Even though he has partnered with Charlie Munger for more than five decades, there’s no denying that Warren Buffett is the animating force behind Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B). He told investors at the most recent Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting that he hopes to run the company for another decade, but at 83 years old it’s understandable that people want to know who’s next in line.
The quality of Berkshire’s management team is strong, in our view, although CEO succession concerns are warranted in our view,” writes Barclays analyst Jay Gelb. “Mr. Buffett says that his thoughts about Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B)’s future after his tenure will be the focus of his 2015 letter to shareholders.”
Leading candidates to replace Warren Buffett
When Warren Buffett steps down he has already said that he will split the roles of chairman and CEO, and it’s long been known that his son Howard Buffett will be the non-executive chairman, tasked with enforcing the company’s culture and removing the CEO if he fails to live up to potential. The Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) board of directors has already also chosen the next CEO and two alternatives (all of whom are already at the company), but has decided not to tell anyone who it is including the candidate himself.
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Warren Buffett recently went out of his way to praise head of Berkshire Hathaway Re Ajit Jain, calling him irreplaceable and saying that his retirement isn’t coming soon. Gelb also views Matt Rose, who was moved from CEO to chairman of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, LLC (NYSE:BNI), as another strong candidate for the top post. Investment managers Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, who are each now managing more than $7 billion and apparently beat both the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) and Buffett last year, were also singled out for praise, but having joined the company in 2011 it seems unlikely that the board would hand either of them the reins.
Berkshire’s stated book is still conservative
Warren Buffett also defended Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) conglomerate structure (persuasively, according to Gelb), saying that the profit that came, even the businesses with moderate growth prospects, and the float from the insurance business could be invested in capital intensive businesses with high tax efficiency. Many businesses are held on Berkshire’s balance sheet at their cost instead of their actual value, meaning that Berkshire’s stated book value is lower than its intrinsic value. Another company might consider an IPO to unlock shareholder value, but this discrepancy still means that Berkshire share have plenty of room to grow.
Gelb is Overweight on Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B), applying a 1.4x price-to-book for 2015E book value for a $149 price target for class B shares, compared to a current price of $128.09.
Takeaways from Barclays:
Our most important takeaways from Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B)’s annual meeting: 1) Berkshire has potential capacity for a $50bn acquisition without issuing equity; 2) Warren Buffett would eagerly again partner with private equity firm 3G Capital on another deal similar to the Heinz transaction; 3) Berkshire Hathaway Energy (formerly known as MidAmerican) is focused on additional utility acquisitions; 4) Mr. Buffett strongly (and we believe effectively) defended Berkshire’s conglomerate business model; and 5) Buffett provided no new information on his succession plans, although he provided accolades to Ajit Jain, as well as focused on the strength of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, LLC (NYSE:BNI) (led by chairman Matt Rose), and Berkshire Hathaway Energy (led by CEO Greg Abel).