It was a pause simply lengthy sufficient for the astute Berkshire Hathaway investor to note. Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett were sparring over whether or not Berkshire — the $631bn conglomerate they oversee — may ever be too giant to handle.
“Greg will preserve the tradition,” Munger, the 97-year-old vice chair, mentioned of their backwards and forwards. It was an commentary that made Buffett very briefly miss a beat.
Greg Abel is Berkshire’s 58-year-old vice chair who shepherds the corporate’s non-insurance investments. These embody the Burlington Northern Railroad, wide-ranging manufacturing companies and the utilities that he as soon as ran as chief government. He’s additionally one of many two males most steadily tipped to someday take over from Buffett.
Whereas a succession plan has been drawn up by the board, the inheritor obvious has been saved from the broader world. It’s a secret that has captivated Berkshire shareholders for a minimum of a decade and is among the many large questions that plague the corporate given Munger and Buffett’s ages. Buffett will have fun his 91st birthday this August.
On Saturday, buyers got their closest look but at Buffett’s two high lieutenants: Abel and his colleague Ajit Jain.
On stage, the pair sat side-by-side with Buffett and Munger on the yr’s annual assembly, taking questions and defending their methods. Abel spent a lot of his time making the case for Berkshire’s renewable power investments and why the corporate didn’t must undertake a shareholder proposal that will require it to report on measures its corporations are taking over local weather change.
Ed Walczak, a portfolio supervisor at Vontobel, was among the many buyers who observed the remark by Munger, which got here late within the day’s three-and-a-half hours of questions. He mentioned it was fascinating that the response surfaced when neither Munger nor Buffett had been requested immediately about who would take over.
“The excellent news with Greg was he had the solutions on his tongue. There was no query or ambiguity in his responses,” he mentioned. “Let’s hope Charlie is correct that the tradition may be replicated.”
Abel performed a extra high-profile position on Saturday, after a relatively subdued showing the earlier yr when he joined Buffett at a sombre annual assembly and performed a supporting position to his boss. This yr he provided his ideas on the inflation pressures affecting Berkshire, the takeover battle for rival rail operator Kansas Metropolis Southern, in addition to how he spends his days at work.
“I’m making an attempt to grasp what our rivals are doing, what’s the basic dangers round these companies, how they’re going to get disrupted,” he mentioned. “It all the time comes again to are we allocating our capital correctly in these companies relative to the danger?”
James Shanahan, an analyst at Edward Jones, mentioned Abel got here throughout as a “very succesful” government and that the assembly benefited from each his and Jain’s presence. The pair provided perception into one space the place buyers have complained they’re barely starved of knowledge: how the corporate’s underlying working companies are performing.
Given the “Berkshire playbook, which doesn’t have an lively investor relations perform, Greg’s sharing of knowledge and transparency was a welcome change”, mentioned Cathy Seifert, an analyst who covers the corporate at CFRA Analysis.
Abel and Jain had been promoted in 2018 to vice chairs of the corporate, cementing their standing as frontrunners for the chief government position and making them among the many most seen Berkshire executives alongside Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, who assist handle Berkshire’s funding portfolio. Buffett mentioned on the time that the promotions had been “a part of a motion in the direction of succession”.
However Buffett’s succession plan has drawn fire from some large shareholders. BlackRock this yr voted in opposition to Walter Scott, head of the board’s governance committee, citing “restricted disclosure on succession planning,” amongst different issues. Buffett’s outsized management position at Berkshire makes the succession danger even better, BlackRock mentioned.
“There’s this parlour recreation about succession,” Seifert mentioned. “From Berkshire’s perspective the succession difficulty has been resolved and to paraphrase . . . they’ve received Greg.”
Abel or certainly one of his contemporaries will face challenges after they inherit Berkshire, even when the corporate isn’t instantly in flux. Buffett plans to donate the overwhelming majority of his wealth, which is primarily held in shares of Berkshire Hathaway’s class-A inventory. As these shares are transformed to class-B and offered on to new buyers, the group could face extra stress from its shareholders and probably draw scrutiny from an activist, Seifert mentioned.
Buffett himself has conceded this level. In 2019 he said “there aren’t any perpetuities” and Berkshire “must should be continued in its current type”.
Strain is already constructing. Traders this yr have more and more voiced frustration with Berkshire’s efforts on local weather change. A shareholder proposal on local weather change disclosures garnered about 25 per cent of the votes forged, a determine that belies the widespread investor assist for Berkshire to undertake the measures. Buffett’s class-A inventory has 10,000 occasions the voting energy of the class-B frequent inventory that’s extra broadly held by most of the people.
Large holders of that class-B inventory, together with BlackRock and Norges Financial institution, voted in favour of the proposal.
“Remaining shareholders that voted in assist of the decision despatched the corporate a robust message concerning the significance of acknowledging local weather danger,” mentioned Dan Bakal, a director at Ceres, a sustainable investor community.
Shanahan added that Buffett’s stake distorted the result of the vote, however that over time the shift by the shareholder base would go away a mark on the corporate. “I believe that he kicked the can down the street, but it surely’s inevitable that buyers and different stakeholders will demand disclosure about progress.”
Buffett spent a part of Saturday defending how he had steered the corporate by way of the disaster and justifying why the Berkshire board suggested stockholders to vote in opposition to two shareholder proposals. In attribute vogue, he additionally joked concerning the two nonagenarians on the high.
“Folks speak concerning the ageing administration at Berkshire,” he mentioned. “I all the time assume they’re speaking about Charlie, after they say that. However I wish to level out that in three extra years [when Munger turns 100], Charlie will likely be ageing at 1 per cent a yr. Nobody is ageing lower than Charlie.”
Extra reporting by Patrick Temple-West