May 3, 2009 / 6:15 PM / 9 years ago

Berkshire reality: Buffett won't be there forever

OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - No issue received more attention at Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s (BRKa.N) (BRKb.N) annual shareholder meeting than who would replace Warren Buffett when he dies or decides to stop running the company.

“I can’t help but think it will affect me,” said Vicki Roberts, 49, a shareholder and Dallas-based health insurance saleswoman. “Berkshire is a really special corporation. When the first generation passes, it means change.”

Speaking to a record 35,000 shareholders Buffett said he still has three internal candidates to succeed him as chief executive, including one whom the board would install immediately if needed, and four candidates inside and outside the company to follow him as chief investment officer.

Buffett has given no hint of when he would quit, but given his age, 78, the issue remains.

Shareholders expressed confidence that Buffett has the succession issue well in hand. Yet, some admit that Buffett is a reason they bought the stock in the first place, and that when he leaves, they might too.

“That will be a time of real terror for a lot of people, and I don’t know what I’ll do,” said Clifford Glassel, 68, a retired product engineer from Red Oak, Iowa who was attending his sixth meeting.

When Fitch Ratings took away Berkshire’s “triple-A” credit rating in March, it warned of the “key man” risk that Berkshire faces, with its track record and ability to find companies to buy so closely tied to the world’s second-richest person.

“He’s very important to the company,” said Geoff Stark, 62, a dentist from Roseburg, Oregon attending his first meeting, along with his son, Brentley. “He is the company.”

At the meeting, Buffett tried to downplay the concern.

“Our sustainable competitive advantage is we have a culture and business model that people would find very, very difficult to copy, or even semi-copy,” he said. “It is a deeply embedded culture, which any CEOs who follow are going to be well-versed in when they come into the job.”

Words like that calmed Edward Roth, 77, a financial planner from Archbold, Ohio attending his first meeting.

“He’s planted the seeds of core values with his management team,” Roth said. “He’s conscious of having honourable people who can flex their muscles in their own way.”

Many reports have said possible chief executive candidates could include Ajit Jain, who runs many of Berkshire’s insurance businesses; David Sokol, chairman of MidAmerican Energy Holdings; and Tony Nicely, who runs the auto insurer Geico.


    “I had the good fortune to have lunch with Warren a month ago and asked him about that,” said Marc Rabinov, 52, a Melbourne, Australia investor attending his 13th meeting, who said he held 45 Berkshire “A” shares, worth $4.1 million.

    “He’s got the names in the envelope,” Rabinov said. “His answer to me was that he’s put a lot of thought into the names he’s put into the envelope, and that they, too, are very good at being able to assess character.”

    Some investors consider the succession issue overblown.

    “It’s one of the most foolish questions everybody asks,” said Nicholas Knapton, a lawyer from Spokane, Washington attending his second meeting. “Companies like General Electric (GE.N) and Coca-Cola (KO.N), 100 years down the line, have high returns on assets and equity. I hope I‘m in the position where I have a lot of cash, and when Warren dies, I’ll be buying.”

    Indeed, Buffett has said that if Berkshire stock tumbles on the day he’s no longer around, which many shareholders believe will happen, it is probably worth buying on the dip.

    Caroline Escobar, a 15-year-old high school student from Longmont, Colorado attending her first meeting, accepts Berkshire as a long-term investment, with or without Buffett.

    “It’s not the same because they didn’t start it and build it up,” she said, referring to Buffett’s successors. “But you’re probably pretty safe having your money with them.”

    Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Lilla Zuill, editing by Leslie Gevirtz

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