berkshire beyond buffett

Lawrence A. Cunningham, Columbia University Press, $29.95, 336 pages

When Warren Buffett no longer "tap dances to work," as he describes it, what will become of Berkshire Hathaway?

Buffett has long argued that he has built a company designed to thrive after he has gone, as he explains. Many of the people who run his businesses have also been encouraged to tell their stories to the author of "Berkshire Beyond Buffett." The result is an unusually detailed description of Buffett's management ideas and his long efforts to embed them permanently into the firm's internal systems.

Lawrence Cunningham identifies nine key ingredients in the Buffett way of management: counting every penny; keeping promises; maintaining a good reputation at all costs; kinship, or behaving like a well-functioning family; self-starting; delegation; investment savvy; keeping things simple and sticking to your knitting; and long-termism.

There is much to learn from Cunningham's stories about the companies that Berkshire Hathaway owns. However, Cunningham seems too easily convinced by Buffett's claims that the firm's culture will keep it on track after he has gone. Berkshire Hathaway's decentralized structure may stop it suffering the sort of problems experienced by more centralized conglomerates, such as GE and Teledyne, after their great leaders left. But without Buffett, there may be no force to hold those businesses together.