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Warren Buffett mulls over his own mortality at this year’s Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting

Warren Buffett walks the floor ahead of the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska on May 3, 2024.

David A. Grogen | CNBC

Warren Buffett spoke candidly to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders Saturday about a future when he’s no longer there to lead the sprawling conglomerate he built, appearing solemn at times as he pondered his advanced age, and reflected on his late friend and business partner Charlie Munger. The death of Munger last year brought the question of succession to the forefront of many investors’ minds at this year’s shareholders meeting.

At times, Buffett, who’s about to turn 94 in August, seemed to mull over his own mortality, even as he said he was feeling fine to continue running the business. He spoke from the dais at Omaha’s CHI Health Center, where the meeting was held, with his lieutenants Greg Abel, Berkshire Hathaway Energy chairman and Buffett’s heir apparent, as well as Ajit Jain, vice chairman of insurance operations. 

“We’ll see how the next management plays the game out at Berkshire, [but] fortunately you don’t have too long to wait on that,” Buffett said. “I feel fine, but I know a little about actuarial tables.” 

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Berkshire Hathaway, long-term

“I shouldn’t be taking on any four-year employment contracts, like several people are doing in this world, at an age when you can’t be quite that sure where you’re going to be in four years,” he added.

Berkshire’s future

The Oracle of Omaha provided more clarity than he’d had in the past on the leadership structure at Berkshire going forward, disclosing, for example, that Abel will have final say when it comes to the conglomerate’s investing decisions. 

“I would leave the capital allocation to Greg and he understands businesses extremely well,” Buffett said Saturday. “If you understand businesses, you’ll understand common stocks.”

Warren Buffett and Greg Abel during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska on May 4, 2024.

CNBC

Abel, in turn, reassured investors that the culture at Berkshire will remain the same, as well as attract new people going forward. “I think we have a very special company at Berkshire,” he said, adding, “that’s not going to change.” 

Berkshire’s architect

Munger’s absence was felt deeply by many investors at this year’s shareholder meeting. The business titan was known for his sharp wit and wisdom, and over the decades had drawn uproarious laughter from the crowd with his many humorous asides. 

Some of those zingers and insights were highlighted in a video tribute at the start of this year’s meeting. At the 2015 meeting, for example, he observed, “Warren, if people weren’t so often wrong we wouldn’t be so rich.” As the lights of the arena came on at the conclusion of the short movie, some tens of thousands of investors got to their feet for a standing ovation. 

Warren Buffett speaks during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska on May 4, 2024. 

CNBC

Buffett spoke often of Munger throughout the morning and afternoon sessions, referring to him as the “architect” of Berkshire’s success. The two men shaped Berkshire into a $900 billion conglomerate from what had once been a textile mill. He also noted the characteristics he admired most in the late business titan, such as his honesty. “When you get that in your life, you cherish those people and you sort of forget about the rest,” he said. 

At one point during the question-and-answer session, Buffett referred to Abel, who was sitting to his left, as the late Munger in a slip-up, prompting laughter from the crowd. “I’m so used to that,” admitted Buffett, who said he’d likely “slip again” during the meeting. Abel, who is Buffett’s named successor, responded: “It’s a great honor.”  

Buffett also took some time to honor Carol Loomis, the financial journalist who had edited his shareholder letter from 1977, all the way to the most recent Berkshire report. “Carol is the best business writer,” Buffett said, adding, “Nobody came close to her, and she started from scratch.” 

Despite the more solemn meeting, Buffett appeared intent to keep going for as long as he could at the helm. Addressing his shareholders at the conclusion of the 2024 shareholder meeting, the investor said: “I not only hope you come next year. I hope I come next year.” 

— CNBC’s Brian Evans, Alex Harring and Pia Singh contributed to this report.

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