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The audacious insurer
If public praise and commendation is any indication of succession, Ajit Jain is a shoo-in to take over the mantle of Berkshire Hathaway leadership from Warren Buffett. The business and corporate world awaits the annual missive from the Oracle of Omaha with the same eager anticipation that Appleheads wait for new products from Steve Jobs' lair. It's a letter full of pointers about the American economy couched in folksy wisdom and witty epigrams.
Speaking of the prospects for Geico, the insurance company that is his cash cow, Buffett once said he and the chief executive Tony Nicely "feel like two hungry mosquitoes in a nudist camp. Juicy targets are everywhere. " But it's the luscious extolling of his acolyte Jain that is a constant upper in his communiquê, an annual acclaim that has led to incessant inquiry about this lowprofile man. Jain is notoriously media shy - the only encounter this writer had with him was at a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton at the home of a banker in Chappaqua. He is particularly reticent about the issue of succession. The joke goes that when a reporter emailed him seeking an interview on the issue of Berkshire/Buffett succession, Jain wrote back, saying: "It is undoubtedly the case that any disappointment I have caused you by declining the interview is far less than the disappointment I would have caused you by granting it. "
However, Jain has opened up considerably during Warren Buffett's current high-profile visit to India, giving a series of interviews. And why shouldn't he? After all, Buffett has announced that he is India's best gift to corporate America. In an oft-quoted anecdote, Buffett recalls that when Jain came to Berkshire in 1986, he (Buffett) wrote to his parents in New Delhi and asked if they had another one like him at home. Actually there is;Ajit's brother Anshu Jain is the investment banking chief at Deutsche Bank.
A seat on Buffett's high table is a long way from Jain's modest origins in Orissa, where he grew up before going to IIT Kharagpur (1972) for a degree in mechanical engineering. His peers from those years - Rono Dutta, who was the president of United Airlines, is a classmate - remember him as a student as interested in politics and economics as engineering, and they would spend the nights discussing the Vietnam War and other contemporary issues. He joined IBM in India and worked there for three years before going to Harvard for an MBA degree.
Apparently, Jain realised at some point that although he enjoyed being an engineer, it was a bummer as far as remuneration goes. "I very quickly realised that engineers - certainly in India, but also here in the United States - end up being shortchanged. I was working six days a week and making a quarter of what people in sales and marketing were getting paid. So I figured that if I couldn't beat them, I'd join them, " he told Robert Miles, whose book The Warren Buffett CEO: Secrets from the Berkshire Hathaway Managers provides an insight into the tight equation between Buffett and his managers. Jain subsequently joined McKinsey, returning to India for an arranged marriage (his wife Tinku briefly worked as a TV anchor in the US before she had twins). Even then, Jain confides, he would not have returned to America, but his wife wanted to move there.
Jain joined the Buffett team in 1986 to work on insurance operations although it is said he knew little about the business. He was put in charge of a small and struggling reinsurance operation, but within a few years he had built the business into a one-of-a-kind giant in the insurance world. "From year to year, Ajit's business is never the same, " Buffett explained in one newsletter. "It features very large transactions, incredible speed of execution and a willingness to quote on policies that leave others scratching their heads. When there is a huge and unusual risk to be insured, Ajit is almost certain to be called. "
By the turn of the century, Jain was clearly Buffett's blue-eyed boy with the Oracle rhapsodising about how his Indian lodestar was generating billions in revenue in one of the most remarkable businesses even though he had a staff of just 30 people. Simply put, Jain specialised in catastrophic insurance, such as, for instance, insuring Sears Tower in Chicago, America's tallest building, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and underwriting the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City in 2002, when big groups said that the Games were too risky. Among his more quirky calls was one insuring the health of baseball star Alex Rodriguez against permanent disability.
By the middle of the decade, Buffett, then into his 70s, was joking to his shareholders, "Don't worry about my health;worry about his. " Another time he wrote: "If Charlie (Buffett's partner Charles Munger), I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat, and you can only save one of us, swim to Ajit. " By then, the first murmurs of the succession issue had begun to make the rounds. In 2006, the International Herald Tribune ran a story with the headline: "Ajit Jain has Buffett's ear - and may have his job when he's gone. "
The scuttlebutt was that Buffett took no major decisions without consulting Jain. Neither Buffett nor Jain dignify any speculation about succession. Badgered about it, Buffett once rebuffed a reporter, saying, "He (Jain) is not looking to take my job. . . but he is an extraordinary person. " Jain was equally lavish in praising his guru's capacity to withstand a multi-billion dollar loss without blaming any individual and pressurising him to deploy capital. "I love my job and I hope I keep doing it for a long time. I don't think about the legacy. I just hope I don't do something stupid, " Jain explained his simple outlook in one interview. It is as uncomplicated a worldview as that of his mentor. The succession issue seems irrelevant to them. It will take care of itself when the time comes.
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