As thousands of shareholders from around the world crowded into Omaha this weekend to attend Berkshire Hathaway Inc's annual meeting, many pondered the unthinkable — life after Warren Buffett.
Few chief executives are as synonymous with their companies or have achieved the kind of cult status that the 79-year-old Buffett has built in the 45 years he has run Berkshire.
He transformed Berkshire from an ailing textile mill into a roughly $190 billion conglomerate, according to Reuters data, that sells such things as car insurance, ice cream, paint and underwear. Class A shares closed at $115,325 on Friday.
As Buffett sat on a stage, munching peanut brittle and fudge, and reassuring shareholders that he is healthy, despite a diet that he said drives his doctor "nuts," his age has been and will continue to be an issue for investors and prospective investors.
"It's obviously a sensitive subject, especially at a shareholder meeting, said Matthew Ghali, a software engineer from San Francisco attending his first annual meeting.
Buffett reassured shareholders that Berkshire's succession plans are well prepared — his position would be split — a chief executive, and perhaps three or four chief investment officers.
"If I die tonight there will be a new CEO within 24 hours," Buffett said. He said there are three names in an envelope and that all directors feel comfortable with the candidates, and that there would be less of a rush to name CIOs.
Nonetheless, shareholders remain concerned about what will happen to their shares, which many say carry a "Buffett premium" for as long as he is in charge, and to the corporate culture that Buffett has carefully tended over the years with his homespun humor and thoughts about life.
His advice, ranging from picking the right partner and investing in companies that are easy to understand, resonates with prominent money managers and ordinary investors alike.
"Yes, the day Warren Buffett dies the shares are sure to go down a little bit," said Sherrie Gregory, a real estate developer from Lincoln, Nebraska. "I think Warren would be disappointed if they didn't."
But because Berkshire is part of the Standard & Poor's 500, the many investors who try to track that index will not sell their shares for so long as Berkshire is in the index — probably indefinitely. And investors expect the institutional shareholders who could drive the share price lower in a hurry will react calmly.
"There is probably a lot of institutional knowledge and procedures in the kind of deals Berkshire makes, and that's not going to immediately change if something happens with the leadership," Ghali said. The big institutional investors "aren't going to be panicked," he added.
In terms of the company's culture however, investors were slightly more worried about who could fill the shoes of the man they have come to revere over the decades.
David Sokol, who chairs Berkshire's MidAmerican Energy unit and runs its NetJets plane leasing unit, and Ajit Jain, Berkshire's top insurance executive, are the most mentioned candidates to replace Buffett as chief executive, and Buffett effusively praised both on Saturday.
"When we come to Omaha and we are in the presence of Warren we are all just mere disciples," said Mohnish Pabrai, managing director of Pabrai Investment Funds in Irvine, California, who spent $650,100 three years ago in a charity auction to have lunch with Buffett in New York. "When we go back to where we live, we will again be the cardinals of value investing but here we are just his disciples."
The stories of how Buffett changed lives flowed freely during the parties held around town this weekend.
Hedge fund manager Jeff Peskind brings his entire firm plus family and friends to the meeting from New York for a price tag of roughly $10,000.
"We stay in a reasonably priced hotel and it is really fun," he said, adding: "For me, Warren Buffett has really changed my life in terms of the investment strategy we follow at Phoenix Investment Advisors."
Eric Schleien, a college student who said he runs a hedge fund in his spare time, said he would not be investing at all if it were not for Warren Buffett. But he plans to stick around once Buffett departs.
"The space he has created is something outside of him," he said. "Berkshire is bigger than Warren Buffett."