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Berkshire promotes potential Buffett successors Abel, Jain


(Reuters) — Berkshire Hathaway Inc. on Wednesday promoted two of its top executives, Gregory Abel and Ajit Jain, adding them to its board and cementing their status as the most likely successors to Warren Buffett atop the conglomerate.

Mr. Abel, 55, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, was named Berkshire's vice chairman for noninsurance business operations, while Mr. Jain, 66, Berkshire's top insurance executive, was named vice chairman for insurance operations.

Mr. Buffett, 87, will remain chairman and chief executive, and Charlie Munger, 94, who has worked at Buffett's side for more than four decades, will keep his vice chairman post.

Both will continue handling major capital allocation and investment decisions, including acquisitions, for Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire, which Buffett has run since 1965.

"It is probably fair to say it's not just the Warren and Charlie show any more," said David Rolfe, who oversees $5 billion of assets at Wedgewood Partners Inc. in St. Louis, whose largest holding is Berkshire.

"Today's news codifies the importance of Greg Abel and Ajit Jain to not just their current businesses, but their future authority once Buffett relinquishes the CEO title," he added.

In an interview on CNBC, Mr. Buffett called the changes "part of the movement toward succession over time," saying Messrs. Abel and Jain are "the two key figures" at Berkshire and "have Berkshire in their blood."

While it was Mr. Munger's idea to make them vice chairmen, Mr. Buffett said managing a large portion of Berkshire would provide valuable experience to whoever succeeds him.

Mr. Buffett also dismissed the idea of a horse race between Messrs. Abel and Jain for the top job.

"They know each other well, they like each other well, they both have their areas of specialty," he said.

Mr. Buffett, who first publicly raised the succession issue more than a decade ago, said he remains in "remarkably good health" and that his health was not a factor in making the announcement, but said "maybe six weeks ago, I just decided, 'Why not now?'"

He declined to say how long he expected to remain at the helm but said: "Ten years would be a long time."

In morning trading, Berkshire's Class A shares rose $1,720 to $306,220 and its B shares rose $1.21 to $204.23.

Other succession plans

Berkshire has more than 90 operating units including the BNSF railroad, Geico auto insurance, Dairy Queen ice cream, Fruit of the Loom underwear, See's Candies and a variety of industrial and chemical operations.

While Berkshire remains best known for insurance and reinsurance, that sector now generates only about one-fourth of operating results as the company has diversified.

Mr. Abel, who grew up in Alberta, Canada, joined Berkshire Hathaway Energy in 1992. His Iowa-based unit now runs several power companies in the United States, Canada and Britain, as well as natural gas pipelines and solar and wind farms.

Mr. Jain, who joined Berkshire in 1986, runs Berkshire's reinsurance operations, providing coverage against major catastrophes and generating tens of billions of dollars of premiums for Berkshire to invest.

Mr. Buffett, the world's third-richest person according to Forbes magazine, has long said MR. Jain has probably made more money for Berkshire than he has.

Like many investors and analysts, Mr. Rolfe considers Mr. Abel the favorite to succeed Mr. Buffett, in part because of his age and his experience in acquisitions and operations.

"If Jain become CEO it would be great, but the complexity of the insurance business requires someone there with more day-to-day supervision," Mr. Rolfe said.

Berkshire's board of directors will grow to 14 members from 12 with the addition of Messrs. Abel and Jain.

In the CNBC interview, Mr. Buffett repeated that the board, whose members include Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, can install a new chief executive within a day when he steps down, dies or becomes incapacitated.

Speculation that Messrs. Abel and Jain were the top candidates grew after Mr. Munger singled them out as "world-leading" performers in a 2015 letter to Berkshire shareholders.

Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, who are Mr. Buffett's investment deputies, are expected eventually to succeed Mr. Buffett as Berkshire's chief investment officer.

Mr. Buffett's eldest son, Howard, is expected to become Berkshire's nonexecutive chairman to help preserve the company's culture.