(Recasts first paragraph, adds Buffett and investor comments)
By Jonathan Stempel
May 3 (Reuters) – Warren Buffett ended years of speculation about succession at Berkshire Hathaway Inc by saying Greg Abel, who oversees its non-insurance businesses, would become chief executive officer if he were no longer in charge.
"The directors are in agreement that if something were to happen to me tonight, it would be Greg who'd take over tomorrow morning," Buffett told CNBC, the station said on Monday. Buffett, 90, has never publicly signaled any plan to step down.
Abel, 58, has been a Berkshire vice chairman since 2018, after building its Berkshire Hathaway Energy unit into a major U.S. power provider. Many analysts and investors had viewed the Edmonton, Alberta native as Buffett's most likely successor.
Berkshire did not respond to requests for comment.
Ajit Jain, 69, a vice chairman overseeing Berkshire's insurance businesses, was also considered a CEO candidate, but Buffett told CNBC that Abel's relative youth "makes a real difference."
Buffett's hand may have been forced after Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 97, said at Berkshire's annual meeting that the company's decentralized business model was important and that "Greg will keep the culture." He did not mention Jain.
"I suspect Buffett disclosed this reluctantly," even though "Abel's coronation is not exactly a surprise," said Jim Shanahan, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co.
Buffett has transformed Berkshire since 1965 from a failing textile company into a $628 billion conglomerate with such businesses as Geico auto insurance, the BNSF railroad, several industrial companies, Dairy Queen ice cream and See's Candies.
Succession has been a central issue for Berkshire since 2006 when Buffett, then 75, discussed it in his annual shareholder letter.
Buffett's eldest son Howard is expected to become non-executive chairman, while investment managers Todd Combs and Ted Weschler are in line to become chief investment officer.
"Greg has a lot of experience dealing with regulators and making acquisitions, and a track record of managing many people," said longtime Berkshire shareholder James Armstrong, president of Henry H. Armstrong Associates in Pittsburgh. "The board has had a lot of time to watch him in action."
NEVER A DUMB THING
While Abel lacks Buffett's charisma and showmanship, he won Buffett's confidence for his commitment to Berkshire's culture, long-term thinking and ability to spend money wisely.
"He's a first-class human being," Buffett said in a video message in 2013. "There's a lot of smart people in this world, but some of them do some very dumb things. He's a smart guy who will never do a dumb thing."
A lifelong hockey fan, Abel graduated in 1984 from the University of Alberta.
He worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers and energy firm CalEnergy before joining Berkshire Hathaway Energy, then known as MidAmerican Energy, in 1992. Berkshire bought a majority stake in that company in 2000.
Abel became MidAmerican's chief in 2008, replacing David Sokol, who many investors thought was being groomed to replace Buffett and was given a broader role.
Sokol resigned in 2011 after Berkshire learned he had invested in Lubrizol while recommending that Buffett buy the chemical company, which he did. Regulators took no action.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy benefited from its ability, unusual in the utility industry, to retain earnings rather than pay dividends.
That freed Abel to buy Nevada utility NV Energy and Alberta electric transmission company AltaLink, while expanding into renewable energy. The unit also controls one of the largest U.S. residential real estate brokerages.
Despite outward appearances, Abel has let his hair down in public.
In 2014, he accepted the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. Abel flashed two thumbs up to a camera as he got soaked with water. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and John McCrank in in New York; and Niket Nishant in Bengaluru; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)
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