Who Is Greg Abel?
Investors around the world have wondered for years who would take the reins of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A, BRK.B) once its current 90-year-old CEO (and the world's sixth-richest man) Warren Buffett passes away or retires.
On May 1, 2021, they got their answer. At the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, executive vice chair of Berkshire Hathaway Charlie Munger made an offhand comment indicating the man succeeding Buffett as CEO would be Berkshire's 58-year-old vice chair of Non-Insurance Business Operations, Greg Abel. Buffett confirmed the news in a CNBC interview the following Monday.
If the actual remark—"Greg will keep the culture," Munger said, discussing Berkshire's decentralized operating structure—was a surprise, the individual in question isn't. Abel had long been considered one of the front-running heirs apparent for CEO, along with his fellow board member Ajit Jain, Vice Chair of Insurance Operations.
Neither Buffett nor Munger gave any indication of exactly when Greg Abel would assume the head post. Still, let's meet the man who is poised to preside over one of the largest U.S. corporations in the post-Buffett era.
- At the Berkshire Hathaway 2021 annual meeting, executive vice chair Charlie Munger made an offhand remarking identifying Greg Abel as the successor to CEO Warren Buffett.
- Greg Abel is currently Berkshire's vice chair of Non-Insurance Business Operations and the chair of subsidiary Berkshire Energy Holdings.
- Abel has been at Berkshire since 2000, when the conglomerate bought an energy company he'd been running.
- Known as a low-key but hardworking dealmaker, Abel has spearheaded some of Berkshire's biggest and most successful acquisitions.
- No date has been set for Buffett's departure or Abel's succession.
Early Life and Education
Born June 1, 1962, and raised in Edmonton, Canada, Gregory Abel graduated from the University of Alberta in 1984 with a commerce degree. He became an accountant and, after a stint with Big Four accounting firm PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), joined a small electricity company, CalEnergy, in 1992. He rose to become president of the business in 1998, which expanded into a variety of energy operations, changing its name to MidAmerican Energy Holdings (after one of the firms it acquired).
Abel became part of Berkshire Hathaway when the conglomerate bought MidAmerican in 2000. The firm eventually was re-dubbed Berkshire Hathaway Energy (BHE). Abel served as its Chief Executive Officer from 2008–2018. He currently serves as its chair. With subsidiaries focused on coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear energy. BHE has more than 23,800 employees and reported more than $20.9 billion in revenue in 2020.
That ability continued at Berkshire. BHE has accounted for/been involved in some of Berkshire's largest acquisitions, including PacifiCorp in 2005, Nevada utility NV Energy in 2013, and Dominion Energy’s pipeline business in 2020.
Abel also nurtured Home Services, a small real estate brokerage that came with the purchase of another company; it's now one of Berkshire's most successful holdings.
Both at MidAmerican and at Berkshire, Abel was mentored by David Sokol, who seemed a likely successor to Warren Buffett until his resignation from Berkshire in 2011. Sokol was singing Abel's praises to Buffett as early as 2007.
Greg Abel's compensation in 2020. It includes $16 million in base salary and a $3 million bonus, according to Berkshire's SEC filings.
An Heir Apparent
Although he tended to avoid public appearances and shareholder meetings, Abel's reputation began to spread throughout the financial and business world—as did speculation about his role at a post-Buffett Berkshire In September 2017, JP Morgan analyst Sarah DeWitt wrote in a note, “The most likely successor in our view, who Warren Buffett regularly praises, is Greg Abel.”
Then, in 2018, came the move that marked Abel as a potential heir apparent: Buffett elevated and appointed Abel, along with Ajit Jain, to the Berkshire Hathaway board of directors, creating two new seats for them. Abel received his current title, Vice Chair of Non-Insurance Business Operations.
As such, Abel oversees all of Berkshire's railroad, auto utilities, manufacturing, and retail subsidiaries—over 90 companies in all. All told, the noninsurance operations represent $150 billion in sales and comprise 250,000 employees.
Until Munger's inadvertent mention at the 2021 shareholder meeting, Jain and Abel were both seen as likely successors to Buffett—in fact, some gave Jain the edge.
It's possible that Abel's age—he's over a decade younger than the 69-year-old Jain—ultimately was the decisive factor in his being tapped over Jain.
While at MidAmerican, Abel acquired a reputation as a superb dealmaker, leading and growing the company in more diversified directions through smart mergers and purchases—and managing the new acquisitions intelligently and efficiently. His handling of purchases of Enron's gas lines and of a British firm, Northern Electric, stood out in particular.
In his 2014 letter to shareholders, Charlie Munger characterized Greg Abel and Ajit Jain as "proven performers who would probably be under-described as 'world-class.' 'World-leading' would be the description I would choose. In some important ways, each is a better business executive than Buffett."
A resident of Des Moines, where Berkshire Energy is based, Abel leads a relatively low-key life, like Buffett. Friends and acquaintances describe him as grounded and level-headed—also like Buffett—along with being extremely smart, driven, and tough when he needs to be.
Although something of an insider's secret, he has stepped up public appearances in the last two years, a notable onstage presence at recent annual meetings. His answers to questions, especially about energy conservation and sustainability, went down well with analysts and shareholders.
Hockey is one of Greg Abel's passions. He played the sport as a boy and coaches his children's teams. He also sits on the Hockey Canada Foundation's Board of Directors.
The Bottom Line
Greg Abel will face challenges when he steps into the big role. An increasingly activist group of Berkshire shareholders is agitating for the company to spend more of its considerable cash reserves, to reduce its carbon footprint, and to promote diversity. All this, along with the fact that he's not Warren Buffett.
But then, he won't be inheriting Buffett's exact role. The job Buffett did will probably be divvied up among various people. Abel will be the CEO of Berkshire, but Buffett's son Howard is likely to be named Berkshire Chair of the Board.
Jain seems likely to continue as vice chair of the insurance operations, and his job could expand further. He's also been cited as next in line for CEO, should anything happen to Abel.
Finally, there may well be a bigger role for Todd Combs and Ted Weschler. Both of these men are investment managers for Buffett and have been taking on greater responsibilities in managing smaller companies in the Berkshire portfolio. It is possible that both will be given more responsibility after Buffett’s departure.