Todd Combs: Has Warren Buffett found his heir?
It has been one of the biggest succession mysteries in corporate America: Who will eventually take over the investing duties of one of the world's most famous investors, Warren Buffett? Buffett, 80, may have answered that question this week by hiring Todd Anthony Combs, an obscure 39-year-old hedge fund manager in Connecticut. How certain is it that Combs will become the person who decides where Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway puts its money, and can he really fill the Oracle of Omaha's giant shoes? (Watch a Fox Business report about Buffett's hire)
Who is Todd Combs?
Combs manages the Greenwich, Conn.–based Castle Point hedge fund, which invests in financial companies. He grew up in Florida, earned a degree in finance and multinational business from Florida State University in 1993, went on to work for Florida's comptroller, then helped set auto insurance rates for Progressive Insurance, an arch-competitor to Berkshire's GEICO. "He is extremely well-trained, reads 500 pages a week, and does his own deep-dive research," says Chuck Davis, who helped Combs start Castle Point in 2005.
What makes people think he is Buffett's "heir apparent"?
Buffett actually has two jobs — he is the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and its chief investment strategist. On the CEO front, Buffett promised his investors three years ago that he has three outstanding replacements in the wings. But he has been searching for somebody to manage Berkshire's $100 billion in investments since then, and Combs is his first — and maybe his only — candidate. "Whether he will add that an additional investment manager or two may be hired is not known," says Carol Loomis in Fortune.
Who else is in the running to take over?
Before Buffett gave his nod to Combs, the frontrunners were Ajit Jain, who runs Berkshire's National Indemnity company, and David Sokol, head of its MidAmerican Energy and NetJets businesses. Sokol is still a leading contender for Buffett's CEO slot. Two potential investment heirs, notably Chinese-American hedge fund manager Li Lu, took themselves out of the running. Howard Buffett, Warren's son, is expected to become chairman.
Why did Buffett pick Combs?
The choice "is classic Buffett," says Sam Gustin in Daily Finance. "Confound the conventional wisdom, and ignore the so-called experts." Buffett says Combs is an "All-American type" whose indifference to publicity and "pretty good" investment record make him a solid fit for Berkshire. Combs' Castle Point fund has earned a cumulative return of 34 percent since its launch, The Wall Street Journal reports, while the S&P 500 lost 5.1 percent and financial stocks did significantly worse. The key is that Combs avoided all the land mines of the financial meltdown — Lehman Brothers, AIG, Bear Stearns, and Countrywide, to name a few — which seems to fit Buffett's rule that a manager must be "genetically programmed to recognize and avoid risk, including those never before encountered."
Is Combs' investment strategy similar to Buffett's?
That isn't clear. Gustin, in Daily Finance, describes Combs as an "obvious disciple of Buffett's value-driven, company-focused approach." But while Buffett is famous for investing in well-run, easy-to-understand companies for the long haul, Fortune's Loomis notes that Combs is not "a buy-and-hold man."
Could the media be over-reading Combs' hire?
Not likely. Buffett says he has been watching Combs for some time, and calls his hiring a "significant step." He insists that Combs won't "take over the whole investment function as long as I'm around," but says, "If I die tonight the board has something in place."