Greg E. Abel and Ajit Jain became the official top contenders Wednesday to follow Warren Buffett as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the Omaha-based conglomerate with more than 400,000 employees and a market value of $500 billion.
Although well-known to Berkshire shareholders and others in the investment world, the two have remained mostly behind the scenes publicly. They have come to Berkshire through different paths, but have two things in common: Neither were born in the United States and, Buffett said Wednesday, both have "Berkshire in their blood."
Once called the “class clown” by a school buddy in India, Ajit Jain has created more than $100 billion in value for Berkshire Hathaway through the insurance operation he oversees.
“If Charlie (Munger) and I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat — and you can only save one of us,” Buffett once said, “swim to Ajit.”
Born in 1951 in Orissa, India, Jain graduated in 1972 from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, India, with a mechanical engineering degree.
Jain, a strict vegetarian because of his religion, Jainism, worked as a salesman for IBM’s data processing operations in India from 1973 to 1976, losing that job when IBM closed the office there.
He moved to the United States in 1978, earning an MBA from Harvard University — where, he once said, the teachings were “obvious” — and joined McKinsey & Co. before returning to India in the early 1980s to marry.
He and his wife, Tinku, returned to the United States, where she preferred to live. He joined Berkshire in 1985 at the request of his former boss, Michael Goldberg, who also had left McKinsey to join Berkshire’s insurance operation.
“I immediately knew we had found a superstar,” Buffett said later.
Insurance was new to Jain, but he learned quickly and became head of all Berkshire’s insurance operations, working from an office in Stamford, Connecticut.
In 2005, Jain established a foundation in Seattle to find a cure for a form of muscular dystrophy that his son has.
In 2009 he paid $8 million at an auction for a New York City condominium with a 738-square-foot terrace overlooking the Queensboro Bridge from the 34th floor of the 55-story building. “You think I went too high?” Jain joked as he signed the papers. “Right now, I’m having buyer’s remorse.”
A frequent visitor to India, Jain encouraged Buffett to start auto insurance operations there. He also accompanied Buffett — who once said he thinks of Jain as a brother or son — and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on a business visit to India in 2011.
Called energetic, quick-minded and excellent at mathematics, with a sense of humor and mischief, Jain has been on the short list of possible Buffett successors for years but has said he loves his current job, partly because he doesn’t have to make capital allocation decisions.
“All I do is take the cash and throw it into the black box in Omaha and, hopefully, Uncle Warren keeps doing his magic with it,” he once said.
On the trip to India, Buffett said of Jain, “he loves what he does. He’s not looking to take my job. If he was, the board of directors would probably put him in there in a minute.”
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns the Omaha World-Herald.