Howard Buffett said following his billionaire father, Warren, as chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (A:US) will require upholding practices that have been prized for decades as the company grew to $240 billion in market value.
Protecting Berkshire’s culture “means that I need to make sure that people feel that they’ve been treated fairly, that whatever my dad committed to them remains committed,” Howard Buffett, 58, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Betty Liu, airing today.
During more than four decades leading Berkshire, Warren Buffett, 82, has distinguished his company from other firms through his ability to allocate capital and boost investors’ equity more than 5,000-fold per share. He’s achieved those results by practicing a management philosophy that eschews the importance of quarterly financial results and gives autonomy to the heads of the company’s more than 70 operating subsidiaries.
The billionaire, who is also the company’s largest shareholder (A:US), has said the next generation of leaders should divide his duties among a chief executive officer, investment managers and his son, a farmer and philanthropist who has been on the board since 1993.
The younger Buffett is a director of Coca-Cola Co. (KO:US), the world’s largest soft-drink maker, and once was the head of investor relations for Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. He said observing his father has helped him get ready to lead a board that also includes Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and Stephen Burke, CEO of Comcast Corp.’s NBC Universal unit.
“In a way, I’ve been preparing for it all my life,” Buffett told Liu. “In another way, I’ve been on the Berkshire board now 20 years. That’s a preparation.”
The transition to a second generation of the family atop the board makes sense only if Howard Buffett doesn’t have operational duties, said Jeff Matthews, a Berkshire shareholder and author of “Warren Buffett’s Successor: Who It Is and Why It Matters.” The father has encouraged public policies that reward people based on their merits, rather than connections, saying in 2007 that he favors “equality of opportunity.”
It is “hard to argue that out of all the potential successors to Warren Buffett, that Howard Buffett is absolutely the best guy, unless you take into consideration what the role is,” Matthews said in a phone interview. “The role as chairman is not CEO. It’s to preserve the Berkshire culture. And when you look at it that way, he’s probably the right guy.”
The elder Buffett has relied on the heads of units including auto-insurer Geico and railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNI:US) to run their businesses, leaving him time to weigh how to invest the company’s cash (A:US). He quipped in a 1999 message to shareholders laying out Berkshire’s operating principles that he and Vice Chairman Charles Munger “delegate almost to the point of abdication.”
“You don’t want a CEO who’s going to change that and drive managers away,” Howard Buffett told Liu. “That’s probably one of the key parts of it, is just making sure that part of the culture remains intact. And people that are best suited to run the business run the business.”
Warren Buffett said last year that Berkshire’s board selected a manager to be the next CEO, without identifying the person. The billionaire has also ceded more oversight of the company’s $88 billion stock portfolio (A:US) to Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, investment managers he hired in the past three years.
Howard Buffett is the second of the billionaire’s three children and the only one on Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire’s board. He said it’s hard to predict how much time he would have to spend on Berkshire responsibilities once he becomes chairman.
He lives and farms in central Illinois, and travels the world as executive director of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which works to improve subsistence agriculture and resolve conflicts tied to food shortages.
One commitment he may have to scale back: serving as an auxiliary deputy sheriff in Macon County, Illinois.
“It’s probably not great for me to strap a gun on and go out in the streets with the sheriff with that responsibility,” he told Liu. “So there will probably be some things I won’t do, or shouldn’t do, and that’s fine. But I’m doing it now, because I have the opportunity to do it.”
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