For Greg Abel, the journey from majoring in finance at the University of Alberta to being named “in some ways a better business executive than Warren Buffett” has taken him from the hockey rink to the heights of the U.S. energy field.
Abel, 52, is the chairman, president and chief executive of Des Moines-based Berkshire Hathaway Energy, formerly known as MidAmerican Energy.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy provides electric and natural gas service to more than 11.5 million customers. The group includes the electric utilities PacifiCorp, MidAmerican Energy, NV Energy and Northern Powergrid Holdings; the BHE Pipeline Group unit that includes Omaha’s Northern Natural Gas; electricity transmission companies BHE U.S. Transmission and AltaLink; solar-power developer BHE Renewables; and HomeServices of America, which is the second-largest residential real estate brokerage firm in the United States.
All told, Abel’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy contributed $1.9 billion in net earnings for the parent company’s shareholders, up 28 percent from a year earlier.
It is that kind of performance that motivated Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger to write in the 2014 shareholder letter that with CEOs like Abel, the company is in no way going to be challenged to find talent to replace Buffett — who has no plans to retire any time soon.
Still, the topic was a major point of the Munger-penned section of the shareholder letter, which also referenced Berkshire Hathaway insurance guru Ajit Jain.
“Under this Buffett-soon-leaves assumption, his successors would not be of only moderate ability,” Munger wrote. “For instance, Ajit Jain and Greg Abel are proven performers who would probably be under-described as world-class. World-leading would be the description I would choose. In some important ways, each is a better business executive than Buffett.”
It is all a long way from Edmonton, Alberta, where Abel grew up on the hockey rink — hockey being a sport at which he continued to compete at the amateur level into adulthood. He started out as a finance major but switched to earn a degree in commerce. He was named alumni of the year of the university’s business school in 2013.
He spent some time at PricewaterhouseCoopers in San Francisco before moving to geothermal energy firm CalEnergy. In 1996 CalEnergy acquired an electric utility in the United Kingdom, and Abel was sent to run it.
Abel made his first appearance in Buffett’s chairman’s letter in 2002:
“Dave Sokol, MidAmerican Energy Holding Co. CEO (who later resigned), and Greg Abel, his key associate, are huge assets for Berkshire. They are dealmakers, and they are managers. Berkshire stands ready to inject massive amounts of money into MEHC — and it will be fun to watch how far Dave and Greg can take the business.”
Massive amounts of money, indeed, making the now-named Berkshire Hathaway Energy the centerpiece of Buffett’s “as far as the eye can see” energy investments strategy.
Buffett has entrusted Abel’s group with vast amounts of capital. Berkshire Hathaway Energy investments in recent years include:
>> Power grids in the U.K. and Abel’s home territory of Alberta.
>> Natural gas pipelines that stretch from the Great Lakes to Texas.
>> Electric utilities in Iowa, Oregon and Nevada.
>> $15 billion committed to renewable energy projects, such as a solar farm in California that will be one of the world’s largest when completed this year.
“We’ve poured billions and billions and billions of dollars in retained earnings, and several billion of additional equity,” into the energy business, Buffett said last year at the Edison Electric Institute’s annual convention in Las Vegas. “And we’re going to keep doing that as far as the eye can see.”
Abel serves on the board and executive committee of the Edison Electric Institute and the Greater Des Moines Partnership. He also serves on the boards of H.J. Heinz, Kum & Go, and the Mid-Iowa Council Boy Scouts of America, among many others.
As for his future, little will stop the post-Buffett speculation among Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. One thing is for sure: When Abel has something to say, the boss is available to hear him out.
As Buffett told the University of Alberta business school alumni magazine in 2013: “I get a lot of phone calls each day, and I always make time for Greg when he calls, because he brings me great ideas and is truly innovative in his thinking and business approach.”