Warren Buffett names likely successor at Berkshire Hathaway

The 90 year-old chairman tells CNBC that Greg Abel, vice-chairman of the company's non-insurance business, is the person set to take charge if he steps down

Berkshire Hathaway's vice chairman Gregory Abel speaks at Berkshire's annual meeting, held virtually for a second year, in Los Angeles, California, U.S. May 1, 2021 in this screen grab taken from a live-stream video. Yahoo Finance/ Handout via REUTERS  THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT.
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Warren Buffett said Greg Abel, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s vice chairman of non-insurance businesses, would be his likely successor if the billionaire were to step down.

The board agrees that Mr Abel, 58, would take over if anything were to happen to the 90-year-old chief executive officer, Buffett told CNBC. Mr Abel had been seen as the most likely candidate.

Succession decisions had been a closely guarded secret at the conglomerate, even while the firm assured investors that it had a detailed plan in place. Ajit Jain, 69, was also often viewed as a potential pick given Buffett’s praise of the Berkshire vice chairman, who runs the insurance businesses. But age was a determining factor in the selection, according to Mr Buffett.

“They’re both wonderful guys,” Buffett, who has spent five decades at the helm, told CNBC. “The likelihood of someone having a 20-year runway, though, makes a real difference.”

Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger, 97, made a remark at Saturday’s annual meeting that stoked speculation that Mr Abel was the chosen successor. Mr Buffett was talking about how decentralisation wouldn’t work everywhere because it requires a certain type of culture.

“Yeah, but we do,” Munger said. “And Greg will keep the culture.”

Mr Abel has long been seen as the most likely candidate to replace Mr Buffett, given his age and his wide remit overseeing all the non-insurance businesses at the conglomerate. He joined a predecessor company in 1992 and later became part of Berkshire when Buffett bought MidAmerican Energy Holdings in 2000.

“The directors are in agreement that if something were to happen to me tonight, it would be Greg who’d take over tomorrow morning,” Mr Buffett told CNBC. “We’ve always at Berkshire had basically a unanimous agreement as to who should take over the next day.”

Succession remains a huge topic for Berkshire given the ages of Mr Buffett and Mr Munger and their importance in building the company into the more than $630 billion conglomerate it is today. Any successor would take on a business overseeing a wide array of operations, from insurers to a railroad to energy companies and even retailers including Dairy Queen.

“[Mr] Abel, of course, does not have the charisma, personality and reputation that [Mr] Buffett built over decades, so he’s not going to have that magnetism that [Mr] Buffett has,” 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 exudes extreme competence and success. He has a very successful track record at Berkshire and I don’t think shareholders can ask for anything more than that.”

Both Mr Abel and Mr Jain joined Mr Buffett and Mr Munger on stage Saturday to field questions from shareholders at the company’s meeting, held virtually because of the pandemic.

Mr Abel and Mr Jain were both named vice chairmen in 2018 in promotions that Buffett said at the time were part of the “movement toward succession.” Mr Abel, who previously led Berkshire’s sprawling energy empire, was picked to oversee all of the non-insurance businesses, while Mr Jain ran the insurers.

Mr Abel rose to prominence at Berkshire as a key manager of its energy operations, building those units into a business that now has more than 23,000 employees. 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, Mr Abel has an even wider mandate. He holds roles as a board member at Kraft Heinz, the packaged food company that counts Berkshire as a key shareholder, and sets compensation for the chief executives of the company’s non-insurance businesses. Shareholders have had more of a glimpse of Mr Abel in recent years, with the manager joining Mr Buffett on stage at the annual meetings this year and in 2020.