Can Berkshire Hathaway survive after Warren Buffett's departure?

The 91-year-old billionaire's loyal investors say they will still stick with the company for its honesty, humility, integrity and trust

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 4, 2019 Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks to the press as he arrives at the 2019 annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. Billionaire Warren Buffett announced on July 1, 2019 that he donated $3.6 billion worth of Berkshire Hathaway stock to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and four other charities.
Buffett, 88, nicknamed the "Oracle of Omaha," will convert 11,250 of class "A" Berkshire shares into 16.9 million class "B" shares, Berkshire Hathaway said in a news release.
 / AFP / Johannes EISELE
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Berkshire Hathaway shareholders face a question that Warren Buffett sought to tackle at the company's annual meeting: How will Berkshire fare when he's no longer around?

Mr Buffett, perhaps the world's greatest investor, and with the star power to draw fans from around the world, is 91. His long-time vice chairman, Charlie Munger, is 98.

Shareholders who watched them speak for hours at the CHI Health Centre arena in Berkshire's home town of Omaha, Nebraska, are facing the reality they are in the twilight of their careers.

Still, Mr Buffett's loyal investors say they will still stick with Berkshire, citing the honesty, humility, integrity and trust they believe his company and its leadership, current and future, embody.

"The company is more than Mr Buffett," said Ernesto Medina, a 61-year-old pastor from Omaha. "It really is about people that agree on a certain set of values and ethics. And those don't change, you know — or at least I hope."

Berkshire, whose dozens of businesses include the BNSF railroad, Geico car insurance, and many energy, manufacturing and retailing companies, has a succession plan in place.

Greg Abel, 59, a vice chairman overseeing non-insurance operations, will replace Mr Buffett as chief executive when the need arises, while vice chairman Ajit Jain, 70, will likely continue leading insurance operations.

Mr Buffett's oldest son Howard would become non-executive chairman and the billionaire's portfolio managers Todd Combs and Ted Weschler would take over investments.

Asked by a shareholder how Berkshire might change over time, Mr Buffett said its building blocks will survive him.

"You've got a board of directors that understands our culture is 99.9 per cent of running the business," he said. "If we have the same culture, we will be here in 100 years."

Mr Buffett pledged that Berkshire would preserve its "special relationship" with shareholders, and was built to last.

"There is no finish point," he said. "Nobody is waiting to retire or have their option vested or thinking about 'I'll take another job.' People are doing what they want to do."

Mr Buffett acknowledged there could be changes in how Berkshire operates, noting his own autonomy to make major decisions.

"In a crazy way I look at Berkshire as a painting, and it's unlimited in size," Mr Buffett said. "It's got an ever-expanding canvas, and I get to paint what I want."

Mr Buffett said Mr Abel, in contrast, could face more questions and restrictions from other board members because they know him less well.

"They don't need to, but they'll feel they have to," Mr Buffett said.

Berkshire could also face more pressure to do better on environmental and diversity issues, and corporate governance.

Mr Buffett has fiercely resisted shareholders' calls for improvements, a battle that some analysts see as easier to win in a post-Buffett era.

That's because Mr Buffett still controls 32 per cent of Berkshire's voting power, despite owning just 16 per cent of its shares. He has already given away half his Berkshire stock to philanthropy.

On Saturday, shareholders rejected proposals to improve disclosure of climate-related risks and diversity efforts, and install an independent chair to replace Mr Buffett in that role.

Clark Nowlin, who founded the Golden Ratio coffee company in Austin, Texas, got to the arena three hours before doors opened. He was glad to see his heroes, Mr Buffett and Mr Munger.

"Every time you say, 'it's probably the last year', and they set another record in human achievement," he said.

Yet while Mr Abel and Mr Jain joined Mr Buffett and Mr Munger on stage to answer some shareholder questions, and draw wide praise from Berkshire managers and investors, neither has their magnetism.

Shareholders attending this year's meeting were unsure whether to keep making the pilgrimage after the eventual change at the top.

Amanda Greenfield, a media strategist from New York who went with her husband, said that "obviously, the financial community is still going to come", and other shareholders may want to keep their camaraderie alive.

"But people like us may not feel the need to come every year," she added.

This year's shareholder weekend, the first since 2019, was a scaled-back affair, likely because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Buffett said about 12,000 people attended the Friday shareholder shopping day for discounts from Berkshire-owned businesses, down from the 16,188 reported by the Omaha World-Herald for 2019.

The shareholder reception at Borsheims jewellery was confined to the store, shorn of the car park tent with live music and a buffet.

And even Saturday's annual meeting, normally full, appeared to have a couple of thousand empty seats when it began.

Sue Leuschen, an operations analyst from Omaha, said she was confident in Berkshire's choice of Mr Abel to succeed Mr Buffett.

"We want people to come to Omaha," she said. "He'll still do the 5K runs, he'll still do all that stuff, because that's what brings people here."

Updated: May 03, 2022, 3:30 AM