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Cash-rich Berkshire embraces the idea of life after Buffett

By Katherine Chiglinsky

Warren Buffett waited until the very last page of his annual shareholder letter to reveal a big change: Shareholders will be hearing more from top lieutenants Ajit Jain and Greg Abel.

The pair, seen as the top contenders to eventually replace Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s 89-year-old chief executive officer, have often remained behind the scenes, tending to Buffett’s collection of insurers and its array of businesses that span from energy companies to the Dairy Queen fast-food chain. But a quirk of last year’s annual Berkshire meeting, during which Jain and Abel both answered some shareholder questions, will become more formalized at the 2020 event.

“I’ve had suggestions from shareholders, media and board members that Ajit Jain and Greg Abel -- our two key operating managers -- be given more exposure at the meeting. That change makes great sense,” Buffett said in the letter Saturday, adding that investors can direct questions to the pair. “They are outstanding individuals, both as managers and as human beings, and you should hear more from them.”

The billionaire investor’s annual letter -- scoured by investors for clues on succession and Buffett’s outlook for the $560 billion conglomerate -- gave no further clues on his eventual replacement, and no indication he’d step away soon after more than five decades at the helm. But the next CEO will need to figure out how to deploy the cash Berkshire rakes in every quarter, a responsibility Buffett finds increasingly challenging because of Berkshire’s “huge and ever-growing sums of money.”

No Deal
Last year, Buffett failed to find a major deal to deploy all that cash -- a $128 billion pile by the end of 2019 -- and help supercharge Berkshire’s growth.

“The opportunities to make major acquisitions possessing our required attributes are rare,” Buffett said. “Far more often, a fickle stock market serves up opportunities for us to buy large, but non-controlling, positions in publicly traded companies that meet our standards.”

Both Jain and Abel have proven themselves as dealmakers before. Buffett praised Jain in this year’s letter for striking the 2012 deal for Guard Insurance Group, run by Sy Foguel, with the company’s premium volume having climbed 379% since the purchase. Abel, meanwhile, built the energy empire that now has footholds in states including Nevada, Oregon and California, and operations in the U.K.

Giving the pair more speaking time is “very revealing and important,” James Armstrong, who manages about $825 million, including Berkshire shares, as president of Henry H. Armstrong Associates. “Greg and Ajit are now formally running these giant groups, which are the heart of the company, and I think it’s important that the stockholder base as well as the general public and the media become familiar with them.”

Ajit Jain
Age: 68
Role: Vice Chairman of Insurance Operations
Joined Berkshire: 1986
Known for: Striking unique insurance deals
Buffett says: “I don’t know what his best deal was. I know what my best deal was: It was hiring him.”

Greg Abel
Age: 57
Role: Vice Chairman of Non-Insurance Operations
Joined Berkshire: 1992
Known for: Building out Berkshire’s energy empire
Buffett says: Abel is an “outstanding” CEO and an “extraordinary” manager

Buffett is struggling to maintain the stock performance that’s made him famous. Last year, Berkshire shares notched their worst underperformance versus the S&P 500 in a decade, and the stock is lagging behind the index this year too. That’s partly due to a dearth of major deals, leaving his cash hoard at close to a record level.

Net Seller
Berkshire took a more cautious approach to the broader stock market in the fourth quarter, being a net seller of equities such as Wells Fargo & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Still, the company ramped up its appetite for its own stock, spending a record $2.2 billion buying back Berkshire shares. Buffett even asked investors to contact Berkshire if they went to sell their stock.

The letter was also notable for what it lacked: He steered clear of political commentary, a marked shift from his letter that came out in 2016, another election year, when he chided politicians for their gloomy outlook on the U.S.

“Tonally, this letter felt more business-like,” Jim Shanahan, an analyst at Edward Jones, said in an interview. “There just wasn’t quite as much of the folksy wisdom and the humor that we’ve come to expect.”

One order of business Buffett discussed was how his enormous Berkshire stake will be apportioned after he’s gone. He estimates it’ll take between 12 to 15 years for his Berkshire shares to move into the market after his death, but wanted to reassure investors about the future of the company once it’s no longer run by the billionaire investor and business partner Charlie Munger, who turned 96 this year. His confidence, he said, stems from Berkshire’s top managers, the directors who will serve as “guardians” of the culture and the structure of his sprawling conglomerate.

“Berkshire shareholders need not worry: Your company is 100% prepared for our departure,” Buffett said.
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