New York - Two years ago, Warren Buffett, then 81, announced that the Berkshire Hathaway board had chosen his successor as chief executive.
The board, he said, also had two back-ups, but all three names were to remain a secret. This naturally led to a frenzy of tea-leaf reading.
Speculation was particularly high at last year’s annual meeting, where three executives were seated with the board of directors, away from the other managers. Could Ajit Jain, Matthew Rose or Gregory Abel be the next chief executive?
The seating arrangement put them closer to a microphone if questions arose about their businesses, which are among Berkshire’s largest. Jain, 62, runs a massive reinsurance operation – a main source of funds that Buffett has used to invest in his various stock picks.
Rose, 55, heads the BNSF Railway, which Berkshire Hathaway bought outright in 2010. Abel, 51, runs Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a utility Buffett purchased in 2000.
While Jain has been seen as a likely successor for years and Rose runs the largest single unit at Berkshire, Abel is a sleeper who is seen as a rising star and whose career speaks to a broader transition under way at the company.
For years, Abel worked in the shadow of his business partner, David Sokol, who was widely thought to be in the race until he resigned in 2011 amid a stock trading scandal.
Abel is not in the shadows now. He led Berkshire’s second-biggest acquisition last year, paying $5.6 billion (R59bn) for Nevada’s largest electric utility, NV Energy. And he was named to the board of tomato sauce maker HJ Heinz, which Berkshire took private with partners in a $23.3bn deal last year.
Tomorrow the dance will begin again in Omaha as tens of thousands of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, money managers, investment geeks and packs of journalists overtake the CenturyLink Centre for the company’s annual all-day investors meeting.
“If you’re a shareholder or investment manager, you just know in early May you’re going to be in Omaha,” says David Rolfe, who started attending about a decade ago as the chief investment officer of Wedgewood Partners.
The main event is a five-hour session in which Buffett and vice-chairman Charles Munger field questions on business, the economy and investing. Succession is almost assured to be among the topics.
No matter who is picked, a different kind of man will inherit a different kind of company from the one on which Buffett made his name.
For decades the business was dominated by insurance subsidiaries that sold policies and funnelled the premiums to the chief executives to invest.
Having great underwriters and one of the best stock pickers helped Berkshire increase its book value per share by an average of about 20 percent a year for almost five decades, propelling the value of its class A stock to $192 545.
Berkshire may need a grinder now, and Abel could be that man. (A hockey player and nephew of Detroit Red Winger Sid Abel, he would understand the position, a hard-working player who is not asked to sign many autographs.)
He has shown at Berkshire Hathaway Energy he knows how to manage thousands of employees, keep public officials happy and deploy billions of dollars in projects that earn attractive returns.
He may need even more than that. Overstating Buffett’s influence on the company is difficult; he is his own economic force.
Buffett’s successor will be one of the richest and most influential people in the US.
Among dozens of companies, he will control BNSF and Dairy Queen, HJ Heinz and Benjamin Moore, Geico and Nebraska Furniture Mart, Fruit of the Loom and the Pampered Chef, NetJets and the Buffalo News. And he will have to get up every morning and convince the rest of the world they belong together.
There is no other position like it.