As Warren Buffett continues to take baby steps back from the helm of his long-admired company Berkshire Hathaway, the most existential threat the company faces may be from its own shareholders, contends an opinion piece from Lawrence Cunningham in MarketWatch.
Buffett, who is 91, has steadily been reducing his control by transferring shares to charities since 2006, and that process will continue for 12 years after his death. How the board handles that transition will prove its mettle. Berkshire has long attracted long-term, quality shareholders who focus on the company as a business, but more and more the company’s stock is being held by index funds and self-appointed virtue funds, with the focus more on chasing trends than the long view. Earlier this year, MarketWatch reports, virtue funds suggested having the board centralize reporting on carbon emissions and workplace diversity instead of Berkshire’s standard practice of delegating those functions to managers. Indeed, Berkshire has a distinctive management model that is based on decentralization and autonomy. While shareholders overwhelmingly voted down the proposal, it still attracted 25% of the vote, leading some to worry that without Buffett’s presence, the Berkshire model will unravel and principles will be lost.
However, if Berkshire sustains the company culture of going into business with only people they trust, giving those people great autonomy, and buying companies with the long-view, the company is bound to remain the “buyer of choice” for sellers and the “operator of choice” for managers. Additionally, two new members will add strength to the board: Buffett’s daughter Susie Buffett, and longtime shareholder Chris Davis, both of whom seem committed to maintaining the Berkshire principles that Buffett has advanced for decades.