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Who Will Run Warren Buffett's Empire Next?

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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Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2014, at 1:20 PM, Wills61 wrote:

    Well...unless they sell everything in a panic...or they steal all the offense to the WB...they are still one of the most diverse holding companies I know of. Like the Fools always say, "Don't invest in stocks...invest in great companies". I really like WB but I like his holdings better. Am I wrong?

    After all imitation is the best form of flattery and we all take from the best in order to make things better.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2014, at 1:22 PM, Wills61 wrote:

    PS I would actually be more concerned about AT&T than Berkshire, but I am not.

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2014, at 10:04 AM, deepestvalue wrote:

    Warren Buffett's take on his aging:

    i. I will retire 10 years AFTER I die

    ii. If enjoying life is any indication, then the longevity record is in danger

    iii. I have built an enduring company and will last for a long time.

    iv. Berkshire has a self correcting ethos where it will push out any 'foreign body' who tries to change its culture

    v. Every one of Berkshire's unit is run by an able and honest CEO/Head. If anyone of them calls me for advice or help, then both of us are in trouble.

    Source: My understanding of Warren Buffett, the greatest teacher of Investment the world has ever known / will know in the next 1000 years !!!!

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Brendan Mathews

A Fool since 2005, Brendan is a research analyst on The Motley Fool's Stock Advisor newsletter. He enjoys scouring financial statements, pontificating on competitive advantage, and any outdoor activity.

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