Warren Watch: A ‘long run’ for Buffett assistant?

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Posted: Sunday, June 16, 2013 12:00 am

Even the Wall Street Journal’s recent profile of Tracy Britt, Warren Buffett’s financial assistant, doesn’t answer the question many people would ask if they got the chance: Will she be Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s next CEO?

Britt’s duties include researching potential acquisitions and serving as nonexecutive chairwoman of four Berkshire subsidiaries: Benjamin Moore, Johns Manville, Larson-Juhl and Oriental Trading.

The Journal’s reporting indicated that she has an office next to Buffett’s, accompanies him to meetings and was dispatched to Brazil to find out more about 3G Capital after Berkshire and 3G agreed to buy H.J. Heinz & Co.

A 2009 Harvard Business School graduate, she grew up on a farm near Manhattan, Kan., and met Buffett in 2006 on a visit to Omaha as president of Harvard University Women in Business. She also co-founded Smart Women Securities, a nonprofit group for undergraduate female students interested in investing.

In a recent Q&A with the Association for Corporate Growth of Omaha, Britt pointed out that women make up more than 50 percent of college graduates, yet only 14 percent of executive officers and 16 percent of corporate directors.

“Women need to step up for leadership roles, and businesses need to embrace the differences between men and women,” she said. “They need to allow women to achieve success without strictly following models that were put in place to cater to the habits and tendencies of men.

“I am, however, confident and optimistic that the gender gap will narrow in my lifetime.”

Buffett has praised Britt’s performance but hasn’t said anything publicly about her future at Berkshire. If you’re looking for clues, some of the numbers work out.

In 2007, Buffett projected his life expectancy as 88, based on actuarial tables, adding, “though, naturally, I’m aiming for more.” He’s now 82 and has said he hopes his successor has the advantage of a “long run” as CEO.

The name of Buffett’s successor, if needed today, resides in an envelope in his desk and has the endorsement of Berkshire’s board of directors. Buffett has said that name may change as time goes on, however.

In six years, Britt will be 34 and, if she stays at Berkshire, will have had considerable experience with Buffett and Berkshire. A 34-year-old CEO could have a “long run,” indeed.

Boots are big seller

Amanda Nye plans to do some country line dancing in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln-decorated boots she bought at Berkshire’s shareholders meeting in May.

“I didn’t know Justin’s would be here,” the smiling 24-year-old said as she tried on a pair.

Turns out, Texas-based Justin Brands, a Berkshire division, sold a record 1,000-plus pairs of boots during the 10-hour shopping period that surrounded the official meeting. That’s more than three boots — a pair and a half — per minute. Boots with university logos were especially popular.

Justin Vice President Chuck Schmalbach said the temporary shop at the CenturyLink Center used a cloud-based app by Conductiv to process sales, moving more merchandise than would have been possible with standard checkout equipment.

The booth couldn’t hold Justin’s full inventory, he said, but the app let salespeople use hand-held devices to show photos of products and tap into stockpiles elsewhere, then ship the goods to customers’ homes.

Changes at Heinz

Berkshire and 3G Capital are the new owners of the H.J. Heinz Co., and that means putting a new management team in place, Teresa F. Lindeman wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

New CEO Bernardo Hees named a new chief financial officer, Paulo Basilio, replacing longtime CFO Art Winkleblack.

Such management changes would be unheard-of in a purchase by Buffett, who considers “management in place” as a basic requirement for any business to become part of Berkshire. But this $28 billion transaction is being overseen by 3G, an investment company that has planned changes from the start.

Hees is a partner in 3G Capital and former CEO of America Latina Logistica, a Latin American railroad and logistics firm. Most recently he was CEO of Burger King, also a 3G Capital investment, where he trimmed the corporate structure and payroll. At Heinz, he may sell off businesses that are underperforming, the newspaper story said.

Some people in Pittsburgh, where the company employs 1,200 people, are nervous, the story said. “Elected officials have been contacting the company since the deal was announced in February, emphasizing the contributions of their communities where Heinz has operations.”

Tom Pirko, managing director of Bevmark, a food and beverage consulting firm in Buellton, Calif., “described Mr. Hees, who is 43, as a street fighter who doesn’t suffer fools and who plows ahead with changes. He expects the new management’s style will be much more aggressive than Heinz has had in the past.”

“The one thing I’m certain of, this is going to be different,” Pirko said. “This is going to be a culture change.”

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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