May 24, 2024

Warren Buffett, Delegator in Chief

That is Warren Buffett’s management style, as described in a biography by Roger Lowenstein. Mr. Buffett delegates; he empowers his executives. Mr. Buffett, the 80-year-old chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway known as Uncle Warren, has been praised as one of the world’s greatest business managers. He has racked up average annualized returns of more than 20 percent for four decades. Yet in a potential case study for business schools, the question is now being asked: Does Mr. Buffett delegate too much?

Just in time for his company’s annual meeting with 35,000 investors next weekend, Mr. Buffett’s management style is coming under scrutiny.

His heir apparent, David L. Sokol, resigned last month after it emerged that he had bought $10 million worth of stock in Lubrizol, a chemical manufacturer, a day after he began orchestrating a merger with Berkshire, which later acquired Lubrizol for $9 billion — increasing the value of Mr. Sokol’s holding by $3 million.

Although Mr. Sokol mentioned that he was a shareholder in Lubrizol to Mr. Buffett when he suggested that Berkshire buy the company, Mr. Buffett said he did not ask about “the date of his purchase or the extent of his holdings.” The controversy exposed a paradox: Mr. Buffett may be considered one of the world’s best managers, but he doesn’t actively manage the hundreds of businesses that Berkshire owns.

“Did Sokol’s actions reveal shortcomings in the company’s governance system that need to be addressed?” asked Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in a paper titled “The Resignation of David Sokol: Mountain or Molehill for Berkshire Hathaway?”

Unlike Jeffrey R. Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, who spends much of his time on airplanes traveling the world to visit the company’s 287,000 employees and oversees a giant campus and management team in Fairfield, Conn., Mr. Buffett “manages” Berkshire’s 257,000 employees with just 21 people at his headquarters in a small office in Omaha.

Mr. Buffett’s business partner, Charles Munger, once described Mr. Buffett’s day. He spends half of his time just sitting around and reading, Mr. Munger said. “And a big chunk of the rest of the time is spent talking one on one, either on the telephone or personally, with highly gifted people whom he trusts and who trust him.”

And that trust has advantages. “Part of his genius is that he’s created a hands-off culture that encourages entrepreneurs to sell their private companies to Berkshire,” said Larry Pitkowsky, managing partner of GoodHaven Capital Management and a longtime Berkshire shareholder, “and, critically, that they keeping showing up for work every day without worrying that they are going to get a call from headquarters telling them how to run things.” How hands-off is Mr. Buffett? When questioned once about why Berkshire didn’t take a more active role in fixing Moody’s, the troubled credit rating agency, in which he was the largest shareholder, he declared: “I’ve never been to Moody’s. I don’t even know where they’re located.”

“If I thought they needed me I wouldn’t have bought the stock,” he added.

He sees himself less of an activist than as a passive investor, a stock picker with a nose for a good deal. “We don’t tell Burlington Northern what safety procedures to put in or AmEx who they should lend to,” he said at his annual meeting two years ago. “When we own stock, we are not there to try and change people.”

His management approach may be as much a function of his own philosophy as it is a practical preference. He likes to make his investments dispassionately, based on the numbers, rather than let emotions get involved.

Mr. Buffett’s investing antennas may be genius, but some of his critics have suggested that his trust-based management style may have left him too farsighted to quickly spot operational problems. As reported by Carol Loomis of Fortune magazine, when Mr. Buffett was first told in 1991 about indications of a possible scandal at Salomon Brothers that later nearly took down the company (Berkshire was its largest shareholder), he initially did not detect any reason to be particularly alarmed, “so he went back to dinner.” Only after speaking several days later about the matter with his partner, Mr. Munger, “did Buffett get a sense of real trouble.”

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