Buffett’s Son Hated Dealing With Irate Investors

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Director Howard Buffett
Howard Buffett, director of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Howard Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. director and potential successor to his father Warren Buffett as chairman, said a previous job where he dealt with angry investors helped inform his advice for shareholders.

“If you don’t like Berkshire, don’t buy it,” Howard Buffett said today in Omaha, Nebraska, during an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” program with Betty Liu.

Howard Buffett, 57, was addressing investor concerns about his father’s political activism. Berkshire hasn’t been hurt, he said, by Warren Buffett’s support of President Barack Obama and his push for higher taxes on the wealthy. The younger Buffett cited his experience in the early 1990s as head of investor relations for Archer Daniels Midland Co. and his distaste for speaking with unhappy shareholders.

“I hated that, but it was part of my job,” he said. “You get these guys calling, they’re mad at you, they want answers and you know you can’t answer it.”

Berkshire, which Warren Buffett has led for 42 years, doesn’t have an investor-relations department and executives don’t court Wall Street analysts with quarterly conference calls and presentations. Shareholders rely on the annual meeting, which draws tens of thousands of people to Omaha each year, to express their views and get feedback from management.

At ADM, the world’s largest grain processor, Howard Buffett said he was troubled by repeat calls from critical investors.

‘Don’t Call Me Again’

After one investor called about 15 times over a year and a half, Buffett said he asked the man how many shares he owned. According to Buffett, whose father is the world’s third-richest person, the investor said he owned 20 shares.

“I’ll tell you what,” Buffett said, recalling what he told the investor. “Take the market price today, add 5 percent, and I’ll buy your shares, and don’t call me again.” The investor never called back.

Warren Buffett was asked repeatedly to explain his stance on different facets of tax policy during yesterday’s meeting. One investor posed the question of whether the billionaire, who has traded barbs with Republicans on taxes over the past year, might be discouraging investors who disagree with his personal views from buying Berkshire stock. The question drew applause.

Buffett, 81, replied that his responsibilities at Berkshire, which include chief executive officer and head of investments, don’t require him to put his “citizenship in a blind trust.”

Natural Disasters

Berkshire has underperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index in six of the last seven quarters. The company has faced insurance claims tied to natural disasters and investor concerns about management succession. Berkshire has said it identified the next CEO without specifying who it is or setting a timeline for the transition. Warren Buffett has said his son would make a good non-executive chairman.

Buffett, the father, has attracted investors to Berkshire by expanding the company from textiles to industries spanning insurance, consumer goods and utilities. In addition to the meetings, Buffett communicates with investors through annual letters and a statement of principles he calls the Berkshire “owner’s manual.” In his 1999 letter, Buffett set out his leadership approach after welcoming new investors.

“We hope also that these new holders find that our owner’s manual and annual reports offer them more insights and information about Berkshire than they garner about other companies from the investor-relations departments that these corporations typically maintain,” Warren Buffett said. “But if it is ‘earnings guidance’ or the like that shareholders or analysts seek, we will simply guide them to our public documents.”

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