What will life be like without Warren Buffett?
Berkshire Hathaway shareholders may have gotten a glimpse into that future. Most of Berkshire's deals last year didn't directly involve the 82-year-old investor. They originated with a subsidiary of the conglomerate, or with one of the two investment managers Buffett has hired. Either way, Berkshire did well in 2012.
Buffett's annual letter to shareholders will be released Friday afternoon.
Jeff Matthews, who wrote "Warren Buffett's Successor: Who It Is and Why It Matters," says last year's deals are comforting because they show how the company might work after Buffett is gone.
"It's very reassuring," Matthews says. "This didn't used to happen."
Of course Berkshire's recent $23.3 billion deal to buy part of H.J. Heinz highlights what shareholders will miss most about Buffett: his connections and judgment.
Regardless of what kind of deals Berkshire made, Buffett's annual letter is one of the best-read documents in the business world. That's because of his remarkable track record and talent for explaining complicated issues plainly.
The future of the conglomerate Buffett built from a failing textile manufacturer is on shareholders' minds because of the billionaire's age. He was also treated for prostate cancer last year. He says the cancer doesn't threaten his life, and he has no plans to retire.
Some of Berkshire's biggest deals by dollars last year include:
— A $1.5 billion purchase of mortgage loans from Residential Capital and a $1.2 billion repurchase of Berkshire Hathaway Class A shares.
— A deal to cover up to $4 billion in insurance losses for Cigna Corp. in exchange for a $2.2 billion premium.
— Berkshire's utility division, MidAmerican Energy, agreeing to buy 579 megawatts of solar power for between $2 billion and $2.5 billion.
Terms of several other deals weren't disclosed, but analysts say the acquisitions of party supplier Oriental Trading Co. and Prudential's real estate network are unlikely to give a significant boost to Berkshire by themselves.
The only deals that likely originated with Buffett are the Berkshire share repurchase, the Oriental Trading acquisition and possibly the Cigna deal. The rest began elsewhere, although Buffett would have signed off on them.
"These things are going on all the time with little input from Buffett," says investor Andy Kilpatrick, who wrote "Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett."
After he's gone, Berkshire plans to split Buffett's job into three roles: CEO, chairman and a head of investment management. The board knows who it would choose to succeed him as CEO.
"I don't think we'll get any new details on succession," KBW analyst Meyer Shields says.
Buffett seems to like the speculation about who will run the company, so Shields says he probably won't help narrow down the choices.
Investors who follow the company say the strongest CEO candidates are Ajit Jain, who runs Berkshire's reinsurance division; Greg Abel, president and CEO of MidAmerican; Tony Nicely, chief executive of Geico; and Matt Rose, CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
Buffett has said that his son Howard, a member of Berkshire's board, would make an ideal chairman.
Berkshire has hired two hedge fund managers, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, who Buffett says are capable of eventually running the company's entire portfolio. They manage portfolios worth about $4 billion while Buffett continues to make most of Berkshire's investment decisions while searching for big acquisitions.
For example, the $23.3 billion Heinz deal got started on a plane when Buffett was approached by a billionaire friend. Berkshire is putting up $12 billion for half of the company and $8 billion in preferred shares that pays 9 percent a year. The 3G Capital investment firm will put up the rest of the money and run Heinz.
If Berkshire were buying Heinz outright, the deal would be Buffett's second-biggest ever behind the $26.3 billion purchase of BNSF railroad in 2010.
But these small deals by Buffett standards do add up — even at a company as big as Berkshire, which has nearly 300,000 employees and generated net income of $10.3 billion, or $6,215 per Class A share, last year.
"If you have a dozen subsidiaries add things each year, you'll have a new company in a couple years," says investor and author Kilpatrick.
Before Heinz, many shareholders were focused on the deals Buffett didn't get done. He had said a $22 billion deal fell through last year.
"It'll be interesting to see if he gives any detail on the ones that got away," the author Matthews says.
With the housing market and overall economy slowly improving, Buffett has plenty of reasons to be upbeat about Berkshire's prospects. Ever since the Great Recession, several Berkshire subsidiaries that sell products for houses, such as Shaw Carpet, Acme Brick and Benjamin Moore paints, have weighed on the company's profits.
"My guess is that he'll be very optimistic," Matthews says.
Besides those companies, Berkshire owns an eclectic mix of more than 80 subsidiaries, including Geico, General Re, BNSF, NetJets, Dairy Queen and others. Berkshire also holds big investments in companies like the Washington Post Co., Wells Fargo & Co., International Business Machines Corp. and American Express Co.
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