Wall Street is Wrong about Buffett's Successor

Andy Obermueller's picture

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 - 3:53pm

by Andy Obermueller

Warren Buffett may well be the most-watched man in the world. No paparazzi are camped outside his house, but there's a huge cult of investors that hangs on the famed Oracle of Omaha's every word.

So news that Richard Santulli had stepped down as the head of Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A) NetJets subsidiary has re-ignited Wall Street's favorite parlor game. It's called "Who is Going to Replace Buffett?" Santulli had garnered praise from Buffett in the annual shareholder letter and had been rumored to be a candidate for the top job.

Enter Mid-American Energy's David Sokol. Sokol, who was CEO when Buffett bought the company in 1999, has since stepped away from the corner office and handed over the day-to-day reins to Greg Abel. Leaving Sokol with a business card that says "Chairman" and the freedom to pursue acquisitions -- or whatever else Buffett might require.

Let me be clear: David Sokol is unlikely to succeed Warren Buffett. Sokol's appointment to the top spot at NetJets bespeaks a lack of understanding of Berkshire. The speculation that this move is priming him to take over for Buffett is wrong. He is Buffett's fixer.

Berkshire Hathaway is an insurance holding company. The CEO who takes over after Buffett will have an insurance background. The chief investment officer, a post that will be created at Berkshire when Buffett leaves or dies, will focus on -- wait for it -- finding acquisitions. That's what Buffett wants Sokol doing. That's why he sent Sokol to China to investigate BYD, a car company and high-tech battery producer that Buffett bought a major stake in. And that's why he named him to Santulli's spot at NetJets: Buffett needed to fill the spot, quickly, with someone he could trust.

My prediction: The brilliant Ajit Jain will take the top spot. Jain runs a reinsurance unit that does huge deals in a changing environment that requires quick and flawless execution. Those are qualities Buffett respects. But Jain is among the world's leaders at pricing risk, which is a talent Buffett absolutely reveres. David Sokol will be the chief investment scout and will look for acquisitions with Vice Chairman Charlie Munger at his side for as long as he is able. Buffett's son Howard also will play a nominal role in guiding the company, doubtlessly with close family friend and board member Bill Gates whispering in his ear.

Andy Obermueller does not personally hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.
StreetAuthority LLC does not hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.