Berkshire without Buffett. Hard to imagine, but what will it look like?
Hopefully it's a question that won't need to be answered for many years. But at some point Warren Buffett will no longer being piloting Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B), and the identity of the person he and the board of directors have tabbed to take his place is of great importance to a great many shareholders. Me included.
At the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha, Motley Fool analyst Matt Koppenheffer and I talked with several people about the company's transition plans. Many names have been bandied about.
George Washington University law professor Lawrence Cunningham has thought about this for years. As part of his new book Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values, Cunningham conducted an extensive shareholder survey. In it, each shareholder was asked to nominate three people they thought would make for a worthy Buffett successor. Ten names were mentioned a large number of times in the survey, most notably Matt Rose of BNSF, Greg Abel of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Ajit Jain, head of Berkshire's Reinsurance Group, Lubrizol's James Hambrick, and Frank Ptak at the Marmon Group.
Another of the world's foremost Buffett experts is Andy Kilpatrick, the author of Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett. He also has a list of likely candidates, and not surprisingly it's similar to Cunningham's. But Kilpatrick also reminds us that things can change, and Buffett may not have even met his successor yet. With the Oracle of Omaha in good health, Berkshire probably still has a few big acquisitions to make under his guidance. What if the leader of one of those businesses is a superstar?
Andy Kilpatrick: I can give you the same names that the press gives, Ajit Jain, and whether he will take it is a question. There was an excellent story about Greg Abel (of Berkshire Hathaway Energy). Matt Rose seems very much in favor. Could it be someone younger and up and coming? I think it could change over five or ten years. Buffett looks in great health. Suppose it went another ten years and he bought another company and that guy was a star?
But I think those three names to me are the obvious ones. Tony Nicely at GEICO is another. It all may depend on age and that sort of thing. But I think in those names is the logical place to look. There could be some surprise, but he has said it is male, that he works for Berkshire, I think you can sort of get a good idea as to whether you like those three or four people. They are not going to be Buffett, but they're going to be very good.