Greg Abel, a hockey-obsessed executive from Edmonton who shuns the spotlight, has been tapped to run Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and take over from Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors in U.S. business history.
Mr. Buffett revealed the succession plan during an interview with CNBC, which broke the news on Monday.
“The directors are in agreement that if something were to happen to me tonight, it would be Greg who’d take over tomorrow morning,” he said.
The comment ends years of intense speculation about who would replace Mr. Buffett, 90, an investing legend who has built Berkshire Hathaway into a sprawling conglomerate worth more than US$630-billion since he started running it in 1965. Mr. Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer, did not indicate when he might step back from either role.
The casual nature of the announcement took some observers by surprise. A comment from Berkshire Hathaway vice-chairman Charlie Munger, 97, at the company’s annual general meeting on the weekend fuelled speculation that a successor had been chosen. In a discussion about whether the company is too big to manage and its decentralized structure, Mr. Munger said, “Greg will keep the culture.”
The seemingly offhand remark may have prompted Mr. Buffett’s subsequent comments. “I suspect that Buffett made this disclosure reluctantly,” said James Shanahan, an analyst with Edward Jones. “It seems to me that this was an important development and warranted a more formal announcement.”
Berkshire Hathaway spokesperson Jessica Strawn declined to comment further on Mr. Buffett’s remarks, and also declined on behalf of Mr. Abel.
The Canadian executive has been seen as a contender for the top job since at least 2018, when he was appointed vice-chair and put in charge of the company’s non-insurance operations. Another Berkshire Hathaway executive, Ajit Jain, was promoted at the same time, and oversees the insurance businesses. “If, heaven forbid, anything happened to Greg tonight, then it would be Ajit,” Mr. Buffett told CNBC.
Those who know Mr. Abel describe him as a personable workaholic who possesses an appetite for details and the ability to develop long-term strategy. He’s built a track record of successful acquisitions, too. Mr. Abel is a private person who rarely gives interviews, but hockey is one of his passions. (His uncle was Sid Abel, who played for the Detroit Red Wings starting in 1938 before providing television commentary.)
Mr. Abel’s low-key style is markedly different from that of his boss. He’s unlikely to dispense folksy wisdom or serenade shareholders while strumming a ukulele, for example.
Born in 1962 in Edmonton, he earned a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Alberta and worked as an accountant for PricewaterhouseCoopers in the city before transferring to San Francisco.
He later joined the accounting team at a geothermal energy producer called CalEnergy Co., which was a client of PricewaterhouseCoopers’. Mr. Abel rose through ranks at CalEnergy, working as a controller for one of its power plants before relocating to Britain to oversee a subsidiary.
The company was later rebranded as MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. and sold to Berkshire Hathaway in 2000. By then, Mr. Abel was president of MidAmerican and had relocated to Des Moines, Iowa. While he avoids attention, he has an active social life. He and his wife were known in Des Moines for hosting an annual open-door Thanksgiving event at their home, and became regulars at the Iowa State Fair.
That amiability proved valuable in his career. MidAmerican operated in a regulated industry, and required him to work with a range of elected officials. With MidAmerican CEO David Sokol, Mr. Abel made dozens of acquisitions and grew the value of the company’s assets from US$3.8-billion to US$47.7-billion by 2011. Mr. Abel became CEO in 2008, and continued the acquisition streak, including the US$2.7-billion purchase of Alberta electricity transmission provider AltaLink LP in 2014.
The energy division, now called Berkshire Hathaway Energy, had some US$92-billion in assets as of 2018. That year, Mr. Abel was made vice-chairman and appointed to the board of Berkshire Hathaway, along with Mr. Jain.
“It’s part of a movement toward succession over time and they are the two key figures,” Mr. Buffett said at the time. He also denied there was a “horse race” between the two men.
Mr. Abel was viewed as the likelier successor since he is younger by a decade, which Mr. Buffett acknowledged in his CNBC interview. “The likelihood of someone having a 20-year runway, though, makes a real difference,” he said.
Since 2018, Mr. Abel has taken a more active role in Berkshire Hathaway’s numerous subsidiaries, which include Dairy Queen, Duracell, Fruit of the Loom and BNSF Railway. He’s also on the board of Kraft Heinz Co., in which Berkshire Hathaway owns a large stake.
Taking over Berkshire Hathaway will be no easy task. There is the pressure of having to live up to the reputation of Mr. Buffett, the unwieldy nature of a company that has more than 360,000 employees in disparate industries, and the challenges of delivering shareholder returns and growing an entity that is already massive. (Since 1965, the company’s book value has grown at a compound annual rate of nearly 19 per cent, according to Mr. Shanahan, but has slowed to less than 12 per cent in the past decade.)
The company has also been criticized for its executive compensation practices. Institutional Shareholder Services noted Mr. Abel was paid US$16-million and a US$3-million bonus in 2020, and said it was unclear whether compensation was tied to performance.
Some shareholders are pushing Berkshire Hathaway for greater disclosure on the risks climate change poses to its business. A proposal for more detailed disclosure was defeated at the AGM, however, while Mr. Abel defended Berkshire Hathaway’s action on climate change. “If you look at our investment through the end of 2020, we’ve invested ... in excess of $30-billion into renewables, and have completely changed the way our businesses do business,” he said.
Should Mr. Abel become CEO, analysts anticipate he would be in charge of operations and deploying capital, while one or more executives would oversee Berkshire Hathaway’s investment portfolio, which includes stakes in Apple Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. Mr. Buffett’s son Howard, meanwhile, is expected to serve as non-executive chairman.
Those who know Mr. Abel believe he is up to the challenges. “Greg Abel is one of the finest business executives I have met,” said Mr. Sokol, himself a former Berkshire Hathaway executive, and a friend of Mr. Abel. “Shareholders are very fortunate to have a young and time-proven leader such as Greg available for when such a transition is necessary.”
Mr. Shanahan added, “We have a great deal of comfort with the future leadership of the company.”
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