Buffett picks Floridian successor: Sarasota sage succeeds Omaha oracle?
Nov. 2 update: We now know what the elusive Todd Combs looks like. Here's a link to a Bloomberg News photo recently taken of Combs in Connecticut.
Wake up and good morning. Who knew the potential, hand-picked successor of Oracle of Omaha investing wonder Warren Buffett, now 80, would turn out to be a Sarasota-raised, FSU graduate named Todd Combs, now 39 and once known at his Riverview High School as "Meba"? (Warren Buffett photo, AP.)
It's a job that will put Combs in line to take over decision-making for Berkshire Hathaway's tens of billions in investments when Buffett or his board of directors decide the time is right. Buffett's indicated his job likely will be split in two, with a CEO to oversee Berkshire's 70-plus operating companies and one or more managers to put its cash to work through investments. It is that second job that's expected to go to Combs and possibly some others.
Wall Street is still agog Tuesday about Buffett's selection of Combs, described by the Wall Street Journal as a "little-known" fund manager who was one of hundreds of people responding to an unconventional "help wanted" request Buffett made in early 2007. But his initial inquiry didn't distinguish itself, the Journal noted. "Undaunted," the newspaper reports, "the low-key father of three, who lives in Darien, Conn., recently sent another letter to Berkshire Vice Chairman Charles Munger asking for a meeting. Mr. Munger said in an interview that he gets hundreds of such requests each year, but 'something in his request piqued my interest.'" Read more from the Journal here.
What's most interesting to us here in Florida, of course, are Combs' local roots from Sarasota. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports today that a photo of Combs proved so elusive that MarketWatch published a story on its website about the lack of a current image, along with a picture of Buffett and another figure whose head had been digitally removed. The Sarasota paper did reprint a high-school era photo of Combs here, so at least we know he existed -- 20-plus years ago.
After Florida State University and an MBA from Columbia in New York, Combs worked at various investing firms before creating Castle Point Capital Management LLC, in Greenwich, Conn., in 2005 Its major holdings include U.S. Bancorp, Mastercard Inc., Western Union Co., State Street Corp. and insurer Progressive Corp. Castle Point's most prominent investors include the Walton Investment Partnership, comprised of heirs to Wal-Mart found Sam Walton, and Axis Capital, an insurer based in Bermuda with $5.5 billion in equity. Castle Point's strength, according to investment filings and investors, has been its ability to minimize downside risk, according to the Sarasota story. Read it here.
Combs may living the high life in Connecticut's Fairfield County, but he still has roots in Florida. Both his parents continue to live here. The Herald-Tribune caught up with Combs' father. "You can imagine how any dad would feel," Anthony Combs said of his son's appointment, from his home in eastern Sarasota County. He declined further comment, at the request of his son and Berkshire. Combs' mother, who also lives in Sarasota County, did not respond to the Sarasota paper's requests for comment.
So, why Combs of all people? Bloomberg News suggests Buffett’s selection of the little-known hedge-fund manager shows how the billionaire values limiting losses when markets decline. It seems Combs, who ran his own $400 million hedge fund Castle Point Capital Management LLC, lost 5.7 percent in 2008, according to an investor letter, while the industry slumped a record 19 percent.
Can we say it first? Sage of Sarasota steps into shoes of Oracle of Omaha?
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist