Gregory 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."
Gregory E. Abel, 56, came up through the ranks in Berkshire’s energy division, impressing Buffett with his management and acquisition skills.
“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,” Buffett told the University of Alberta’s alumni magazine in 2013.
Abel grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, where he acquired a lifelong love of hockey. As an adult, he played in amateur hockey leagues as he moved into his career in accounting and business management.
He earned a degree in commerce from the University of Alberta and worked as an accountant in Canada and later at PricewaterhouseCoopers in San Francisco before moving in 1992 to CalEnergy, a California utility that is part of Berkshire’s energy division.
In 1996 CalEnergy acquired an electric utility in the United Kingdom and sent Abel to run it. He later moved to Des Moines, Berkshire’s energy division headquarters. Abel became president in 1998, CEO in 2008 and chairman in 2011, succeeding David Sokol.
In 2002, Buffett praised Abel’s skills, calling him a “dealmaker.” Later, he began calling on him during the company’s annual shareholders meeting to answer questions about energy issues.
Buffett’s deference to Abel during the meetings led to early speculation that Buffett and the Berkshire board of directors considered him a potential successor. Charlie Munger, a fellow vice chairman of Berkshire, referred to Abel as “world-class.”
Lawrence Cunningham, a George Washington University law professor who has written on Berkshire’s succession plan, said Abel is “even-tempered, even-keeled.”
Abel’s age — in his 40s when Buffett began drawing attention to him — also was an advantage because Buffett has said he wants his successor to have “a long run” as CEO of Berkshire.
Abel is vice chairman of Edison Electric Institute, a utility association, and is a director of Associated Electric & Gas Insurance Services Limited, Kraft Heinz Co., AEGIS Insurance Services Inc., Nuclear Electric Insurance Ltd., the Hockey Canada Foundation and the Mid-Iowa Council Boy Scouts of America.
He has served on the Duke University board of trustees and the board of the American Football Coaches Foundation.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns the Omaha World-Herald.