In Opposing Climate and Diversity Proposals, Buffett Risks Looking Out of Step

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The other proposal, by the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow on behalf of Handlery Hotels, calls on Berkshire to detail its diversity and inclusion efforts, arguing that more diverse workforces perform better.

Berkshire does not dispute the importance of either issue. In its proxy statement to shareholders, which recommends voting against the proposals, the company says that it agrees about the importance of both climate change and a diverse and inclusive work force.

The argument against those proposals is tied to what the company calls its “unusually decentralized” business model. Though its various subsidiaries employ about 360,000 people around the world, Berkshire itself employs only about two dozen at its base in Omaha, Neb., with relatively lean resources to review the efforts of all its portfolio companies. Asking for standardized diversity data for all of its subsidiaries, for instance, would be “unreasonable,” it said.

“I think for a company this size, it’s an extraordinary ask,” Mr. Cunningham said.

Moreover, Mr. Buffett has long played up the independence of his subsidiaries’ chief executives, giving them wide berths so long as their companies perform well. “I don’t believe in imposing my political opinions on the activities of our businesses,” he said at Berkshire’s 2018 annual meeting.

For Berkshire, then, responsibility for action on climate and diversity lies largely with its operating companies. Berkshire Hathaway Energy “determined independently” to back the Paris climate accord and has invested heavily in renewable energy, the proxy statement noted.

The shareholder proposals’ fates aren’t in doubt. Mr. Buffett controls about a third of Berkshire’s voting power, and holds enormous sway over the company’s army of devoted retail investors. Previous efforts to force changes to Berkshire’s governance do not have a great track record: A 2014 proposal to encourage the company to pay a dividend, which was opposed by management, garnered support from less than 3 percent of shareholders.

But even if the proposals fail on Saturday, Berkshire may still need to change. The Securities and Exchange Commission is weighing moves to require companies to provide more disclosure on E.S.G. issues, particularly climate, calling them potentially material financial information.



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