Warren E. Buffett worked to reassure shareholders that he's feeling good after his recent prostate cancer diagnosis, and that Berkshire Hathaway is ready to replace the revered 81-year-old investor when the need arises.
Based on the questions Buffett got from the crowd of more than 30,000 at the company's annual meeting in Omaha on Saturday, Berkshire shareholders are taking him at his word.
Despite the fact that Buffett just disclosed the condition last month, he didn't face the first question about his health until well into Saturday's questioning. Many of the questions at the meeting either focused in on technical aspects of Berkshire's many businesses or dealt with general economic or political topics.
"I feel terrific. I love what I do," he said. Buffett told shareholders that the survival rates for prostate cancer look so good that he thinks the diagnosis is a "non-event."
It would hardly be the first time that Buffett's assessment would be trusted. Widely known as the Oracle of Omaha, Buffett, 81, is considered the greatest celebrity in investing because of his many profitable decisions. Buffett has said his four doctors caught his cancer early, and it doesn't represent a serious threat to his health. He plans to undergo radiation treatment in July, but the treatment should have little effect on his daily routine.
"I may have a little less energy, but that may mean I do fewer dumb things," Buffett said jokingly.
Still, the diagnosis is forcing shareholders to confront the fact that one day Buffett will no longer be at the helm of the conglomerate, which includes an eclectic mix of companies such as The Buffalo News, GEICO, MidAmerican Energy, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, Shaw carpet, Helzberg Diamonds, the Nebraska Furniture Mart and Pampered Chef. Several questions dealt with related topics, such as who will replace Buffett when the time comes.
Buffett told shareholders in this year's annual letter that the board has picked someone to succeed him as CEO if the need arises immediately, and it has two backup candidates. But Buffett hasn't publicly identified his successor. During the business portion of the meeting, Berkshire shareholders overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have required annual updates on how the company is preparing to replace Buffett.
However, Buffett did address a challenge that his successor may face and talked about the way his successor will approach the job.
Buffett said his eventual successor will maintain the company's culture and continue to let key managers run Berkshire subsidiaries with little interference. Buffett is known for his hands-off, decentralized management style.
Shareholder John Zerngast, of Olathe, Kan., said the stock market might be uneasy about Buffett's age and that of 88-year-old vice chairman Charlie Munger, but it shouldn't be because of how much Berkshire's 80-odd subsidiaries and investments are worth.
"I don't worry about Warren and Charlie because the underlying value is there," Zerngast said.