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Revealing prostate cancer, Buffett plays down effect

business Updated: Apr 18, 2012 23:09 IST
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Warren E Buffett disclosed on Tuesday that he had prostate cancer, a development that would probably heighten the questions over his successor as the chief executive of his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway.

Yet Buffett, who will turn 82 this summer, also made clear that he would continue to run the company, writing to shareholders that the disease was in Stage 1 and that he had been told by doctors that it was “not remotely life-threatening or even debilitating in any meaningful way.”

A diagnosis of Stage 1 prostate cancer means the disease has been detected very early and it has not spread beyond the walnut-size prostate gland. According to data from the National Cancer Institute, the 10-year survival rate for men with localised disease is 99.5%.

The disclosure of the diagnosis was made just three weeks before Berkshire’s annual meeting, when thousands of shareholders descend upon Omaha, Buffett’s hometown, and for two days celebrate him as an investing giant. On Tuesday, the news did not appear to worry analysts and investors.

“Go to any actuarial table; a healthy, stress-free 81-year-old has a 12-year life expectancy, and I’ll take over on that,” said Whitney Tilson, the managing partner at T2 Partners and a Berkshire shareholder.

Still, Buffett’s letter was a reminder that he would eventually hand over the reins of Berkshire, a sprawling empire of insurers, a railroad operator and scores of other companies.

Over Buffett’s nearly 50-year tenure as chief executive, Berkshire has grown into one of America’s largest corporations, with a market value of nearly $201 billion. In February, Buffett told investors that he had selected a successor for chief executive, but he did not name the person.

The leading candidates are thought to be three of the company’s top lieutenants: Ajit Jain, the head of Berkshire’s vast reinsurance operations; Matthew Rose, chief of Burlington Northern Santa Fe; and Tad Montross, the leader of the General Re insurance subsidiary.

In Tuesday’s letter, Buffett wrote that the diagnosis came on April 11 and that he had undergone several tests. Those tests are not expected to change his routine much. “I feel great — as if I were in my normal excellent health — and my energy level is 100%,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for Buffett declined to comment beyond the letter.

Berkshire’s class A shares fell 1.8% in after-hours trading on Tuesday, to $119,100.