Susie Buffett says of brother Howard: "If a cheetah eats him, I could do it"

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Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 12:00 am

Warren Buffett's son Howard is on tap to become the next chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., but the current chairman and CEO has in mind two backups, if necessary.

Namely, his daughter, Susie, or his other son, Peter.

“Any one of the three, incidentally, they could be the custodian of the culture at Berkshire,” Warren said in an interview for a new World-Herald book, “The Oracle & Omaha: How Warren Buffett and His Hometown Shaped Each Other.”

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“I mean, Howie's a very logical one, but if anything happened to Howie, one of the other two could do the same thing,” said Buffett, 82. “I mean, that's not going to happen. But they've all got the same mindset on that. They're very different individuals, but they've got the same basic set of principles.”

No matter who is chairman or CEO, Howard Buffett said, Berkshire headquarters will remain in Omaha. “That's just like a line in the sand.”

The topic arose partly because Howard, 58, has lived an adventurous life as a wildlife photographer and crusader battling poverty and hunger in underdeveloped countries.

Over the years, he has been bitten by a cheetah, charged by a polar bear and threatened by Bosnian police. He volunteers as a deputy sheriff in Decatur, Ill., where he lives, and flies into distressed regions of the world, including refugee camps.

“When Howie dies, it's going to be some very bizarre death, I'm sure of that,” said Susie Buffett, 59. “Who knows? My mother and I always used to laugh. I said, 'He is going to die falling out of some helicopter or in a polar bear's mouth or something.'”

Could she handle being non-executive chairman of Berkshire?

“If the point of the job is to maintain the culture, I could absolutely do it, yes,” she said. “I've been sitting here every day for the last however many years. I see my dad every day. I know exactly what he wants. Howie's the right guy to do it. But yes, if a cheetah eats him, I could do it.”

She laughed. “I don't want the cheetah to eat him, though.”

Peter, 54, said he hadn't seriously considered the possibility but it's true that any one of the three could be chairman.

“I think all three of us have the fundamental cultural DNA that runs through Berkshire. It comes out in very different ways, of course,” said Peter, a musician who lives in New York. “But I think any of us could call upon it in this context if necessary. I love my job, so I would prefer to stay focused on that, but I would step up to the best of my abilities if needed.”

Warren Buffett said having a family member as the next chairman would be like extra insurance that the company's principles — such as allowing the managers of Berkshire-owned companies to run their businesses independently — would remain intact.

His succession plan also calls for Berkshire's board of directors to name a new CEO who would handle day-to-day duties, and he has hired two investment managers to oversee part of Berkshire's $88 billion investment portfolio.

After his death, Buffett said, Howard and the board are sure to keep Berkshire's culture intact.

“I don't think he's got any problem at all. That is just an extra safety measure. But it's so ingrained that his job in that respect is kind of like a standby fire operation. It won't be needed, but nevertheless he's supposed to guard it in case it's ever needed, to be enforced in some way.”

Howard and the directors have no interest in “playing their own game. They're just there as the keeper of the flame,” Warren Buffett said. “We've got the right culture. I'm not sure it's the only right culture, obviously, but it's the right culture, and it works. It works for the people. It works in terms of building value all the time.”

Chipping in with praise for Gibson

Buffett, a longtime baseball fan, was happy to help pay for a statue of Bob Gibson that was unveiled Thursday outside Werner Park, the Sarpy County stadium where the Omaha Storm Chasers AAA team plays.

“Bob and I have been friends for 50 years,” Buffett said last week. “Clearly, he is one of the great baseball players of all time. Moreover, by anyone's standards, he is the greatest competitor the game has ever seen.”

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Good reason for lower tax rate, author says

In a forthcoming book, George Gilder, editor-in-chief of the Gilder Technology Report and a Republican Party activist, writes that there's a good reason Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

“The reason capitalism works is that the creators of wealth are granted the right and burden of reinvesting it — or choosing the others who receive it in the reinvestment process,” Gilder writes in “Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How It Is Revolutionizing Our World” (Regnery Publishing, 284 pages, $24.95).

Buffett's tax rate has nothing to do with fairness, Gilder argues:

“He pays low rates because of the superiority of his entrepreneurial knowledge as an investor of capital. Buffett does not consume his income; he faces the challenge and onus of reinvesting his profits. Capitalism prevails because it assigns this exacting task to people like Warren Buffett rather than to people like his secretary — let alone to people in government who are driven by political rather than economic considerations.”

Gilder's earlier book on supply-side economics, “Wealth and Poverty,” influenced government policy during the Reagan administration.

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BYD signs deal with Australian firm

Australians will soon be able to buy storage battery systems for homes or businesses from BYD Co., the Chinese company that is 10 percent owned by Berkshire.

BYD signed a distribution agreement with FeBatteries of Perth, Australia, to sell the storage units, which hold excess electricity generated by solar energy panels, to be used later or sent back into the power grid to offset the cost of buying electricity.

Rising electricity prices make the systems more economical, BYD said in a press release. Ian Goldfinch, business director for FeBatteries, said the BYD battery will take advantage of Australia's “abundant sunshine” and Australians' interest in the environment and saving money on electricity.

The home-sized batteries are about as large as a refrigerator and store up to 8 kilowatt hours of power, enough electricity for part of a day at an average house that uses air conditioning, lighting and electric appliances.

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Suntech default too 'messy' for Buffett?

The price of shares in Suntech, a Chinese company that makes solar panels, jumped as much as 28 percent amid rumors that Berkshire's MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. of Des Moines would buy or invest in the company, the South China Morning Post reported.

Although MidAmerican has invested in solar energy projects in the United States, the rumors are most likely false, journalist Doug Young wrote in a blog from Shanghai. Suntech, once the world's largest solar energy company, defaulted on $541 million in debt last month and was forced into bankruptcy by its creditors.

“Buffett isn't known for investing in problem-plagued companies or sectors,” Young wrote. “Buffett would have to be very brave to try his luck in this unfamiliar territory, which is hardly like a bankruptcy case in the U.S. court system. ...

“I suspect that Buffett is too smart to get involved in such a messy affair, especially since there's no evidence just yet that the industry can be commercially viable in its present state.”

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1080, steve.jordon@owh.com, twitter.com/buffettOWH

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