The Future of Berkshire Without Buffett

Barron’s recently invited readers to submit letters they might write to Warren Buffett. One, which they published in June (by writer Andrew Bary), suggested that Berkshire shareholders might derive some comfort from knowing a bit more about Berkshire’s succession plan.

“After 53 years at the helm,” wrote Bary, “isn’t it time to share the limelight with your likely successor and with Berkshire’s many managers? Investors would get to know them better and gain confidence that your conglomerate will be in good hands when…well, you are turning 88 in August.”

The letter references Greg Abel and Ajit Jain (who were named Berkshire’s vice chairmen earlier this year) as top candidates, highlighting how little is known about them. It also argues that Berkshire’s annual shareholder meetings are still essentially “the Warren and Charlie show” and suggests that it could be helpful to give more exposure at that meeting to Abel.

The letter proposes 8 steps Buffett should consider taking:

  1. Hold an investor day, in which “Able and Jain provide an overview of the noninsurance and insurance businesses” with presentation from those managers running major divisions like Burlington Northern, Geico and General Re.
  2. Share the annual letter-writing, including one-page memos from “important Berkshire managers” including Tony Nicely, longtime CEO of Geico.
  3. Buy back Berkshire stock—something which hasn’t happened since 2012. “The reason,” the letter says, “is that the company won’t pay more than 1.2 time book value, which is probably significantly below what you consider to be Berkshire’s intrinsic value. Raise that limit to 1.3 times book.”
  4. Consider paying a dividend—Bary acknowledges that to date the money reinvested into Berkshire has been well spent. He adds, however, that over the last 5 to 10 years, Berkshire shares have trailed the S&P 500. “So maybe it’s time to start giving something back to shareholders.”
  5. Provide more details on the investment portfolio—”The underperformance of Berkshire shares,” writes Bary, “may reflect a lack of winning technology stocks in Berkshire’s investment portfolio—until the addition of Apple in 2016.”
  6. Get more flexible with acquisitions—”Now is the time,” Bary argues, “to get loose of your self-imposed fetters. Lift the prohibition against participating in corporate auctions.”
  7. Disclose more subsidiary financials—Bary cites Precision Castparts, asserting that Berkshire paid more than 20 times earnings for the company, but Berkshire shareholders know very little about it.
  8. Name Abel as your probable successor.

Bary closes the letter with: “Berkshire is your baby—we get it. You took control of what was then a faltering textile company in 1965…. Now it’s time to pave the way for the next generation. After all, neither one of us is getting any younger.”