Warren Buffett's Secret Key to Building an Money-Making Empire

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway will live on and thrive without him.

Aug 9, 2014 at 12:39PM

Over the past 50 years, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has grown into a massive conglomerate with operations spanning from railroads to energy. However, one of the biggest questions about the company going forward is, "what happens to the company after its mastermind, Warren Buffett, is no longer running the show?" 

To find some answers, Motley Fool analyst David Hanson recently sat down with Larry Cunningham, the author of The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. Warren Buffett himself said of the book, "Larry Cunningham has done a great job at collating our philosophy." Cunningham also has a new book coming out this fall, titled Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of ValuesThe book explores Berkshire's ability to live on after Buffett. In the following video, Cunningham explains why there's a set of values there that hold the subsidiaries together, that turn a diverse group of companies into a single organizational force, and how it has a logic and a coherence that will be a force.

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A full transcript follows.

Hanson: The first one I had for you is what do you think the benefits, but also the disadvantages, are of Buffett keeping the succession plan so secretive? We hear a lot about the benefits, but what are those, and again what are some of the disadvantages of this?

Cunningham: I'd take a step back. I think it's a great question, but I'd take a step back on the question of succession plans for Buffett at Berkshire.

I think it's a little different than the typical succession plan at most companies, which is mostly just about identifying a capable senior manager who can assume executive duties. You see these days much talk at J.P. Morgan; who should succeed Jamie Dimon or, a couple decades ago, who should succeed Jack Welch at GE?

At Berkshire it's not as simple as, "Well, who should become the chief executive?" You've got to think about that role, the role of the investment officer, the role of the Chairman of the Board of Directors, the role of the controlling shareholder; so it's a much more complicated question. It's not just a personality. It's institution and culture.

In fact, the easiest parts are who the people will be. The harder question is, what's the institutional stability? What is the cultural continuity? Those are the real questions that I elaborate and answer in my new book.

I also spend a chapter on the people, just to break that down -- which I think is the easier thing. The Chief Executive Officer role will be split apart from the investment role, and Warren and the board have said that they would like to pick from an existing Berkshire executive officer, one of the heads of the subsidiaries.

In the book, I did a shareholder survey -- that The Motley Fool helped me do, actually -- and elicited suggestions from shareholders about who they would like to see in an executive role with Berkshire after Warren, and I got a dozen names that were identified scores of times. That's testimony to the deep bench, so that's relatively easy. There's at least a dozen people who could step in and become Chief Executive Officer.

The second function is the Investment Officer job, and Berkshire has hired two people; Ted Weschler and Todd Combs, within the past four or five years, who are being groomed to take over that job. Both of them are investing a portion -- a small portion -- but some part of the Berkshire portfolio now, so there's quite a clear level of transparency there, although they might add a third person.

The third job is Chairman of the Board of Directors, and here Warren has said that he'd prefer to have a member of the Buffett family. People think that he's referring to Howard, his eldest son. That job would be to sustain the cultural heritage and assure that the policies that have been put into place are maintained.

I think that that succession plan is actually more clearly spelled out than at many companies.

The fourth thing is the controlling shareholder piece. Buffett had been the substantial shareholder at Berkshire since 1965. He owns now about 23% of the economic power, 34% the voting power. That's the real pivot, and the plan for that is pretty well detailed.

It's not widely understood -- I detail it fairly extensively in Chapter 13 of the new book -- whereby his shares, after he passes, will be distributed gradually over a period of up to 10 or 12 years to foundations, including those of his children and those of the Gates.

That will take a very long time to distribute and be sold, so there not an automatic moment, a cliff, where one minute you have Warren the controlling shareholder and the next minute you don't. Instead, you have executors of his estate who will be carrying out his instructions and very gradually sharing the ownership with the fluid market. That's a really important piece.

So you've got CEO, CIO, Chairman of the Board, controlling shareholder. The fifth piece, which I think is absolutely the most important, is what is the culture like? How will this place continue after him?

That's, I think, the most important part of the succession plan at Berkshire, and that's really what I spend most of the time on in this new book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett, because there's a set of values there that hold the subsidiaries together, that turn a diverse group of companies into a single organizational force, and it has a logic and a coherence that will be a force, whether Warren is in charge of all those positions or those positions are shared by those other people.

The succession plan is far more elaborate than is widely appreciated, and that's one reason I wrote this book. To me, David, I think it's almost all advantages; the approach that's taken to the plan. I guess the one caveat that I would make, the disadvantage part of your question, is that the company hasn't elaborated the plan in the way that I just have.

Warren repeatedly refers to the Berkshire culture, and assures people that, "If I get hit by a truck, GEICO won't miss a beat." That's all true, but I think what hadn't been explained or elaborated is, what is it about that culture? That's the main thing I try to do in this book.

David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. 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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