The newswires lit up last week when Berkshire Hathaway
To say that Combs is not particularly well-known in the investing community is a bit of an understatement, so not surprisingly much of the coverage was driven by curiosity over who he is and why Buffett tapped him.
But I'm a Berkshire shareholder myself, so I'm less concerned with what Combs looks like and more concerned about what he means to Berkshire. So with that in mind, here are seven (mostly serious) reasons that Berkshire shareholders should be happy about the Combs hire.
- Buffett is actually succession planning. I'm a big Penn State football fan, and I sometimes like to pretend that Joe Paterno will be around forever. But alas, he won't be and neither will Buffett. Now that Buffett is officially over 80, it's not surprising that succession talk has been swirling. With the Combs hire, we at least know that Buffett isn't handling succession planning the way I handle the laundry ... "Don't worry, I'll get to it later."
- Age. I'll be the first to testify to the fact that you can teach old dogs new tricks (I've done it). But it's not easy. At 39 years old, Combs is old enough that Buffett won't be changing his investing diapers, but still young enough that there's room for Buffett to nudge him in certain directions.
- Price. We all know that Buffett is known as a value investor, and many of us shareholders also know that both Buffett and partner-in-crime Charlie Munger collect a very modest $100,000 salary. Berkshire's CFO, Marc Hamburg, makes a considerable amount more, but it's highly unlikely that Berkshire was ready to pay a big-time investment manager anywhere near what he could earn at a largish hedge fund. In fact, rumors have swirled that Greenlight Capital's David Einhorn may have passed on the opportunity because of the compensation issue. Since Combs isn't a brand-name manager and was heading up a pretty modest-sized fund, it's likely Berkshire was able to snag him for a very reasonable salary.
- Understands insurance and finance. Though Berkshire Hathaway owns a broad array of companies, it's no stretch to say that insurance and financial companies have a special place in Buffett's heart. Prior to running the Castle Point hedge fund, Combs worked at a Florida bank regulator and then did a stint in the pricing department of auto insurer Progressive, so he's actually gotten his hands dirty in both businesses.
Invests in finance and insurance. Following the above point, financial companies play a significant role in Berkshire's investment portfolio. Wells Fargo
(NYSE: WFC)and American Express are both top-five holdings, and the company also has significant stakes in Munich Re, US Bancorp (NYSE: USB), Swiss Re, and M&T Bank (NYSE: MTB). Castle Point's portfolio is finance focused, with US Bancorp as its top holding (as of June 30). Other major positions include MasterCard (NYSE: MA), RenaissanceRe, and Annaly Capital (NYSE: NLY).
- This is what Buffett does. Let's remember one thing that's been a hallmark of Buffett's success: picking good managers. Sure, he mostly goes for businesses that can be run by a ham sandwich, a can of Cherry Coke, or something like that, but Buffett has always been big on getting the right people running the businesses that he owns and leaving them the heck alone to do their thing. And in the majority of cases it's worked out beautifully. For that reason, I have a lot of faith in Buffett's ability to pick the right people to fill his shoes.
- It doesn't matter all that much. Let's be honest here, Berkshire Hathaway isn't a swashbuckling little investment company that's going to live or die on its next big stock purchase. It's a lumbering hulk that's broadly diversified and has been purposely engineered by Buffett (at least if you ask me) to be virtually self-sustaining. Undoubtedly, bad people in charge could screw things up, but when you have an investment portfolio dominated by huge positions in companies like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, you really don't need the next Warren Buffett to keep the ship righted.
Not all of Buffett's picks are consumer goods and finance. My fellow Fools have identified a "risky" health-care company that Buffett has been buying and explain why it could be a hot pick. To get this free report, just click here and enter your email address.