Berkshire's Blemishes: Lessons for Buffett's Successors, Peers, and Policy

54 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2016  

Lawrence A. Cunningham

George Washington University

Date Written: 2016

Abstract

Berkshire Hathaway’s unique managerial model is lauded for its great value; this article highlights its costs. Most costs stem from the same features that yield such great value, which boil down, ironically, to Berkshire trying to be something it isn’t: it is a massive industrial conglomerate run as an old-fashioned investment partnership. An advisory board gives unchecked power to a single manager (Warren Buffett); Buffett makes huge capital allocations and pivotal executive hiring-and-firing decisions with modest investigation and scant oversight; Berkshire’s autonomous and decentralized structure grants operating managers enormous discretion with limited second-guessing; its trust-based culture relies on a cultivated vision of integrity more than internal controls; and its thrifty anti-bureaucracy means no central departments, such as public relations or general counsel.

Delineating the visible costs of Berkshire’s model confirms the desirability of tolerating many of them, given the value concurrently generated, but also reveals ways to improve the model — a few while Buffett is at the helm but mostly for successors. Current reform suggestions include hiring a full-time public relations professional at headquarters and more systematically developing senior executives; suggestions for future reform include enhanced subsidiary compliance resources and separating the identity and personal opinions of top executives from the corporation and its official policy.

Besides helping Berkshire, the review and suggestions will help managers of other companies inspired by Buffett’s unique managerial model and policymakers who should study it. Implications for peers and policymakers include highlighting flexibility in corporate governance, the efficacy of the conglomerate form, and especially the value of strategies that produce long-term thinking among shareholders and managers alike.

Keywords: Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett, capital allocation, autonomy, decentralization, reputation, corporate governance, corporate culture, conglomerates, shareholder activism

JEL Classification: G2, G23, G24, G32, G34, G38

Suggested Citation

Cunningham, Lawrence A., Berkshire's Blemishes: Lessons for Buffett's Successors, Peers, and Policy (2016). Columbia University Business Law Review (July 2016); GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2016-28; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-28. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2807131 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2807131

Lawrence A. Cunningham (Contact Author)

George Washington University ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
202-994-0732 (Phone)

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