Finance

Berkshire picks Greg Abel as Warren Buffett’s successor in CEO role

Berkshire Hathaway’s famous chief executive Warren Buffett, the billionaire who has led the conglomerate for more than 50 years, is to be succeeded as CEO by vice chair Greg Abel, putting to rest one of the biggest succession questions in corporate America.

Abel will oversee the sprawling Omaha conglomerate that owns such well-known firms as auto insurer Geico and fast-food chain Dairy Queen.

Abel, a 59-year-old Canadian, isn’t expected to take the role immediately. He currently heads all non-insurance operations at Berkshire. He rose through the ranks in Berkshire’s energy operations and has handled several large company acquisitions.

Some chief executives of Berkshire’s many portfolio companies said Abel is on regular calls with them and Buffett, and separately checks in with them directly.

Investors described Abel as a level-headed presence likely to run the company in a similar way to Buffett.

“He is of the firm, he is with the firm and he knows how Warren has worked,” said Thomas Russo, managing partner of Gardner, Russo & Quinn, a long-time Berkshire investor with more than $1bn of shares.

Russo said Buffett’s most important function is to serve as a business counsellor to the many CEOs of Berkshire — to answer questions and help allocate capital — not to tell them how to run their business. Russo expects Abel to approach the role in the same way.

While Abel doesn’t share Buffett’s preference for the spotlight, he has increased his public persona in recent years. He was on stage with Buffett at Berkshire’s annual meeting both this year and last year. This year, he handled questions about Berkshire’s energy operations and the firm’s ability to meet energy targets set by the Paris accord, should the US re-enter the agreement.

Berkshire plays an outsized role in its importance as both an operating company that runs some of the most well-known brands in America and as an investment firm with significant holdings in companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola , and Bank of America.

The conglomerate has more than $140bn in cash at its disposal.

Buffett has helmed Berkshire since 1965. Even as the company grew to be one of the largest in the world, it remained highly decentralised, with each operating business run relatively independently. Berkshire employs only about 25 people at its headquarters in Omaha.

In 2018, Berkshire promoted Ajit Jain, head of the company’s reinsurance operations, and Abel to the firm’s board and new jobs overseeing Berkshire’s day-to-day operations. Jain works out of Stamford and Abel is based in Des Moines.

Over the weekend, Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s long-time vice chair, appeared to drop a major clue that Abel was the pick during Berkshire’s annual meeting with shareholders. When asked about the importance of Berkshire’s culture, Munger noted that “Greg will keep the culture”.

On 3 May, CNBC reported that Abel was next in line for the CEO role.

A person familiar with Berkshire’s board confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that Abel is the current pick to replace Buffett should the 90-year-old billionaire leave the role imminently.

Buffett didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Abel’s current remit includes railroad holdings, utilities, manufacturers, retailers and even auto dealerships. The non-insurance operations employ more than 250,000 people and are responsible for more than $150bn in sales, Buffett said on 1 May.

“He does a far better job of that than I was doing previously,” Buffett said at the annual meeting.

Abel was born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1962. According to a biography of Abel when he won an award from the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, the executive got his first job delivering advertising fliers to homes and worked as a labourer for a forest product company. He graduated from the University of Alberta in 1984.

Before joining Berkshire, Abel worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers and CalEnergy, where he helped make the small geothermal firm into a more diversified energy business. The company, which merged with MidAmerican Energy Holdings, was bought in 2000 by Berkshire.

Abel sits on the board of Kraft Heinz, a couple of mutual insurance companies and the Hockey Canada Foundation.

Outside of Abel, there are other succession plans for Berkshire.

Buffett’s son, Howard Buffett, has been expected to succeed his father as chair. And in the past decade, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler have joined Berkshire to help run the company’s investment portfolio.

Jain continues to run Berkshire’s insurance business. On 1 May , Buffett praised Jain —previously considered to be in the running as the CEO successor — saying, “He’s built the world’s leading property casualty insurance company.”

Jain and Abel described a respectful, communicative business relationship between the two of them.

Buffett and Munger are known for their tight relationship. “We have never had an argument in 62 years,” said Buffett, describing Munger as the “vice chairman of culture.”

On Saturday, Buffett said choosing the wrong people to lead an organisation is the No 1 risk for businesses.

“You get a guy or a woman in charge of it — they’re personable, the directors like ’em — they don’t know what they’re doing. But they know how to put on an appearance. That’s the biggest single danger,” Buffett said.

Some investors aren’t worried about that potential in Abel. “He’s the perfect person to lead Berkshire,” said Paul Lountzis, president of Lountzis Asset Management, a long-time Berkshire shareholder. “Though I don’t know who would want this job. There is no replacing Warren.”

Write to Geoffrey Rogow at [email protected] and Justin Baer at [email protected]

This article was published inThe Wall Street Journal.

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