Howard Buffett said following his billionaire father, Warren, as chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. 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, 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., 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 to run their businesses, leaving him time to weigh how to invest the company’s cash. 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.”