Greg Abel: Holding a key to Buffett’s Kingdom

By Warren BuffettFOXBusiness

Is Berkshire's Greg Abel Buffett's heir apparent?

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger discuss their impressions of Vice Chair Greg Abel and whether Berkshire Hathaway will continue to thrive without them.

There’s a good bet he’ll never ride a steer down the streets of Omaha, dance with the University of Nebraska cheerleaders or play the ukulele in front of a crowd of 35,000-plus like his boss, but Greg Abel will most likely do his damnedest to follow exactly what Warren Buffett has done for 53 years: acquire, run and grow businesses that fit right into Berkshire Hathaway’s DNA.

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It’s one of the most tightly kept secrets in the history of corporate America: Who will succeed Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett when he no longer occupies the conglomerate’s throne?

Many Buffettologists who have studied and scrutinized all things Berkshire believe the affable, 56-year-old Abel, who hails from Alberta, Canada, might just be the eventual ruler of the Berkshire kingdom along with most of its 65-plus businesses.

The University of Alberta-trained accountant with a Bachelor of Commerce degree lives and breathes all forms of energy. At the helm of Berkshire Hathaway Energy since 2008, he’s diversified and grown what started as a Midwestern electric utility into a natural gas, wind, solar and geothermal power conglomerate. He served as chairman and president of MidAmerican Renewables and has held seats on the boards of companies as diverse as Kraft Heinz to Kern River Gas Transmissions to the American Football Coaches Foundation.

Much of the “Who will run Berkshire after Buffett” guessing game has been just that. Guessing. But in January, a crack in the Berkshire castle gates opened. That’s when Buffett, who 55 years ago bought and turned a failing textile relic called Berkshire Hathaway into a massive conglomerate with some $710 billion in assets, named Abel, along with 67-year-old Ajit Jain, who runs Berkshire’s widespread insurance operations, as vice chairmen. The move thrilled shareholders and titillated Wall Street.

Buffett sees Abel as a rock star, specifically because he has carefully and quietly, but confidently, turned what was MidAmerican Energy into one of the country’s largest power suppliers that generates roughly 10 percent of Berkshire Hathaway’s earnings.

Abel not only has the sentiment and a strong track record at Berkshire, but he’s got the kind of solid foundation that speaks slow, steady and stable. He trained as a chartered accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers in PwC’s San Francisco office, before joining geothermal electricity producer CalEnergy in 1992. In 1999, CalEnergy acquired MidAmerican Energy, adopting its name, and Berkshire Hathaway acquired a controlling interest later that year. Abel became CEO of MidAmerican in 2008, and the company was renamed Berkshire Hathaway Energy in 2014.

As for Jain, it’s been said he has generated more profit and more revenue than any other Berkshire employee. Jain helms a gigantic but complicated business of insurance companies, some of which strike multimillion-dollar agreements to take over property risks from other insurance companies. That business alone churns out hundreds of millions of dollars in profits each year---the exact kind of result Buffett expects but doesn’t necessarily get from some of his biggest subsidiaries. Buffett has often joked that he wished Jain had a twin brother he could hire as well.

Neither man grants interviews, so all Buffettologists have had to go on over the years is the pointed praise Buffett and his longtime business partner, Berkshire vice chair Charlie Munger, have lavished on Jain and Abel once a year at the annual shareholder meetings or in the annual Berkshire shareholder letter.

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While Jain is considered a genius, it’s Abel who holds traits most similar to Buffett. He’s based in Des Moines, Iowa, has an easy laugh, and is self-deprecating just as Buffett is known to be, but Abel also has the same killer instinct when it comes to business.

In our quest to learn more, FOX Business became the first business network to catch up and speak with Abel.

Yours truly, knowing Abel was picked to sound the air horn at the starting line of the annual “Invest in Yourself” Berkshire 5k run back in May in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, showed up at 7 a.m. to catch a glimpse of the business world’s version of the ghost orchid. We found a totally relaxed Canadian wearing a baseball hat and a race bib with the number “1” on it.

As we approached with our camera crew, he immediately fessed up that he’d be walking, not running the race. When I suggested attempting to “trot” it, he laughed, indicating there was a low probability of that happening either.

When we got to business, Abel expressed comfort in both his new vice chair role and the diverse businesses from Marmon Holdings to Precision Castparts to Benjamin Moore paints to Dairy Queen to Oriental Trading all now under his watchful eye.

