Buffett needs to anoint successor

Benj Gallander and Ben Stadelmann
Thursday, April 22, 2010

First, please indulge us as we self-administer a pat on the back before heading out onto a limb and presuming to offer advice to arguably the greatest investors of all time.

Let it be stated for the record that The Contra Guys’ 15-year annualized return of 16.6 percent is amongst the best out there and even compares to the results achieved by Messrs. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger.

That said, in the overall scheme of the investing universe, we are small peas compared to that duo, and our renown is but a minute drop of water compared to their cascading chute.

Nonetheless, Benj feels that a few words here could be worth a fortune to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. And, of course, happy, prosperous shareholders are part of the legacy that these two gents would like to leave.

Almost two years ago, The Contra Guys headed to Nebraska to hear the wisdom of the Oracle of Omaha and his sidekick at the Berkshire AGM. We had kicked around the idea of this adventure for a number of years until Benj finally said something akin to “Ben, this is the year that I’m going. Who knows how much longer Warren and Charlie will be around, and if you want to join me, you are most welcome. And if not, so be it.”

A couple of days later, Benj inquired, “What’s the verdict?” and Ben said, “Let’s get some tickets.” When asked what made him suddenly decide to make the voyage, he responded, “Well, Benj, we’re not getting any younger either.”

At that point, Warren was 78 years of age and Charlie 85. We were both fiftyish.

There are not a lot of companies where success is so identified with key people. Aside from perhaps Apple and a guy named Jobs, BRK is one of the few enterprises whose shares, if — no, when — the top guy passes into the great beyond, will be beaten to a pulp unless a clear, positively viewed successor is in place.

Warren clearly acknowledges that succession is a critical issue and stated, “We spend at least half of our time at directors’ meetings talking about that&nbsp— it is the most important issue there is.”

A number of gents have been identified as front runners. Mr. Buffett said, “Do these people have names? The answer is they do have names, but I don’t care to share them — any one of which, in many respects, would do a better job than I.”

A few promising candidates bandied about include David Sokol, former president and CEO of MidAmerican Energy Holdings, an enterprise that just happens to be controlled by Berkshire Hathaway. He resigned last year, but remains chairman of the outfit. Now he is also CEO of NetJets Aviation, another BRK subsidiary.

Byron Trott was a vice-chairman of investment banking for Goldman Sachs and was a key reason why Buffett invested $5 billion into that firm. Buffett described Trott as “an investment banker who actually earned his fee.” Last year, he left Goldman to form BDT Capital Partners. Buffett just happens to be an investor in that firm.

A third in the running is Tony Nicely, chairman, president and CEO of Geico, BRK’s insurance subsidiary, whose advertisements often feature Mallory the Gecko. Geico is a key component of the Berkshire empire, and Nicely has a long history with the outfit.

Last, but not least, is Ajit Jain, who is in charge of a number of Berkshire’s reinsurance businesses, where he has been working for about 25 years. Warren wrote in 2009, “If Charlie, I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat — and you can only save one of us — swim to Ajit.” At 59 years old, perhaps Mr. Buffett was being chivalrous to the “youngster.” No question, though, Warren thinks of Ajit as a superstar and wrote in his 2003 letter accompanying the annual report, “It’s impossible to overstate his value to Berkshire.”

So what is the advice to Warren and Charlie? When the masses gather at the Berkshire AGM on May 1, state who will be the guy to be placed in Warren’s shoes when he departs to the Great Beyond. Push this person front and centre so that the public will be well acquainted with the successor and investors will retain confidence. This will help to stabilize the stock price, post-Warren.

Benj is concerned not only as a spectator but as a shareholder. In order to gain admission to the 2008 AGM, The Contra Guys purchased one share of Berkshire B.