The man responsible for providing billions of dollars of insurance for some of the world’s biggest events, Ajit Jain, told investors in Berkshire Hathaway that his eventual replacement as the leader of the conglomerate’s insurance operations will be a nonevent.

“The fact of the matter is nobody is irreplaceable. And we have Tim Cook here in the audience, I believe, who has proved that and has set an example for a lot of people to follow,” Jain said, referring to the chief executive of technology giant Apple, who succeeded Steve Jobs in 2011.

Jain was responding to a question from a shareholder at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting on Saturday, who asked Chair Warren Buffett and Jain to talk about how the company will meet the challenge of finding a successor for Jain. Prefacing the question, the shareholder cited a comment that frequently appears in Buffett’s annual letters to shareholder: If Charlie [Munger], I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat—and you can only save one of us— swim to Ajit.” (Editor’s Note: Munger, who was vice chairman, died earlier this year at the age of 99.)

Buffett and Jain, who heads up Berkshire’s insurance and reinsurance businesses, had slightly different takes on what those businesses will be like at some point in the future when Jain is no longer at the helm, but both agreed that they will remain in excellent shape no matter who Jain’s successor turns out to be.

Earlier in the day, Berkshire Hathaway released first-quarter financial results for the conglomerate, revealing a 39 percent jump in operating results across the insurance and non-insurance businesses, driven largely by soaring underwriting results in the insurance and reinsurance operations. Personal auto insurer GEICO’s underwriting result nearly tripled over first-quarter 2023, and underwriting income for Berkshire’s reinsurance operations came in almost four-times higher than last year’s first quarter.

Read related article, “Berkshire’s Most Important Biz Drives Up Q1 Operating Results; GEICO Still Catching Up on Tech” for more information about insurance and reinsurance results.

“Our board is conscious of the succession issue, not only at Warren’s level but also at my level,” said Jain, who took the role of vice chair-Insurance Operations in early 2018 when Greg Abel was also appointed as vice chair-Non-Insurance Operations. “Every year, they [the directors] have me sitting in front of them answering questions and have me share my ideas with them in terms of what would happen to the operations if I get hit by a truck.”

“We go through the various operations we have. I review with them a short list of people I think want to be candidates for replacing me. In addition to that I go a step further and identify a particular individual as the person I would hand over the keys to if something were to happen to me,” Jain said.

“Obviously, that would [be] subject to change, [but] we take this issue fairly seriously,” he said. “At the end of the day, Tim Cook has proved to us, it would be the biggest nonissue of the day. The earth will still keep revolving around the axis,” Jain said. (Editor’s Note: Berkshire Hathaway lowered its investment stake in Tim Cook’s Apple during the quarter, but the iPhone maker remained Berkshire’s largest holding. Related Reuters article, “Buffett Praises Successors, Lauds Apple Despite Lowering Stake”)

Buffett had a slightly different take, agreeing, however, that the businesses currently led by Jain will not be in jeopardy when his tenure at Berkshire is over.

“We won’t have the same business if Ajit isn’t running it, but we’ll have a very good business. And that’s thanks to Ajit,” Buffett said, recalling a story he repeats often at the annual meetings about how Jain showed up at Berkshire’s office on a Saturday looking for a position to challenge his intellect.

“You’ve never seen an insurance policy or owned an insurance stock but here are the keys,” Buffett recalls saying to Jain who was working in management consulting back in 1986. “And that’s worked out very well,” he said.

“I’d been in the business [before]. I first went to GEICO in 1950. We first bought National Indemnity in 1957 and …made quite a bit of money in the stocks of the insurance companies. But we needed Ajit” to grow the understanding of underwriting and risk, Buffett said.

Later, Buffett referred to Jain’s risk management expertise again during a discussion of Berkshire’s aversion to writing a lot of cyber insurance. “You’ve got to have somebody in charge of things that understands that you may get an aggregation of risk that you never dreamed of—and maybe worse than some earthquake happening someplace,” Buffett said during the cyber discussion. (Related article, “Berkshire Wary of “Fashionable’ Cyber Insurance, AI“)

Answering the question of Jain’s succession, Buffett said, “We won’t find another Ajit, but we have an operation that he has created and…there are certain parts of it that are almost impossible for competitors to imitate. If I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t try.”

“We’ve institutionalized some of our advantages. [Ajit’s] presence allowed us to do it,” said Buffett noting that the structure of the insurance and reinsurance businesses at Berkshire didn’t exist when Jain came in 1986.

“Nothing close to it existed with us or with anybody else. And insurance is the most important business at Berkshire,” Buffett asserted. “Marketable securities are important, but they’re not in the [same] class exactly as our insurance business.”

Lesson in Leadership

At a later point during the meeting, when another Berkshire investor asked how things have changed for leaders of individual operating companies since Jain, 72, and Abel, 61, took their vice chair roles in 2018, Jain shared a glimpse of Buffett’s leadership style with the crowd assembled in Omaha, Neb., and others watching virtually on

“Do the operating CEOs still reach out to Warren Buffett directly?” asked CNBC’s Becky Quick, reading the question on behalf of a shareholder.

Buffett, 93, said they do not, modestly suggesting that he has little advice to offer.

Jain suggested another reason.

“From my perspective, the transition has worked out very, very well, but I think the credit really goes to how Warren handled the situation,” Jain said. After the transition was announced, the operating managers were used to calling Buffett and continued to do so. Continuing to receive those calls, Buffett “would very skillfully, in his manner, [handle] them such that he would not answer what they were looking for. But at the same time, [he] made them feel good and told them that he enjoyed hearing from them and talking to them.”

As a result, managers “got the message. They were very responsive to it and it’s a nonissue as far as today is concerned,” Jain reported.

Abel also credited the managers in easing the transition. “They cared deeply about Berkshire, they cared deeply about the culture and they very much wanted it to be a success,” Abel said.

Buffett insisted that the operating executives prefer to speak to Jain and Abel. “That’s understandable because I don’t really do much, and I don’t operate at the same level of efficiency that I would have 30 or 40 years ago. I don’t know the managers as well as I would have when we were smaller and when I could get more accomplished in the day than I can now…”

“When you’ve got somebody like Greg and Ajit, [then] why settle for me?” Buffett said, going on to note that the insurance managers had gotten used to working for Jain even before he ascended to the vice chair role, and also describing the energy that Abel brings to his role—and a toughness that neither he or Munger did.

Drawing an analogy between Berkshire and the wealthy parents of 20 children, Buffett said, when “you’re very rich, you’ll have some [children] that will be go-getters anyway, and you’ll have some that won’t. We are a very, very rich company, and we don’t have a history being very tough on people that coasted—and we’ve had some that would do that. Greg will do something about it. Charlie and I wouldn’t have, not because we didn’t know it should be done but because we were doing so well ourselves….We wouldn’t make the effort. We didn’t want to change our lives that way, plus we slowed down in various ways physically,” he said.

“The number of calls I get for managers is essentially—awfully close to 0,” he concluded, reiterating that Abel and Jain are the right people for the jobs today.