Berkshire board member blesses Buffett's successor but warns—'he's not going to be as entertaining as Warren and Charlie'



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Everyone knows Warren Buffett ‘s successor won’t be able to match the legendary investor, but Berkshire Hathaway ‘s board remains confident Greg Abel is the right guy to one day lead the conglomerate into the future.

Longtime Berkshire board member Ron Olson told investors gathered Thursday at a conference two days ahead of the company’s annual shareholders meeting that Abel understands all the fundamental principles that guided Buffett, like letting Berkshire’s companies largely run themselves. And Abel will be committed to running Berkshire in a conservative way that will protect the company that’s known for it financial strength, he said.

“Greg is not somebody who is going to be as likely to create the kind of following in the press that I think Warren has had,” Olson said. “On the other hand. I have every reason to believe that he will run the companies that we have the responsibility for in the same way that Warren ran them.”

Olson said he’s confident business owners will still be willing to sell their companies to Berkshire once the Canadian utility executive takes over after the 93-year-old Buffett is gone.

Olson said he doesn’t think last year’s public legal fight with the billionaire Haslam family over how much Berkshire would ultimately pay for the last 20% of the Pilot truck stop chain the family agreed to sell to Buffett will be a deterrent to future deals either. Both the Haslams and Berkshire accused each other of trying to manipulate Pilot’s earnings to affect the final $2.6 billion price.

Business owners considering selling can see all the positive and respectful relationships Berkshire has with its dozens of other subsidiaries on display in the 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall adjoining the arena where Saturday’s meeting will be held, Olson said.

In fact the legal battle gave Olson, who is a partner at Berkshire’s primary law firm, the chance to work closely with Abel, giving him even more confidence in the board’s chosen successor.

“I could tell you that his preparation and thinking was impressive. He is strategic in his thinking. And he is decisive in his judgement,” Olson said.

Plus, Berkshire is sitting on more than $167 billion cash, so it has ample resources to do deals and, Olson said, “people generally like to be paid in cash.”

Abel, who keeps a low profile and doesn’t typically grant interviews, will be answering questions alongside Buffett for hours Saturday, trying to help fill the role Buffett’s longtime partner Charlie Munger held for decades before he died last fall. Abel has been overseeing all of Berkshire’s varied non-insurance businesses for several years while another vice chairman, Ajit Jain, oversees the insurance businesses, including Geico and General Reinsurance.

Olson said Abel is a numbers guy who can dissect a business’ balance sheet as quickly and well as Buffett, and he’s also a great listener that people like to work with.

But, Olson said, “Greg is not going to be as entertaining as Warren and Charlie have been through the years.”

So Munger’s absence will be felt acutely on Saturday by all the thousands of people attending the meeting. There simply is no way to replace the expertise, advice and friendship Munger offered to Buffett for more than six decades.

Professor Lawrence Cunningham, who has written several books about Berkshire, said he thinks even with the profound loss of Munger the company he helped build will endure.

“The chair is empty. There’s no way to fill it. But I’m also confident that Warren — and especially Greg and Ajit — will carry on the torch,” Cunningham said.

Berkshire has been grappling with succession questions for decades, but Cunningham said he thinks Buffett and Munger built an organization bigger than themselves that will endure.

Olson said Berkshire’s board knows there just isn’t another Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger out there to replace those two men.

After Buffett dies, Berkshire will face pressure as the shareholder base evolves to include more index and activist investors. One of the things investors may demand is that Berkshire change its longstanding policy and start paying a dividend if it can’t find a good use for all that cash.

Olson said the board hasn’t ruled out paying a dividend at some point in the future, but it also hasn’t seriously considering approving one now with Buffett still at the helm.

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