It's been long accepted by the investing community and the value investing community in particular that Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) is near infallible -- and an ideal long-term core holding. But that sentiment has been rattled by last week's revelation that David Sokol, operations guru and heir apparent to Buffett as CEO, bought shares of Lubrizol (NYSE: LZ ) before Berkshire's bid to acquire the company -- in strict violation of Berkshire's trading policy and Sokol's own published guidance on business ethics.
Sokol has resigned, and the question of succession at Berkshire is up in the air. Considering that most public companies get succession horribly wrong, this is an issue that should be at the forefront of any Berkshire investor's mind and one that should come up at Berkshire's annual meeting later this month.
So is Berkshire built to last and will it succeed even after Buffett's gone? Motley Fool co-founder Tom Gardner, Inside Value advisor Joe Magyer, and Global Gains advisor Tim Hanson weigh in below.
Tom Gardner: Buffett has delivered the greatest investment returns over the longest periods of time of any investor in American history. It could be true that Buffett and Benjamin Franklin belong in the same category, which is why I wish Buffett would write his own book of investment advice. But while serious investors would do well to study Buffett every single day, I have a concern with Berkshire. I don't see enough indication that there is a system of internal learning in the culture. My fear is that Buffett truly is a complete master, and as with Howard Schultz at Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) and Steve Jobs at Apple, there is a relatively big gap between the passion, mastery, and financial stake he has and the reputational risk he has vis-a-vis that of his potential successors.
Tim Hanson: Starbucks is a clear example of a company where succession failed and shareholders paid the price as the result. Schultz did not prepare former CEO Jim Donald to succeed and really never gave him the chance to do so either -- and Donald didn't bring the same passion or skill to the business.
Another example in that regard is Michael Dell. Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) went off the rails after Michael Dell handed over the CEO position to COO Kevin Rollins, particularly with regards to customer service, and Dell still hasn't recovered. Frankly, I do think the same will happen at Berkshire. Although the company's myriad operating assets are strong enough to keep it treading water, this is such a Buffett-centric company -- regardless of what he writes in his annual letters. Buffett writes the letters, Buffett goes on TV, Buffett negotiates the high-profile deals, and Buffett even hawks the company's products. Further, Buffett tends to get a free pass on a lot of issues -- such as paying a dividend or being more transparent about succession planning -- because he's Buffett and his reputation has earned him the benefit of the doubt. The next CEO won't get those benefits and is likely unprepared to fill all of Buffett's roles -- and Berkshire will be worse off for it.
Joe Magyer: No doubt, Berkshire loses a little magic when Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger walk out the door. They're every bit as irreplaceable to Berkshire as Jobs is to Apple. That said, and despite the Sokol flap, I think Buffett has done a solid job on the succession planning front against the backdrop of the impossibility of finding an equal successor.
Buffett has done a tremendous amount of succession planning via Berkshire's checkbook. His major investments in wide-moat, long-lived businesses like railroads and regulated utilities have cemented Berkshire's staying power. Another wrinkle is that his recent purchases have all been capital-hungry businesses, which means Buffett essentially just made his successors' capital allocation decisions for them. Buffett has also bolstered Berkshire's board of directors with longtime confidants like Donald Keough, Bill Gates, and his son, Howie Buffett, all of whom know and revere Berkshire's culture and have more than a financial interest in preserving Buffett's legacy.
Berkshire investors will never earn the kinds of returns Buffett was able to deliver, but he's done an admirable job of positioning the company for success for decades to come.
Gardner: But should we just assume Buffett has judged all of these people accurately and set up a first-rate succession plan just because he's brilliant? The Sokol matter, in my opinion, raises fewer questions about ethics than it does about the quality of Berkshire's internal systems -- including succession planning. Owing to recent events, I genuinely only give it a 50/50 chance at this point that Berkshire is built to become greater still over the next 25 to 50 years.
What say you, Fools? Is Berkshire built to last? Weigh in with your comments below.