“Nothing’s changed,” Abel told FOX Business. “Business as usual. It’s just great. We’ve got great people to be working with…couldn’t be better.”

At 88, Buffett is known to use the exact same verbiage when friends call to ask him how he’s doing.

“Couldn’t be better.”

Abel has the advantage of getting a firm grip on his new responsibilities just as the U.S. and global economies find surer footing. The latest reading on U.S. gross domestic product for the second quarter came in at 4.1 percent. Business sentiment is strong and inflation is within a whisker of the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target.

“Well, things are good right now,” Abel told FOX Business. “So our businesses are in a great place. And we’ve got great managers and like I said we are moving forward.”

Some of those managers tell FOX Business working with Abel is already cruising at a good clip.

Troy Bader, president and CEO of International Dairy Queen, was newly ensconced when Abel got the nod to run Berkshire’s non-insurance businesses.

“With Greg it’s been wonderful. He’s been very involved. I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with him, and he’s a very accomplished individual. Very bright. Has a great understanding already of our business and so many of the industries. I’m very much looking forward to learning from him but also having him engaged in the business. But with Greg, it’s no different from Warren or anyone else: (he) expects us to be managing our business and running them as if they were our own,” Bader said.

See’s Candies President and CEO Brad Kinstler reported to Buffett for years, first as president of Cypress Insurance Company, then as president and CEO of Fechheimer Brothers, and finally as chief of a Buffett favorite. The Oracle of Omaha is unabashedly obsessed with See’s peanut brittle.

“At this point there is really no difference (between Buffett and Abel),” Kinstler said. “Greg is certainly learning the different Berkshire businesses. He and Ajit are going to do great in this role. At this point I haven’t had to do too much with Greg, but I look forward to spending more time with him. And again there is only one skill I see they might need a little work on.”

And that would be?

“In this (new) role you have to be able to consume mass quantities of See’s candy in front of large groups of people. And they may need some more training on that,” Kinstler joked.

Whether Abel will get the eventual nod is still unknown, but on May 7, Buffett told FOX Business exclusively that the Berkshire board was unanimous in its support of his secret list of potential successors. He would not reveal how many names are on the list, nor whether any had been added or subtracted, at the just-concluded shareholder meeting but he has been clear in telling FOX Business in the past that none of the names are in their 70s. The Oracle of Omaha is adamant that his successor(s) have the stamina and longevity to run Berkshire for many years to come.

But perhaps the most intense praise comes from Buffett’s business partner and best friend for the past five-plus decades. Berkshire Vice Chairman, 94-year-old Charlie Munger made his opinion of both Abel and Jain crystal clear in the 2015 shareholder letter. Both are “proven performers who would probably be under-described as ‘world-class,’” said Munger in the letter. “In some important ways, each is a better business executive than Buffett.”

It could be some time before either Abel or Jain gets called up. In an interview with FOX Business on his 88th birthday on Aug. 30, Buffett seemed as engaged as he’s ever been, quick to weigh in on an analyst’s musing that under the right terms, Apple might consider buying electric vehicle maverick Tesla.

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At 251.9 million shares, Apple is the largest stock holding in Berkshire’s massive portfolio. When asked by FOX Business about an Apple-Tesla prospect, Buffett quipped it would be “a very poor idea,” adding, “It's not an easy business. You can win in auto one year and lose the next. You've got a dozen big companies out there with resources. They're going to keep coming. They're going to copy what you do.” Never mind that he could be describing the insurance business or that Berkshire holds a stake in Chinese battery and electric vehicle maker BYD. On top of that, in 2014, Berkshire snapped up Van Tuyl Group, the nation’s largest privately held auto dealership chain.

Buffett’s final comment during the interview?

“I feel great.”

No matter when, Wall Street has signaled its support of Abel as an eventual chief.

“The most likely successor in our view, who Warren Buffett regularly praises, is Greg Abel,” JPMorgan’s Sarah DeWitt said in a note released September of last year. DeWitt initiated coverage of the company with an overweight rating. She also wrote that she expects the Oracle of Omaha to remain in charge for another decade, but any selling pressure due to his departure would be a buying opportunity.

Perhaps.

But with an investment and growth record that remains unbeaten, the question remains whether, after his departure, Berkshire itself can be seen by investors as bigger than the biggest: Warren E. Buffett, the kid from Omaha, the Harvard reject who took a Dale Carnegie course to overcome his shyness and the man who has become arguably the most colorful and greatest investor of both the 20th and, so far, the 21st century.