Replacing the irreplaceable Warren Buffett won't be easy. But that's the path ahead for Greg Abel, a Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman who was publicly identified Monday as the successor to America's most renowned investor for the first time.
Mr. Buffett said the 58-year-old executive will take over the $630 billion business when he steps down.
Mr. Abel's more than two-decade track record at the conglomerate includes high-profile dealmaking and overseeing its sprawling non-insurance businesses, from the BNSF railroad to Dairy Queen. But Mr. Buffett's aphorisms and stature as the Oracle of Omaha have earned him a reputation as the avuncular face of capitalism, and secured him a following that Mr. Abel may find hard to replicate.
"There's only one Warren Buffett," David Kass, a professor of finance at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said in a phone interview. "But he brings other strengths to the table," Mr. Kass said of Mr. Abel. "He exudes extreme competence."
Though Mr. Buffett has still given no indication his departure is imminent, succession questions have long loomed over Berkshire, which counts two nonagenarians as its top executives: Mr. Buffett, 90, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 97. Mr. Buffett has left a trail of crumbs pointing toward the answer, with such moves as the promotion of Mr. Abel and Ajit Jain to vice chairmen in 2018. But the biggest hint was the one Mr. Munger inadvertently dropped at Saturday's annual meeting.
"Greg will keep the culture," Mr. Munger said, responding to a point made by Mr. Buffett about how decentralization only works at companies such as Berkshire because of their culture.
Mr. Buffett later confirmed what Mr. Munger had let slip.
"The directors are in agreement that if something were to happen to me tonight, it would be Greg who'd take over tomorrow morning," Mr. Buffett told CNBC. "We've always at Berkshire had basically a unanimous agreement as to who should take over the next day."
Berkshire didn't respond to requests for comment, and Mr. Abel declined to comment through an assistant.