Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A, BRK-B) Vice Chairmen Gregory Abel and Ajit Jain appeared alongside 90-year-old CEO Warren Buffett and his 97-year-old right-hand man, Charlie Munger, at the company's annual meeting on Saturday, likely fueling speculation over who will eventually lead the legendary conglomerate.
“The directors are in agreement that if something were to happen to me tonight it would be Greg who’d take over tomorrow morning,” Buffett told CNBC, while also praising Jain, who's vice chairman in charge of all of the company's insurance operations, Berkshire's core business.
At last year's shareholder meeting, Abel replaced Munger on stage alongside Buffett. Though the pandemic prompted the swap, it nevertheless caught the eye of some observers who wondered whether the presence of Abel made him a front-runner to become CEO.
In 2018, Buffett added senior executives Abel and Jain to its Board of Directors, both with the title of vice chairman, fueling speculation that they were first in line to succeed him. Abel rose through the company’s energy division, while 69-year-old Jain has overseen the company’s insurance operations.
Abel also serves as Berkshire Hathaway Energy Chairman and has served on the board of directors since 2000. He was CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy from 2008-2018 and initially joined the company in 1992, bringing management experience in the energy industry. A native Canadian, he's a graduate of the University of Alberta and was once dubbed "the Oracle of Edmonton" by the Globe and Mail.
CNBC noted that one comment Munger made during the meeting hinted that it would be Abel and not Jain who would take the top spot: “Greg will keep the culture," Munger said.
For more than five decades, Buffett has run Berkshire Hathaway, which wholly owns over 60 companies, including Geico and Dairy Queen, and holds minority stakes in JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Coca-Cola (KO), among others.
The presence of Abel and Jain offered a symbolic look toward the company's future and a chance for shareholders to interact with the next generation of leaders, "Buffettologists" told Yahoo Finance before the meeting. Plus, it provided a preview of what Woodstock for Capitalism might look like after it loses its headliner, they said.
"Opening up leadership to four people as opposed to two — that’s a pretty visible commitment to presenting a strategy of succession," says Laura Rittenhouse, corporate consultant and author of “Buffett's Bites: The Essential Investor's Guide to Warren Buffett's Shareholder Letters.”
"Ajit and Greg are the key potential successors at Berkshire," she adds. "That they’re going to share the stage with Warren and Charlie reveals Warren’s commitment to ensuring a smooth succession. It's a way for shareholders to get to know more about these two potential successors."
Of course, Abel will not likely achieve the fame of Buffett, who has become an international icon and the human embodiment of humane capitalism for some.
"They’re not going to be another Warren Buffett and in some ways it's very difficult to succeed him," said Robert Miles, longtime Berkshire Hathaway shareholder and author of "The Warren Buffett CEO," before the meeting. "It's kind of like wearing Babe Ruth's number and his uniform. You’re not going to be Babe Ruth — you’re just going to be the best you are."
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