U.S. Markets open in 7 hrs 16 mins

This will be Warren Buffett's greatest legacy

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief

What will Warren Buffett’s legacy be? Legendary investor? Builder of a giant company? A teacher to millions of investors?

For sure, all of those things. But I would argue his greatest legacy—if he succeeds—will be to ensure that Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-ABRK-B) continues to be high-performing company long after he’s gone.

I’ve known, and have been writing about, Warren Buffett for decades. And for as long as I can remember, folks have been asking him what’s going to happen to Berkshire Hathaway when he dies. Buffett’s answered that question a million times. (To paraphrase, “It will be fine.”) My favorite response though was when he said, “I hope the stock doesn’t go up too much.”

The point is that Buffett’s had years and years to consider what happens after he’s no longer here. In fact, I can’t think of a single CEO, president or even dictator who’s had more time to plan for succession. (Well, maybe Fidel Castro, but he ended up just picking his brother!)

So here you have maybe the smartest executives on the planet, acutely aware of the stakes (he has some 389,000 employees, over a million shareholders and even more fans), with plenty of time to make what will amount to the decision of his lifetime. It’s a big deal, his biggest deal, and he knows it. I think that makes Berkshire succession a good bet.

Buffett has been pretty adept at phasing in new leadership and cueing us in as well. On the operations side, Buffett has of course elevated Ajit Jain and Greg Abel as top managers, who operate almost as co-COOs. Note that three-quarters of Berkshire’s revenue now comes from its non-financial operating businesses like Burlington Northern, Benjamin Moore, and Clayton Homes, which is to say most of the revenue does not come solely from Buffett’s investing acumen. And speaking of the investment side, he’s hired Todd Combs and Ted Weschler to increasingly manage that part of the business.

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, outside Berkshire-owned Borsheims jewelry store in Omaha, Neb., Sunday, May 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

In fact, Buffett has handed off so much responsibility that at last year’s annual meeting, veteran journalist Carol Loomis who asks the first question in the Q&A, and prides herself on posing the toughest and most salient query, essentially asked him what did all day and wasn’t he actually retired.

“I’ve been semi-retired for decades,” Buffett quipped in response.

“Part of the Berkshire secret is that when there’s nothing to do, Warren is very good at doing nothing,” Charlie Munger added.

But let’s be clear: Buffett, 88, is still very much in charge of Berkshire Hathaway. That means at some point—probably sooner rather than later—he will be turning over the reins. There will never be another Warren Buffett, but the new person(s) might be exceptional too.

I remember I had this idea that if you shorted Apple’s (AAPL) stock on the day that Steve Jobs died, over time, say in five years, you’d make money. Meaning that after Steve was no longer there, Apple’s stock would decline and Apple’s great run would be over.

Well, thank goodness I never enacted that genius plan. Since Jobs died on Oct. 5, 2011, Apple’s stock is up from $54 a share to over $200.

Steve Jobs picked a good one in current CEO Tim Cook. I could see Buffett doing pretty well in this department, too.

This story was originally published on May 9, 2018.