Filling Warren Buffett’s Big Shoes

Warren

Everyone is wondering how much longer Warren Buffett can continue running the giant Berkshire Hathaway. After all he is 82. Watching him in action this weekend at the annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, I think he’s going to be sticking around for a long, long time.

When it comes to high energy, Buffett has a lot of it. I saw it up close on Saturday as I walked with him on the exhibition floor before the meeting started. We got going at 7 am.

Here are just some of things he did. He competed in a newspaper tossing contest. With billionaire buddy Bill Gates he folded and tossed newspapers to the doorstep of a Clayton mobile home – a pretty long distance of 35 feet. He did it again and again and consistently hit the doorstep target, while many others, including the younger Gates, missed by a long shot. Buffet played miniature golf with supermodel Kathy Ireland. He got a lesson in hand dipping bon bons at the See’s Candy display. He performed basketball tricks with Handles Franklin of the Harlem Globetrotters. And despite the scrum of reporters, shareholders, camera men, and mobs of admirers taking photos with their cell phones and iPads crushing in on him, Buffett was all smiles. He waved to the crowds, shook hands with people and posed for pictures.

After more than an hour of doing all that he opened the Berkshire meeting. But first he danced on stage with University of Nebraska cheerleaders and sang “B-R-K-A” to the tune of the song “Y-M-C-A”. I can’t picture any other CEO doing this kind of stuff.

But despite Buffett’s show of energy and enthusiasm, the issue of succession and who will succeed Buffett as CEO was a big topic at the meeting. In fact it was the first question from a shareholder. He asked what will worry Buffett the most about the decade after he finally leaves the company? Buffett said that the key will be to preserve Berkshire’s culture, as well as having a successor as chief executive who will have more passion, brains and energy than even he has. He added that the board has already identified that person. “We’re solidly in agreement as to whom that individual should be.”

But he did not say who that person is and does not plan to reveal the name publicly. He has however, tapped his son, Howard Buffett, to become Berkshire’s non-executive chairman when he no longer holds that post. And on that subject, Buffet got a tough question from Doug Kass, the “credentialed bear” who Buffett invited to the meeting to offer a contrarian point of view. Kass asked why Howard Buffett, a 58-year-old farmer and philanthropist, who has never run a business, is qualified to take the job as Berkshire’s non-executive chairman. Kass added, “away from the accident of birth, how is Howard the most qualified person to take on this job?” Buffett explained Howard wouldn’t be running any business but would be in charge of ensuring the company doesn’t fall apart and can kick out the CEO just in case. “He is there as a protector of the culture and he has an enormous responsibility of that,” the elder Buffett said. “I know of nobody that will feel that responsibility more in terms of doing that job than my son Howard.”

Buffett was high-spirited throughout the all-day meeting answering hundreds of questions from shareholders. By the time I wrapped up my interview with Buffett later that day he had been going all out for more than ten hours and showed no signs of fatigue.

By contrast, most of us in the media, were exhausted. And amazingly, Buffett was scheduled to do more that night after dinner with friends and family.

I asked him if he has any thoughts of slowing down, especially after a year of treatments for prostrate cancer. “Oh no, no,no,” he said. “I’m having fun every day.”

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