There is no denying, Warren Buffett is an extraordinary businessman. And Berkshire Hathaway is an exceedingly successful company. But, can it survive beyond Warren Buffett?
This is the question Lawrence Cunningham tackled in his book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values.
Cunningham is the Henry St. George Tucker III Research Professor of Law at George Washington University and is considered an expert on Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett.
Hillary Sale, Walter D. Coles Professor of Law and Professor of Management, moderated a panel discussion in Emerson Auditorium at Olin Business School on February 25, 2015, that included Cunningham, Assistant Professor of Finance Radhakrishnan Gopalan, and MiTek Chairman and CEO Tom Manenti.
Cunningham argues that the leaders, companies and board of directors of Berkshire have been cultivated and are strong enough to make the transition.
Manenti recounted the story of MiTek and how it became a Berkshire company. MiTek discovered they fit the criteria for acquisition and started pursuing the course. Gene Toombs IV, Group President at MiTek, thought his assistant and Manenti were playing a joke when he was called at home to come into the office and return a phone call to Warren Buffett.
In his initial letter to Berkshire, Toombs had enclosed a sample of their building materials product, an extremely sharp piece of metal, wrapping it in Styrofoam and tape, hoping Buffett would not injure himself on it!
Manenti said Buffett knows within five minutes of talking to a CEO if he will be doing a deal with that leader. The person’s character shows itself right away.
Gopalan spoke about Berkshire companies and their valuation. There is value because over time Berkshire has proven success and is able to acquire at a lower price.
Berkshire Hathaway has never sold a company it has purchased in 40 years. Some of the companies may have sold off internal assets, but the parent companies have never been sold. A remarkable record of success. And the best value is quality management, which allows companies to respond to a changing environment.
The board of Berkshire Hathaway has been working on succession planning for more than 20 years. One of the lessons Manenti has learned from Buffett is to have a plan. Every two years he receives a letter from Buffett asking who to contact of something were to happen to Manenti. Who would take over the next morning?
Manenti believes Berkshire Hathaway will remain strong because it will continue to follow the principles Buffett established. He quoted one of the Oracle of Omaha’s maxims, “If you lose money, I will understand. If you cause us to lose one shred of reputation, I will be ruthless.” He also said that Warren Buffet, “makes you want to run your business with the highest level of integrity.”