Buffett gives new hint about his successor

AFP, OMAHA, Nebraska

Tue, May 07, 2019 - Page 10

Billionaire Warren Buffett on Saturday gave a clue as to who might succeed him as the head of his Berkshire Hathaway Inc empire, but did not completely reveal his hand.

The world’s third-richest man also said at an annual shareholder meeting that Berkshire’s investment in Amazon.com Inc was not a shift in strategy toward focusing on Silicon Valley firms, which have largely remained missing from the company’s voluminous portfolio.

Buffett, 88, was pressed by questions — each greeted with a torrent of applause — about who would succeed him.

Without answering directly, Buffett said that Gregory Able, 57, and Ajit Jain, 67 — both promoted last year to the board of directors — would in the near future join him and long-time business partner Charlie Munger, 95, on the stage to answer shareholder questions.

“You could not have two better operating managers than Greg and Ajit. It’s just fantastic what they’ve accomplished,” said Buffett, who is known as the “Oracle of Omaha.”

For decades, Buffett and Munger have been the two stars of Berkshire Hathaway, but on Saturday, Jain answered a shareholder question, although he did so from the floor.

Abel in 1992 joined the company’s energy division, and for more than a year has overseen all non-insurance activities, while Jain in 1986 joined the insurance division, which he now leads.

But who will prevail, or could they jointly take the helm?

“One of the reasons we have trouble with these questions is because Berkshire is so very peculiar. We have a different, kind of unbureaucratic way of making decisions,” Munger said.

“But I don’t want to be like everybody else because this has worked better. So I think you’re going to have to endure us,” he said.

Buffett’s departure is likely to open a new era at the company, especially with shares of Berkshire considered to be 10 to 15 percent above their real value thanks to the billionaire’s presence at the helm.

Some analysts have said that a Buffett-less Berkshire Hathaway could be a candidate for being broken up into multiple companies.

On Saturday, Buffett and Munger also faced an onslaught of questions about strategy for investing in technology companies after Berkshire revealed a stake in Amazon.

Buffett said that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has pulled off “close to a miracle” by transforming an online bookseller into the e-commerce giant that it is today.

Munger also acknowledged that he and Buffett felt “ashamed” for missing the boat on Google.

“We just sat there sucking our thumbs,” he said. “We screwed up.”

However, there is no indication of a strategy shift at Berkshire to invest more heavily in tech, aside from its new stake in Amazon and a US$40 billion stake in Apple Inc.