Four Fort Worth executives talk about working for legendary businessman Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett, chairman, president & CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.
Warren Buffett, chairman, president & CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. AP archives

Who succeeds Warren Buffett as the head of the $350 billion conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway surfaced at the company’s recent annual meeting in Omaha and again Monday morning at a business breakfast in Fort Worth.

A panel of the four top executives from Berkshire Hathaway companies with headquarters in Fort Worth were asked about the importance of establishing succession plans at their companies.

“Warren does have a successor in place,” Dennis Knautz, the CEO of Acme Brick told an overflow crowd of business leaders and students attending a Leadership Fort Worth gathering at the Fort Worth Club. “The board does know who that is. Every couple of years he asks us what our strategy is and are you grooming the right guy or gal to succeed you. To Warren, that’s incredibly important.”

Buffett, who turns 85 in August, has been head of Berkshire Hathaway for 50 years.

Other than at annual meetings, it’s been nearly three years that the four chief executives of the Fort Worth-based Berkshire Hathaway companies have gotten together, the last time for a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce event. This time, they were asked to talk about diversity, leadership skills, the economy, advise for graduating college seniors and “Warrenisms,” or favorite Buffett quotes.

In addition to brick maker Acme Brick, Berkshire Hathaway also owns TTI, Inc., an electronics components distributor which also includes Mouser Electronics in Mansfield; Justin Brands, and BNSF Railway.

On the issue of diversity, Carl Ice, CEO of BNSF Railway, said companies need to keep reinforcing the importance of diversity and promoting women, African Americans and Hispanics into management roles and ask themselves if it’s not happening, why it’s not.

“Clearly it’s very important,” Ice said. “Clearly we’re not there yet, but we need to continue to embrace those opportunities to find people that are enthusiastic and interested and there’s a wealth of those. Every time we have opportunity, we need to ask ourselves why isn’t someone available.”

Randy Watson, CEO of boot maker Justin Brands, said the company’s chief marketing officer, controller and human resources director are women.

“We’re working on it,” Watson said. “One of the reason I’m sitting here is because of those ladies.”

The men also talked about Buffett’s hands-off leadership style.

“If you ask Warren for an opinion, he really won’t give you one,” said Paul Andrews, head of TTI, Inc., “He lets you make your own decisions. You learn from that. Warren is exactly what you’ve heard. He does not dictate to us what we should do or shouldn’t do. He lets us lead our own companies.”

Even during the nationwide collapse of the housing industry, Knautz said Buffett offered support, but let him handle how to retool the company as fewer houses got built.

“We had gone on a stretch of 19 years of consecutive improved sales and all of a sudden housing collapsed. I talked to Warren about that, but he expected me to address the issues we were facing and make the appropriate adjustments. He allowed me to control and reduce the size of our business to appropriate levels at the appropriate time,” he said.

Watson, who met Buffett for the first time in 2000 when Justin Industries was sold, told the students in the audience that rising to the top at company includes being honest.

“Do exactly what you say you’re going to do. Be honest and upfront,” Watson said. “Ninety-nine percent of success is showing up and being there and making yourself available to solve problems.”

Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727

Twitter: @SandraBakerFWST