The man Warren Buffett expects to succeed him at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway is worth an estimated $484 million thanks to a stake in its privately held energy subsidiary, despite owning very little of Berkshire’s publicly traded stock.
At Berkshire’s annual meeting on Saturday, Buffett’s longtime lieutenant Charles Munger made an off-handed comment that “Greg will keep the culture” as Berkshire grows more decentralized, suggesting that the company’s vice chairman, Greg Abel, will succeed Buffett as CEO. Buffett later confirmed to CNBC that Abel is the current choice to take over, saying, “The directors are in agreement that if something were to happen to me tonight, it would be Greg who’d take over tomorrow morning.”
Abel has been a leader at Berkshire since the Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate bought MidAmerican Energy in 2000 when he was its president. He became CEO of the company now named Berkshire Hathaway Energy in 2008 and served in that role until becoming Berkshire’s vice chairman in 2018.
Abel owns a 1% stake in Berkshire Hathaway Energy, billionaire Walter Scott owns 7.9% and Berkshire Hathaway owns the remaining 91.1% of the company, according to BHE’s 2020 annual report. Berkshire repurchased $126 million worth of shares from Scott on March 5, 2020, according to its latest proxy statement, valuing BHE at $53.4 billion. That makes Abel’s stake worth an estimated $480 million (Forbes discounts ownership stakes in privately held companies).
Abel’s piece of BHE makes up the vast majority of his net worth, Forbes estimates. He owns only five Berkshire Hathaway Class A shares in a trust and 2,363 Class B shares as a custodian for members of his family, according to the proxy statement. With Class A shares worth more than $400,000 per share and Class B shares trading at $280 for share as of Monday’s market close, that stake is worth about $2.8 million.
Abel and Ajit Jain were named vice chairmen at the same time in 2018, prompting speculation that both were in contention to move into the top job. Jain, a 35-year Berkshire veteran, manages its insurance operations, and Abel oversees everything else. Jain owns $185 million worth of Berkshire Hathaway shares, some of which are held by a private foundation. Abel, 58, is 11 years younger than Jain, which Buffett reportedly cited as a contributing factor to the decision. “They’re both wonderful guys. The likelihood of someone having a 20-year runway though makes a real difference,” Buffett told CNBC.
Although he is among the youngest members of Berkshire’s board of directors, Abel’s stake in the public company still stands out as strikingly small. Buffett’s 248,734 Class A shares make up the bulk of the Oracle of Omaha’s $106 billion fortune. Munger’s shares are worth $1.9 billion, and early investor David Gottesman owns a $2.6 billion stake. All but two others on Berkshire’s 14-member board have stakes worth much more than Abel’s. A company spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
But as an added bonus to his lucrative Berkshire Hathaway Energy stake, Abel is paid handsomely in his role as vice chairman. His base salary was $16 million in each of the last three years, according to Berkshire’s proxy statement, and he received $3 million bonuses in 2020 and 2019 and a $2 million bonus in 2018. Buffett and Munger’s base salaries are a mere $100,000 annually.
Abel also serves on the board of Kraft Heinz and owns 40,036 shares individually, worth about $1.7 million. Berkshire Hathaway orchestrated the 2015 megamerger of Kraft and Heinz after buying both food companies with Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital and is Kraft Heinz’s largest shareholder with a 26.6% stake.
By Hank Tucker, Forbes Staff