Musk on the other end. Buffett has long praised Jain, saying in 2017 that he’s probably made more money for Berkshire than Buffett has. But age was a determining factor, Buffett said.
“They’re both wonderful guys,” Buffett told CNBC. “The likelihood of someone having a 20-year runway, though, makes a real difference.”
And Jain could stick around to help when Abel takes over, according to Seifert.
“Buffett sort of said out loud what everyone was thinking,” she said about the Abel disclosure. “I also believe that Ajit’s role is secure for as long as he chooses.”