Earlier this week, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) came to the defense of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon following the announcement of its tentative $13 billion settlement with the U.S. government, noting "This country is a lot better off because Jamie Dimon has been running JPMorgan."
Buffett is known for his quip: "I try to buy stock in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them. Because sooner or later, one will." Now, The Motley Fool has found a few insights from Buffett on what he valued in management, and a few CEOs who exemplify those qualities. Although his thoughts on CEOs can be few and far between, a lot can be said through the brief words of Buffett.
1. Muhtar Kent -- Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)
Kent joined Coke in 1978 and, apart from a six-year stint as CEO of a beverage company that distributed Coca-Cola and other products from 1996 to 2005, he has been with the company ever since. He was named CEO in 2008.
Buffett owns 200 million shares of Coca-Cola, and has said that he'll never sell a single one of them -- noting at the most recent annual meeting (while seated next to Muhtar) that he likes "to bet on sure things," and that he certainly considers Coke to be one of those sure things.
As it relates to Muhtar, when Coke announced in 2010 that the company would be buying its bottling operations for $12.1 billion, many were skeptical of its results. It was a difficult move because there are major differences between a high-margin consumer oriented Coca-Cola versus a low-margin capital intensive manufacturing and distributing oriented Coca-Cola Enterprises.
However, Buffett concluded of the transaction: "Well, I think on balance I like it. I mean, Muhtar Kent has done a fabulous job with Coke, and there's a lot of execution problems in doing anything like that...but with Muhtar, I feel confident in the fact that it will get carried off right now."
Considering Coke has beaten the S&P 500 in returns (not including dividends) of 50% to 30% since Kent has been CEO -- it is clear that Buffett has every right to remain confident in Kent.
2. Tony Nicely -- GEICO
In Buffett's letter to shareholders in 1996, after it was announced that GEICO was fully acquired by Berkshire Hathaway -- Buffett said of Nicely:
When we moved to total ownership of GEICO early last year, our expectations were high-and they are all being exceeded. That is true from both a business and personal perspective: GEICO's operating chief, Tony Nicely, is a superb business manager and a delight to work with. Under almost any conditions, GEICO would be an exceptionally valuable asset. With Tony at the helm, it is reaching levels of performance that the organization would only a few years ago have thought impossible...maximizing the results of a wonderful business requires management and focus. Lucky for us, we have in Tony a superb manager whose business focus never wavers.
Nicely has run GEICO ever since -- and the company has watched its premium volume grow from $2.8 billion, to $16.7 billion, as its share of automotive insurance has grown from 2.5%, to almost 10%. Warren continues to praise Nicely in all of his annual letters, and noted in the most recent one, "The credit for GEICO's extraordinary performance goes to Tony Nicely and his 27,000 associates." And he also very honestly said, "When I count my blessings, I count GEICO twice."
3. Ajit Jain -- Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance
Yes... I know... you're likely asking, who is Ajit Jain, and what does he do? Reinsurance is essentially insurance for insurance companies to help offset the risk, and Jain has been at it with Berkshire since 1985, almost exclusively behind the scenes.
Yet, Buffett's praise of Jain for his work is constant. After outlining the success that Jain has had in the year -- he's created a business with a $35 billion dollar "float," which is the difference between what is collected versus what is paid out -- in the annual letter to shareholders, Buffett almost universally concludes by noting Jain "has added a great many billions of dollars to the value of Berkshire," and ends with a fun one-liner. Here are a few:
- 2012: If you meet Ajit at the annual meeting, bow deeply.
- 2010: Even kryptonite bounces off Ajit.
- 2009: If Charlie, I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat – and you can only save one of us – swim to Ajit.
- 2000: It is impossible to overstate how valuable Ajit is to Berkshire. Don't worry about my health; worry about his.
- 1998: While Charlie and I sleep, Ajit keeps thinking of new ways to add value to Berkshire.
While Buffett is often effusive in his praise and gratitude of the CEOs who run the various Berkshire companies, it is evident that Ajit distinctly receives special recognition.
Buffett rarely speaks to what three traits he most admires, or five things he seeks in all his managers; that would be helpful for you and I to emulate. But he continuously praises those managers who understand their businesses, and often, in unassuming ways, do their jobs well, and deliver strong results. Indeed, that is something we could all seek to do.
Fool contributor Patrick Morris owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Coca-Cola. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway and Coca-Cola. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and 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.