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Warren Buffett drops a hint about the future of Berkshire’s leadership

Paul Morigi

Berkshire Hathaway, the sprawling industrial conglomerate and investor in top US companies run by Warren Buffett, seems to be preparing for the time when Buffett is no longer around.

Buffett said in his annual shareholder letter, released Saturday morning, that two other Berkshire Hathaway vice chairmen will be getting a lot more face time at the company’s annual meeting — which some have dubbed the Woodstock for Capitalists.

Ajit Jain, who oversees Berkshire’s massive insurance unit and Greg Abel, who runs the rest of the conglomerate’s sprawling operations, will join Buffett and vice chairman Charlie Munger on stage at the shareholder meeting in Omaha, Nebraska on May 2.

Jain and Abel took some questions at the end of last year’s meeting, but Buffett indicated Saturday that they will have a much bigger role at this year’s festivities.

“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,” Buffett wrote.

“That change makes great sense. They are outstanding individuals, both as managers and as human beings, and you should hear more from them,” he added.

Buffett turns 90 in August. Munger celebrated his 96th birthday on New Year’s Day. With that in mind, the issue of succession planning is top of mind for many Berkshire Hathaway investors.

“Charlie and I long ago entered the urgent zone. That’s not exactly great news for us. But Berkshire shareholders need not worry: Your company is 100% prepared for our departure,” Buffett wrote.

Investors are betting that Ted Weschler and Todd Combs, two Berkshire Hathaway executives who help Buffett pick stocks, may also get added responsibilities. To that end, Combs took over as CEO of Berkshire-owned GEICO in January.

Still, there are concerns about what Berkshire Hathaway will look like after Buffett.

“There is nobody in the world that will be able to allocate capital as effectively as Buffett going forward,” said Dev Kantesaria, founder and portfolio manager at Valley Forge Capital Management, a firm that does not own Berkshire Hathaway but follows a similar long-term investing approach.

Buffett has lagged the market despite a big bet on Apple

Berkshire Hathaway is one of the most valuable companies in the United States, worth more than $560 billion. Buffett’s company has investments in blue chip stocks like Apple, Bank of America, Coca-Cola and American Express.

It also owns and operates companies ranging from GEICO and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad to Dairy Queen, Duracell and Fruit of the Loom.

Berkshire Hathaway also reported its latest quarterly results Saturday and said it posted a net profit of $29.2 billion and operating earnings of $4.4 billion.

But Buffett has lagged the stock market as of late, despite Berkshire’s massive bet on Apple and a small position in Amazon.

Berkshire Hathaway shares are up about 12% in the past year while the S&P 500 has gained more than 20%. Berkshire’s investments in Wells Fargo and Delta have underperformed.

And Kraft Heinz has been a spectacular bust for Berkshire Hathaway. The company’s stock plunged earlier this month after another dismal earnings report as shoppers shun processed food.

Berkshire continues to bet on the American consumer though, recently adding high end furnishings retailer RH –aka Restoration Hardware — and supermarket leader Kroger to the portfolio.

Still hunting for an ‘elephant’

But Buffett watchers are eager to see if Berkshire will use some of its $125 billion in cash to make another big deal, especially after Buffett said in last year’s letter that he was eager to make “an elephant-sized acquisition.”

Tiffany approached Buffett about an acquisition, according to a report in the Financial Times. But Berkshire turned the jeweler down and it wound up selling out to LVMH instead.

Berkshire was also reportedly interested in buying hardware and software distributor Tech Data last year but it was outbid by private equity firm Apollo Global Management.

But one fund manager who owns Berkshire Hathaway stock thinks Buffett is smart to not overpay for deals.

“Do I find it odd that Berkshire Hathaway can’t find businesses to buy? Not really. Buffett and Munger think the acquisition prices are poor. They are being rational,” said Cole Smead, president and portfolio manager with Smead Capital Management.

Buffett addressed the difficulty in finding acquisitions in the letter.

“We constantly seek to buy new businesses,” Buffett wrote. “When we spot such businesses, our preference would be to buy 100% of them. But the opportunities to make major acquisitions possessing our required attributes are rare.”

That’s why Berkshire Hathaway is likely to continue using its cash to invest in companies as opposed to buying them outright.

“A fickle stock market serves up opportunities for us to buy large, but non-controlling, positions in publicly-traded companies that meet our standards,” Buffett wrote.

Buffett also spent a portion of the letter talking about corporate governance issues. He expressed concerns that many large companies don’t have enough dissenting voices on their boards. Instead, executives choose people that will just rubber stamp key decisions.

“When seeking directors, CEOs don’t look for pit bulls. It’s the cocker spaniel that gets taken home,” Buffett wrote.

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