Surprisingly, This Warren Buffett Myth Is Dead Wrong

Warren Buffett may not know who is going to step into his billionaire-shoes.

Aug 31, 2014 at 7:24AM

Over the past 50 years, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-B)(NYSE:BRK-A) 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? Is it really possible to replace one of the greatest capital allocators of all-time?"

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 AmericaWarren 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 he believes the succession plan has been so much more careful than is widely known, that it will turn out to be far less important than many people think or fear. He also believes that it's likely the front-runners will change over the years.

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A full transcript follows.

Hanson: It almost sounds like the CEO part of that; the operator part of those five parts, is something we could look back on in 20 years, after Buffett is ... potentially gone -- he may still be around in 20 years -- but if he is gone, it may be something where we look back and say, "Hey, it really wasn't that big of a deal to replace Warren Buffett in that role, or it wasn't as monumental as everyone's building it up to be," because they have communicated the CIO role, the Chairman role, a little bit more than the CEO role. So, maybe we're making a little too much of it. I don't know.

Cunningham: Yes, I think so. I think it's enormous shoes -- we want to stress that -- and as you say, he's totally healthy, so we may have this conversation in 10 or 20 years. But I agree.

Look, people have intensified this discussion because when iconic leaders leave companies it's very common for the company to radically change; so it's a fair question to look at. But my impression? I share yours. I think it might turn out that the plan has been so much more careful than is widely known, that it will turn out to be far less important than many people think or fear.

Hanson: Right. I'm not going to ask you to make any predictions on who you think is going to be the replacement in the CEO role, but to me it seems like who those speculative candidates have been over the years ... it's changed, even in the last five years. Now we're hearing names like Matt Rose, Greg Abel. That's what everyone's guessing, is maybe one of those guys is the person to step in.

But if you go back 5 or so years, 10 years, everyone is saying, "Oh, it's going to be Ajit Jain. That's who it's going to be." What do you think the chances are that the picture looks completely different in another 5 years, another 10 years? Is it possible that Berkshire makes another big acquisition and someone completely new comes into the fold and changes what that succession plan looks like?

Cunningham: Right. I think it is as likely as not, to change. You're absolutely right about that. If you look back 20 years, the formal plan was that Charlie Munger would succeed Warren as the Chief Executive Officer and Lou Simpson, who was the Investment Head at GEICO, would succeed him on the investment side -- and both of those guys grew old, waiting!

Charlie's still there as Vice Chairman, but he's not suited to be a successor, at 90, and Lou Simpson retired 12 or 15 years ago.

At that stage, the new commonly identified successors were David Sokol, who ran MidAmerican Energy at the time for 12 years, and Rick Santulli, who founded and then ran NetJets for a long time. They were seen as the heirs apparent, and there's a bit of a drama there. I recount a dramatic encounter between those two fellows, when they were seen that way, and they both left. Both resigned from the company in complex, controversial circumstances.

Now Matt, as you say, and Greg, and Ajit is named often, Frank (Ptak) at the Marmon Group, and quite a few others. Right now, it might be that if the truck were to hit today, the perfect person would be Matt or Greg.

But you're right that, in a year from now or two, the circumstances of the need -- exactly how it happens, exactly when it happens, what's going on with the company -- might warrant a different person; Doris Christopher, or Bruce Whitman for heaven's sake, or any one of the people on the deep bench.

I think it's absolutely true that you could see a different group, a different top two or three or four, next year or the year after, or in 10. That's, incidentally, another advantage -- to go back to your first question -- of not naming names as an official matter from the board room or from the executive suite, is that it does change, and it's probably better not to anoint someone, especially at a company like Berkshire where there are scores of operating subsidiaries headed by such capable people with heavy decentralization.

To name one of them ahead of time wouldn't be productive, and could have some negative effects. I think the case with Santulli and Sokol, that I describe in the book, is an example of that. It might have been better for Berkshire if neither of them thought -- or other people didn't think -- that they were the heirs apparent.

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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