Buffett's likely successors step up at Berkshire annual meeting

NEW YORK • Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholder meeting often features questions about the challenges and strategies of whoever succeeds chief executive Warren Buffett.

This year, investors got to see the likely candidates in action. When confronted with a question about succession, Mr Buffett pointed out that deputies Greg Abel and Ajit Jain were there and available to take questions. The pair ended up fielding multiple queries on energy investments and insurance.

Mr Buffett, 88, and vice-chairman Charlie Munger, 95, still grabbed the vast majority of the speaking time during the more than five hours of questions and answers, and both gave no sense of wanting to step back from their roles in the sprawling conglomerate they have built. But the appearances offered shareholders a bit more familiarity with two executives who took direct oversight of the company's primary operating units last year.

"The truth is Charlie and I are afraid of looking bad, those guys are better than we are," Mr Buffett told shareholders. "They know the businesses better, they work harder by far, and you are absolutely invited to ask questions to be directed over to them at this meeting."

Mr Abel, 56, who runs all of Berkshire's non-insurance operations, is seen as the more likely CEO successor because of his younger age and broader remit.

Mr Buffett has repeatedly said that Mr Jain, 67, has probably made more money for shareholders than he has.

The Berkshire chief has historically shunned investing in technology companies, but with the world's five most valuable corporations now hailing from that sector, the billionaire was asked whether that should change. He and Mr Munger expressed regret that they missed several stocks that exploded in value, including Google.

  • 5%

  • Rise in Berkshire Hathaway's operating profit in the first quarter to US$5.56 billion (S$7.6 billion) as the company benefited from gains at its railway BNSF, its energy empire, and the manufacturing and retail businesses.

Mr Munger offered that perhaps the company's recent investment in Apple, which has yielded more than US$10 billion (S$13.6 billion) in gains, atoned for some of the missed opportunities.

Mr Buffett said several tech companies, including Amazon, could be evaluated in a way that was not too far from the value-investing framework he has long espoused. But he said he would not be drawn into investing in businesses he did not understand and would not add teams of managers to be specialists in different industries.

Berkshire's operating profit rose 5 per cent in the first quarter to US$5.56 billion as the company benefited from gains at its railway BNSF, its energy empire, and the manufacturing and retail businesses.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2019, with the headline 'Buffett's likely successors step up at Berkshire annual meeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe