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Buffett Succession Gains Clarity as Berkshire Promotes Abel, Jain

Buffett Succession Gains Clarity as Berkshire Promotes Abel, Jain
(Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Wednesday, 10 January 2018 01:57 PM

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. on Wednesday promoted two of its top executives, Gregory Abel and Ajit Jain, adding them to its board and cementing their status as the most likely successors to Warren Buffett atop the conglomerate.

Abel, 55, chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, was named Berkshire's vice chairman for non-insurance business operations, while Jain, 66, Berkshire's top insurance executive, was named vice chairman for insurance operations.

Buffett, 87, will remain chairman and CEO of the roughly $500 billion conglomerate he has run since 1965. Charlie Munger, 94, who has worked at Buffett's side for more than four decades, will stay vice chairman.

Both will continue handling major capital allocation and investment decisions, including acquisitions, for the Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire, though they have reduced their responsibilities in recent years as they have gotten older.

"It is probably fair to say it's not just the Warren and Charlie show any more," said David Rolfe, who oversees $5 billion of assets at Wedgewood Partners Inc in St. Louis, whose largest holding is Berkshire.

"Today's news codifies the importance of Greg Abel and Ajit Jain to not just their current businesses, but their future authority once Buffett relinquishes the CEO title," he added.

In an interview on CNBC, Buffett called the changes "part of the movement toward succession over time," saying Abel and Jain are "the two key figures" at Berkshire and "have Berkshire in their blood."

Many investors and analysts view Abel as the favorite to become CEO, citing his age and experience in acquisitions and operations.

Regardless, Paul Lountzis, president of Lountzis Asset Management LLC in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, said "shareholders should be happy that these large, large contributors to Berkshire's value are now vice chairmen, and on the board." He also views Abel as the top candidate.


Berkshire has more than 90 operating units including the BNSF railroad, Geico auto insurance, the Dairy Queen ice cream chain, Fruit of the Loom underwear, See's Candies, and a variety of industrial and chemical operations.

While Munger had the idea to make Abel and Jain vice chairmen, Buffett said on CNBC that managing a large portion of Berkshire would provide valuable experience to his successor.

Buffett dismissed the idea of a horse race between Abel and Jain for the top job.

"They know each other well, they like each other well, they both have their areas of specialty," he said.

Berkshire's board will grow to 14 members from 12 with the addition of Abel and Jain.

Buffett, who first publicly raised the succession issue more than a decade ago, said he remained in "remarkably good health" and that his health was not a factor in making the announcement, but said "maybe six weeks ago, I just decided, 'Why not now?'"

He declined to say how long he expected to remain at the helm but said: "Ten years would be a long time."

Munger separately told CNBC he thought Berkshire shareholders had "seven or more good years coming out of Warren," but "not very many" out of him.

"I have to face reality," Munger said.

None of the executives was immediately available for interviews.

In late-morning trading, Berkshire Class A shares rose $2,010 to $306,530 and its B shares rose $1.61 to $204.63.


Abel, who grew up in Alberta, Canada, joined Berkshire Hathaway Energy in 1992. His Iowa-based unit now runs several power companies in the United States, Canada and Britain, as well as natural gas pipelines and solar and wind farms.

Jain, who joined Berkshire in 1986, runs the reinsurance operations, providing coverage against major catastrophes and generating tens of billions of dollars of premiums for Berkshire to invest.

While Berkshire remains best known for insurance and reinsurance, the sector generates only about one-fourth of operating results as the company has diversified.

Nevertheless, Buffett, the world's third richest person according to Forbes magazine, has long said Jain has probably made more money for Berkshire than he has.

"If Jain become CEO it would be great, but the complexity of the insurance business requires someone there with more day-to-day supervision," Wedgewood's Rolfe said.

In the CNBC interview, Buffett repeated that the board, whose members include Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates, can install a new CEO within a day when he steps down, dies or becomes incapacitated.

Speculation that Abel and Jain were the top candidates grew after Munger singled them out as "world-leading" performers in a 2015 letter to Berkshire shareholders.

Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, who are Buffett's investment deputies, are expected eventually to succeed Buffett as Berkshire's chief investment officer.

Buffett's eldest son, Howard, is expected to become Berkshire's non-executive chairman, to help preserve the company culture. 

© 2019 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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Berkshire Hathaway Inc. on Wednesday promoted two of its top executives, Gregory Abel and Ajit Jain, adding them to its board and cementing their status as the most likely successors to Warren Buffett atop the conglomerate.
buffett, berkshire, succession, abel, jain
Wednesday, 10 January 2018 01:57 PM
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