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Succession is a lesson even Buffett hasn't learnt

May 03, 2016 06:43 IST

It is almost puzzling to see more old men and women hang around long enough for people to begin wondering 'why not retire?'

Warren Buffett is a wise man. The chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway began the annual shareholders' address, livestreamed across the world, with a reference to his weakest point.

In his own funny way, he made it sound like his strength, though at the expense of his deputy and longtime friend, Charlie Munger. "I am the younger one," the 85-year old quipped.

Age and succession kept coming back through the seven-hour marathon that, Buffett fans would swear, contained enough investment wisdom to last many market cycles. At one point, when there was an audience question on past regrets, Munger joked. "I didn't wise up as fast as I could have? Now that I'm 92, I still have a lot of ignorance left to work on."

Last month, as Queen Elizabeth II turned 90, the British press was remarking how Prince Charles would be the oldest king to ever coronate, if and when this happens. While the royals have their own historic baggage around abdication, it is almost puzzling to see more old men and women hang around long enough for people to begin wondering 'why not retire?' This is across different areas such as business, politics and even sports.

In our own backyard, two 93-year-olds will be testing their electoral mettle for one last time next week. M Karunanidhi, on a mechanised wheel chair for years, is still very much the face of 63-year-old son M K Stalin's campaign in Tamil Nadu. And, V S Achuthanandan is the mascot of neighbouring Kerala's Left Front.

In these pages, you would have recently read about two corporate groups where a sudden departure of a patriarch created trouble for successors. One was the tussle between the elder son and widow of Abhey Oswal, who passed away recently. The second was the plight of health care firm Elder Pharma, which got entangled in debt issues after its founder passed away in 2013.

Stalin might consider himself lucky when compared to Buffett's son, Harold. The junior Buffett was one of the few people who were introduced to the shareholders by his father but he is no successor, given Buffett's views about inherited wealth.

The Oracle of Omaha did not miss an opportunity to drive it in: "My youngest great grandchild, seven months old, is also here today. He happens to be crying a lot. I don't want you to bother. It's just his mother explaining to him my views on inherited wealth."

When Buffett was asked who'd succeed him as Berkshire chief executive, he responded with the usual "the board will take it up at its meeting Monday".

A Wall Street Journal snippet on the Berkshire meet said: "Many shareholders are of the view that if something were to happen to Mr Buffett today, Mr (Ajit) Jain would be best-placed to take over. But, if Mr Buffett sticks around for another decade, the chances are Berkshire Hathaway Energy CEO Greg Abel is the likely pick. Mr Jain is 64 and Mr Abel is more than a decade younger."

Succession plans are a no-brainer, but these seem to be the most difficult decision for ageing legends. A popular exception, among Buffett's contemporaries might be Lee Kwan Yew. LKY stepped down as Singapore's prime minister a good 25 years before he died last year, aged 92.

But, Buffett, never short on wisecracks, gave one for choosing older guys. He said he had an accurate explanation for why Charlie was the guy who always got the girl in the movies.

"He (Charlie) has one explanation for that. But, I think mine is more accurate. Every mother in this country tells her daughter, if you are choosing between very old and very rich guys, pick the one that is older."

Photograph: James Lawler Duggan/Reuters

N Sundaresha Subramanian in New Delhi
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