Iowan Greg Abel is a ‘regular guy’ with a ‘shocking workload.’ He’s also Warren Buffett’s chosen successor.
At a hockey rink in West Des Moines, Greg Abel is just another dad, a volunteer coach on his son's team. He digs pucks out of the net after practice and hands out praise and fist bumps when the boys leave the ice.
Few would know the 59-year-old in the beat-up ballcap is next in line to run Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha, Nebraska-based, $761 billion conglomerate founded and led by investment icon Warren Buffett.
Like other parents, Abel just wants to spend time with his kid, help him learn a sport and have fun, says Shayne Ratcliff, whose son's hockey team shares practice times with Abel's son's team at the new $45 million, 300,000-square-foot RecPlex.
"You'd never know, just talking with him," said Ratcliff, who's also the RecPlex general manager.
"He's a regular guy," agreed Tom Hadden, West Des Moines' city manager, in a recent visit to the RecPlex.
Yet this regular guy, in addition to being designated as the future leader of a company that ranks sixth on the Fortune 500 list, is chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Energy and oversees MidAmerican Energy, Iowa's largest utility. It donated $5 million for the RecPlex naming rights, and Abel added his own check for at least $1 million.
Abel's friends say the Canadian, who came to Berkshire Hathaway when it acquired Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy Holdings in 2000, is hardworking, low key and whip smart, a voracious reader who absorbs vast amounts of information.
And even though Abel travels the world leading Berkshire Hathaway's noninsurance companies — including the BNSF railway and other firms that generated $276 billion in revenue last year — he makes time to grab pizza and beer with friends, hit an Iowa State Fair concert, and schlep suitcases with other parents traveling with the hockey team.
Following in the footsteps of Buffett, the popular and voluble "Oracle of Omaha," might seem intimidating for the more reserved Abel. But friends say he doesn't seem fazed as he faces his first annual meeting April 30 as Buffett's designated successor.
That's good news for shareholders and nearly 372,000 U.S. and global employees of Berkshire Hathaway companies, said Lawrence Cunningham, a George Washington University law professor who's written books on the company and Buffett.
Abel is a known quantity, steeped in the culture of the diverse conglomerate, which sells everything from Geico insurance to Pampered Chef cooking pans and Brooks running shoes, Cunningham said.
Given Buffett's charisma and the possibility that the 91-year-old may serve as Berkshire Hathaway's leader until his death, "there's going to be anxiety and uncertainty" when the change in leadership finally comes, Cunningham said. "But Greg's prepared."
Mark Oman, a retired Wells Fargo executive in Des Moines, said his friend Abel has many of the same financial, analytical and leadership skills Buffett has.
"I'm bullish on Berkshire Hathaway, certainly in part because Warren Buffett is its leader," said Oman, who's a director of First American Financial Corp., a California title service company.
"But Greg Abel also is an incredible leader," he said. "We wouldn't be having this conversation if Warren Buffett didn't think so as well."
Abel 'comfortable in his own skin'
Abel, who declined to be interviewed for this article, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Edmonton, Alberta, according to the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, which named him to its list in 2018.
His mother worked at home and his father was in sales in the oil town, with its boom-and-bust economic cycles.
"Sometimes, people had jobs, sometimes, they didn't," Abel said in a Horatio Alger video. But they "were all working hard to try to advance their families."
Abel said his parents emphasized education as the foundation for a bright future. "One thing I saw early in my life was that with your family around you, with good friends, it gives you the opportunity to dream," he said.
His first job was delivering advertising fliers, getting about a quarter of a penny for each one.
"You had to do the job and do it right," said Abel, who also cleaned discarded bottles and redeemed them for deposits.
Abel for a time was a laborer for a forest products company, and in high school as well as college, he worked for a company that filled fire extinguishers. "I think hard work leads to good outcomes," he told the Horatio Alger Association.
He graduated from the University of Alberta in 1984 with a degree in commerce and joined PricewaterhouseCoopers in Edmonton as an accountant, then moved to the company's San Francisco office.
In 1992, Abel joined CalEnergy a 500-employee geothermal power company that was a client of the accounting firm. CalEnergy bought Des Moines' MidAmerican Energy Holdings for roughly $4 billion in cash and debt, a deal that closed in 1999. CalEnergy adopted MidAmerican's name.
The following year, an investor group led by Buffett bought MidAmerican for about $9 billion, taking the publicly traded company private.
By then, Abel was MidAmerican Energy Holdings' president, adding the title of CEO in 2008 and becoming board chairman in 2011. MidAmerican Energy Holdings renamed itself Berkshire Hathaway Energy in 2014 and has grown into a diversified global holding company with 24,000 employees.
Abel joined Berkshire Hathaway's board as vice chairman of noninsurance operations in 2018. At the same time, Ajit Jain was named vice chairman to lead Berkshire's insurance operations, sparking speculation that Abel and Jain, now 70, were competing for Buffett's job.
Last year, Buffett's business partner, Charlie Munger, who's 98, dropped a big hint when he said Abel would "keep the culture" of the vast and decentralized business. A couple of days later, Buffett confirmed Abel would become CEO of the company if anything happened to him.
Abel received $19 million for his Berkshire Hathaway work — a salary of $16 million, plus a $3 million bonus and $14,500 in other compensation, roughly the same paycheck he's received for the past three years, this year's company proxy statement shows.
In his annual report to shareholders this year, Buffett said the company's board has agreed that Abel should be his replacement — though he has announced no plan to retire or step back from the company's operations.
