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Berkshire without Buffett?

Nati Harnik/Associated Press file photo

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett’s recent prostate cancer diagnosis is a reminder for shareholders and employees that someday he won’t be there to run the show. But Butffett says that he has chosen a successor for himself, although that person doesn’t know yet.

By JOSH FUNK
AP Business Writer

OMAHA, Neb. – Berkshire Hathaway shareholders made their annual pilgrimage here this weekend, and this year they have to confront an uncomfortable truth: Warren Buffett, Berkshire’s CEO and the greatest celebrity in investing, can’t go on forever.

Investors would rather not imagine life without the Oracle of Omaha, who is 81 and said last month that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. And he has no plans to leave the post soon.

When the day comes, people who have studied the company say, Berkshire without Buffett will probably look a lot like Berkshire with Buffett.

Berkshire, which owns 80 subsidiaries that range from a railroad to an upscale kitchen-products company, is already decentralized: Of its 270,000 employees, just 24 work at Omaha headquarters.

The conglomerate has a succession plan in place. Berkshire will split Buffett’s job into three when he’s gone, and the board has chosen his successor – although Buffett has said that person doesn’t know it yet.

And at least in the short term after Buffett, not unlike Apple in these first months after the death of Steve Jobs, there should be strong institutional pressure to keep doing things the way Buffett did them, Berkshire watchers say.

“Nobody is going to want to mess with what Warren Buffett built,” says Jeff Matthews, a Berkshire shareholder and author of Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett.

To be sure, a Berkshire without Buffett would lose the sheen of celebrity. More than 30,000 shareholders are expected to be in Omaha for the annual meeting and related events that began Friday.

Buffett and Berkshire’s vice chairman, Charlie Munger, who is 88, spent hours answering questions Saturday – many of them doubtless about what happens to Berkshire when Buffett is gone.

Berkshire’s Class A stock remains the most expensive U.S. stock. One share traded for about $122,000 Thursday, near its 52-week high of a little more than $123,500.

Buffett says the growth in the stock’s book value – the company’s assets minus liabilities – has outpaced the Standard & Poor’s 500 index in all but eight years since 1965 for a compounded annual gain of almost 20 percent.

The cancer doesn’t appear a threat to the billionaire’s life because doctors caught it early, and Buffett plans to undergo radiation treatments this summer.

But even before last month’s diagnosis, Buffett acknowledged that his age limits how many more years he has to lead Berkshire. And not everyone is confident about the company after those years.

Meyer Shields, a stock analyst for the brokerage Stifel Nicolas, says that Buffett is deeply intertwined with the company, making it difficult to assess the importance of his role.

“It’s hard to know where Warren Buffett ends and Berkshire begins,” Shields says.

In addition to a smaller annual meeting crowd in the post-Buffett era, Shields says Berkshire Hathaway and its next chief executive will have a lower cultural profile.

The next CEO won’t have Buffett’s reputation and connections, either. So he or she may not get calls such as the ones Buffett got from Goldman Sachs and General Electric in 2008.

At the depths of the financial crisis that fall, Buffett bought $8 billion of preferred stock in those companies. They paid him steep 10 percent interest – perhaps because they needed his stamp of approval as much as his cash.

Buffett doesn’t plan to retire because he enjoys the work he has been doing for almost five decades far too much. So he has tried to reassure shareholders – without giving away too many details – that Berkshire has a solid succession plan in place.

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