And Warren Buffett's Successor Is...

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- On Thursday, the new issue of Vanity Fair hit the newsstands, revealing once and for all who will be the successor to Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.B) -- and let's face it, CEO of the venerable, though far from AAA-rated, economic institution known as the US of A.

I've successfully struggled my way through the 140 perfume swatches, Prada, Louis Vuitton and luxury watch ads that comprise the main editorial content of any issue of VF, and although I feel a bit like a Victorian explorer on a search for El Dorado, with limbs covered in thorns and slashes after a trip through the Amazon -- only in my case, it's paper cuts and noxious perfume scent on my skin -- it was worth it for the long-anticipated Berkshire Hathaway succession secrets that Buffett provided to the publication.

I mean, Vanity Fair was granted 11 hours of exclusive interview time with Buffett! That's like the Mega Millions equivalent for the financial media. And while that might make CNBC's Becky Quick suddenly feel like a second fiddle media mouthpiece for Buffett, it has to mean that VF really got the goods on Buffett's succession plan thinking, right?

Keep dreaming and smelling perfume swatches.

Heck, at least there's always some good -- about 150 or so -- charity event photo op shots of VF editor Graydon Carter, the Olsen twins, a Ralph Lauren offspring or some other designer's daughter, and a Hollywood icon or two, as well as a business tycoon with a fourth wife on the shoulder -- included in every issue so readers who don't learn much about the next Berkshire Hathway CEO do, at least, learn who was wearing Stella McCartney, as well as what they were drinking, and which cause they were drinking to support, and in which bar, coincidentally owned by Graydon Carter.

For all the 11 hours that Vanity Fair was granted by arguably the most media-savvy CEO in the land, VF couldn't really shed much new light on life for Berkshire Hathaway after Warren Buffett. All we could find were:
  • VF trotted out the names of all the top candidates to replace Buffett -- four Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary operating chiefs: David Sokol, Ajit Jain, Matthew Rose and Gregory Abel.
  • Buffett repeated his stock quote about succession planning, that it's always a top issue at every Berkshire Hathaway board meeting.
  • Additionally, VF reports -- as has been reported many times before -- that the CEO slot will be divided up into more than one position.
  • All I can say is that with revelations like these, I hope the 11 hours of interview time at least included a big lunch paid for by Buffett at his favorite Omaha restaurant, Picollo's.

    In fact, for Berkshire Hathaway investors, the VF story is about as fresh as the fact that Buffett is 80 -- and that so is his righthand man, Berkshire chief operating officer Charlie Munger -- and that at some point, Berkshire Hathaway will have to put a succession plan in place.

    VF couldn't even get a quote as Buffett-esque about Jain as Buffet provided himself back in last year's annual letter, when the Quip Master of Omaha said about the national indemnity chief of Berkshire, "If Charlie Munger, I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat -- and you can only save one of us -- swim to Ajit."

    VF did get the incredible scoop that in the upcoming Berkshire Hathaway annual letter, the one major hire that Buffett has made, hedge fund manager Todd Combs, will be compared to the race horse Secretariat, as opposed to Sea Biscuit. "Our goal was a two-year-old Secretariat, not a 10-year-old Seabiscuit," Buffett plans to write in the annual letter, adding, "Not the smartest metaphor for an 80-year-old C.E.O."

    Yet it's an apt Buffett quip, as handicapping the Berkshire Hathaway succession planning race is not something that the VF article will help investors to accomplish.

    In fact, if it reveals anything about Buffett's approach to succession, it reveals that he has and will continue to play his cards close to the vest. If investors are worried about the succession issue as a reason to, or not to, invest in Berkshire Hathaway shares, media-savvy Buffett is not dangling any substantial carrots about succession through his selective use of the press.

    In an ironic note on the over-reported, under-substantiated issue of Berkshire Hathaway succession, Buffett noted in the VF interview that his worst regret about his business management style is procrastination over business affairs he'd rather avoid taking part in.

    "Every time I am later than I should be. It's the only thing about my job that I hate. I would give up a big percentage of my net worth if I didn't have to do this. I hate it. Therefore, I put it off and I procrastinate."

    Indeed, if there is any one major issue where a cynic could argue that Buffett has shown this predilection for procrastination, it's in revealing the Berkshire Hathaway succession plan to investors.

    This doesn't mean the succession planning is not already far along at Berkshire Hathaway, but it does mean that Buffett has little interest in revealing the intricacies of the planning process -- either over 11 hours or in the 2 minutes of a horse race.

    There is certainly a valuation issue for investors related to Berkshire Hathaway succession, and as CEO candidate David Sokol told VF, Berkshire Hathaway is 60% Buffett and 40% Berkshire Hathaway. How much of that 60% is in the $80 at which Berkshire's B shares trade remains a "back of mind, back of the envelope calculation," says Morningstar analyst Greggory Warren.

    The Morningstar analyst, who has been granted zero hours of interview time with Buffett, added, "I think they are further along than they are telling us. What would it benefit them to tell you? Buffett never plays to the market."

    Paul Howard, a longtime Berkshire Hathaway analyst, who is soon to cover the company from his independent research shop Solstice Investment Research, said that all of the names mentioned by Vanity Fair are among the roster of mainstream candidates already on the short list. It's not likely that the CEO succession plan at Berkshire Hathaway will play out in any way that is different from the announcement late last year of the hiring of hedge fund manager Todd Combs.

    "We didn't know until we knew. Whether it's Vanity Fair or the Wall Street Journal, no one is going to bleed Buffett into saying what they want him to say. He's in total control," Howard says.

    Indeed, even at 80, Buffett remains like a Secretariat in his prime, while the financial press -- whether it logs 11 hours of quality time with Buffett, or not -- remains a less nimble Sea Biscuit, earnest in its intentions, yet forever trailing into the home stretch.

    -- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.


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