This year's company proxy statement shows Abel receiving $19 million for his Berkshire Hathaway work — a salary of $16 million, plus a $3 million bonus and $14,500 in other compensation, roughly the same paycheck he's received for the past three years.
What he might earn as CEO is uncertain. Buffett famously has stuck with his base annual salary of $100,000 for 25 years.
Oman said Abel has never talked with him about taking over from Buffett. But, he said, he expects his friend will continue working as he has.
"How do you take over from an icon? I would expect you have to be yourself," Oman said. "And Greg is very comfortable in his own skin."
Friends say CEO in waiting likely to stay in Des Moines
It's fashionable for new CEOs to move a company to a city more to their liking — for example, RV maker Winnebago, founded in Forest City in 1965, in December moved its headquarters to the Minneapolis suburb where CEO Michael Happe had previously headed Toro Corp. But Cunningham, the George Washington University professor, said he doubts Abel, a Des Moines resident, would be interested in moving Berkshire Hathaway from Omaha.
Fewer than 30 people are employed in Berkshire Hathaway's corporate offices in Omaha's Blackstone historic district, Cunningham said. And the annual meeting, attracting thousands of shareholders each year to listen for hours to Buffett's and Munger's musings about business, life and leadership, is deeply ingrained in the company's culture.
Likewise, however, Abel's friends say they believe he is unlikely to move to Omaha after becoming CEO.
Friend Jim Cownie, a Des Moines developer and philanthropist, said the flight from Des Moines to Omaha takes about 15 minutes, not much of a commute for an executive that travels frequently.
Another indication: Abel installed an elevator in his Des Moines home, a sign he wants to age in place in Iowa's capital, Cownie said
MidAmerican's wind energy generation reaches full sail under Abel
While Abel has kept a low profile in Des Moines, Cownie said his impact has been significant in the city and state.
As Berkshire Hathaway Energy's chairman, Abel has led the company during MidAmerican Energy's massive investment in wind energy.
MidAmerican has about 3,400 turbines in operation, mostly in Iowa, and has invested $13.6 billion in wind production since 2004. Wind provided nearly 60% of Iowa's electricity in 2020, the highest share for any state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
"This incredible expenditure helps MidAmerican to produce renewable energy equivalent to 88% of its Iowa customers’ annual energy needs," Abel wrote in his letter to shareholders this year. "It is attracting new customers, too — data center activity is growing exponentially throughout Iowa, driven by MidAmerican’s combination of low cost and clean power."
Buffett called the energy business one of "four giants" in the Berkshire portfolio. "BHE's record of societal accomplishment is as remarkable as its financial performance," he wrote in his own annual letter.
It reported a record $4 billion in earnings last year. "That’s up more than 30-fold from the $122 million earned in 2000," when Berkshire bought controlling interest in the company, Buffett wrote.
"The company has long been making climate-conscious moves that soak up all of its earnings," Buffett wrote. "More opportunities lie ahead. BHE has the management, the experience, the capital and the appetite for the huge power projects that our country needs."
In January, MidAmerican Energy said it wants to invest $3.9 billion to develop more wind and solar energy and explore new technologies such as carbon capture at its coal plants and the use of small nuclear reactors to move closer to net-zero emissions.
Abel wrote that the investment will push the company's share of renewable energy over its customers’ annual usage in Iowa by 2025.
Maintaining a work-life balance despite 'shocking' workload
Even with a heavy workload, Abel and his family have developed strong ties in Iowa. He has three adult children from his first marriage and a young son with his wife, Andrea.
"I not only think that attitude is important on the business side of life, I also believe you should put equal effort into your family's well-being," Abel told the Horatio Alger Association, where he serves as board president.
"If your family is happy, healthy and moving forward, then that allows other positive things in life to happen. In the end, you need to find a balance between the two," he said.
In Iowa, Abel has served on Drake University's board of trustees and on the executive board of the Mid-Iowa Council of Boy Scouts of America. Nationally, he's a board director for Kraft Heinz Co., AEGIS Insurance Service and the Hockey Canada Foundation.
While a tough business leader, Abel is kind and thoughtful, sending texts to friends on their birthdays, said Oman, former senior executive vice president of Wells Fargo's home and consumer finance.
"He's obviously very, very smart," said Cownie, a friend and neighbor. "He's very decisive. But he's also a great listener. He's going to make a quick decision. But it will be informed.
"I don't know how he does it all," he said. "His hours are shocking."
At the West Des Moines RecPlex, Ratcliff, the general manager, said Abel has brought the same kind of dedication to building a hockey culture in a place where, unlike Canada and Ratcliff's home state, Minnesota, not everyone is born with a hockey stick in their hands.
He said corporate and private donations like MidAmerican's and Abel's, which helped create what is now known as the Abel Ice Arena, will foster generations of players and fans.
Abel, a passionate hockey fan, is the nephew of Sid Abel, a Canadian Hall of Famer who played several seasons for the Detroit Red Wings.
"Greg saw the opportunity here" in giving kids an affordable way to play hockey and other sports, Ratcliff said. "And we've been packed to the gills."
Cownie, who also contributed at least $1 million to the RecPlex, said Abel is an executive who's willing to dig into his own pocket.
"We've got a lot of corporations that are generous," he said. "But we don't have a huge number of executives who write their own checks to charities."
Oman said Abel must be disciplined, organized and an extremely hard worker to run an "enormous span of big businesses worldwide." But Abel also needs those talents to prioritize time with his family, he said. "You have to, if you want a work-life balance."
"He's just a good person, very down to earth," Oman said. "It's kind of remarkable."
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8457.