Who Will Run Warren Buffett's Empire Next?

Buffett, Munger, and Jain are all irreplaceable, but Berkshire Hathaway is grooming its next set of leaders, including Matt Rose, Greg Abel, Ted Weschler, Todd Combs, and Tracy Britt Cool.

May 24, 2014 at 1:00PM

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For Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B), succession is a huge issue. Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett is 83-years-old. He appears sharp, energetic, healthy, and dedicated to a few more decades of success at Berkshire. But eventually, his time leading the company will end.

Given that he's such a uniquely talented investor and businessman, it's natural for investors to worry. During the annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger addressed the issue of succession for Buffett, Munger, and Ajit Jain, head of the company's reinsurance division. 

Below are my notes on succession-related questions, along with responses from Warren and Charlie.

Question: Has the board discussion turned to replacing your friend and vice chairman Charlie Munger?

Warren Buffett: Charlie is my canary in the coal mine. Charlie turned 90, and I find it encouraging how well he is handling middle age. I hope to do the same thing myself. They always talk about replacing me, but they never talk about replacing Charlie. Whoever replaces me will probably find someone they work closely with. We saw it with Don Keough and Roberto Goizueta at Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), and Tom Murphy and Dan Burke at Capital Cities. They worked better together, and I think partnership enhances things. But frankly, I have a lot of trouble thinking of anyone that could replace Charlie.

Charlie Munger: I don't think the world has much to worry about. Most 90-year-old men are gone soon enough.

In short, Munger is irreplaceable. He's a master of worldly wisdom, and he's been an invaluable counselor to Buffett. 

Question: Matt Rose recently shifted from CEO of BNSF to executive chairman. Does that change anything at Berkshire? What about succession for Ajit Jain?

Buffett: The only succession for Ajit will be reincarnation. We won't get another Ajit, but fortunately, we won't have to anytime soon. The situation with Matt doesn't have any implication for Berkshire. I have letters from every one of our managers telling me what I should do if something happens to them. I have their ideas. I wouldn't try to discern anything about parent-company succession based on subsidiary succession.

Munger: I don't worry over the fears of succession problems. Folks have worse problems in life. We're doing very well.

Jain is also irreplaceable. Fortunately, he's only 62, so hopefully he won't retire anytime soon. Matt Rose, though Buffett didn't confirm anything, is certainly a leading candidate for the next CEO. During the meeting, Buffett asked Rose to help answer questions several times. 

Question: Todd Combs and Ted Weschler have gone from managing $3 billion to $7 billion, but still less than 10% of your total investment portfolio. Given both men have seemingly been involved in more than just investing, will Todd and Ted join you and Charlie on stage here at some point?

Buffett: I got through college answering fewer questions than that. It's under $7 billion now. We will adjust that upward over time. They, as well as I, are seeing that it gets more difficult as the sums get larger. And it's still far better to move more money to them and away from me. And they are tremendous additions to Berkshire -- they know a lot of business. Ted and Todd have both been very helpful in doing things beyond their investment management duties that added value. That will continue as they like it, and they don't ask for extra comp for it. They know how I think, so they can get deals done.

Obviously, this is a strong vote of confidence for both Weschler and Combs, whom shareholders should expect to shoulder the company's investment decisions when Buffett eventually steps down. 

Rose, Weschler, and Combs aren't the company's only prominent leaders. Greg Abel, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy (formerly MidAmerican Energy) is also a leading candidate for the next CEO. During the meeting, Buffett called on Abel several times to help answer questions about the energy business. Clearly, Buffett trusts him. Tracy Britt Cool, though fairly young, works closely with Buffett, and she's gained his trust and respect. It's encouraging to see Berkshire developing another generation of leaders, though I'm in no hurry for a transition.

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Brendan Mathews owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway and Coca-Cola. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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