OMAHA, Neb. - Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who became the world’s richest men on very separate paths, will be working together after this weekend to help guide one of the world’s most successful conglomerates.
Shareholders of Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, are expected to officially vote Gates onto the board of directors, cementing a friendship between billionaires that goes back to 1991. Just what the Microsoft Corp. chairman’s presence on the board might mean is not clear, but Gates could help the company plan for a future without its legendary 74-year-old founder.
Buffett may be looking for someone of his own caliber to continue on the board after he is gone, said Terry Connelly, dean of Golden Gate University’s Ageno School of Business in San Francisco.
‘‘Both are entrepreneurs,’’ Connelly said. ‘‘Both have distinctive insights into the same set of facts everyone else sees.’’
Robert Miles, author of two books about Buffett, said Gates, 49, has already overseen a transfer of control at Microsoft, having handed his CEO title to Steve Ballmer in 2000.
‘‘He has built an entity and passed it on to another CEO, which is an important role the board has after Warren,’’ Miles said.
Buffett has said he would never retire as chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire, short of physical or mental incapacity. In the event of his departure, Buffett has said three people would be needed to replace him. His eldest son, Howard, a Berkshire board member, would become chairman. Two Berkshire executives whom Buffett has not named would run the company, one to handle operations and the other to handle investments.
Buffett controls the company, which has a market value of around $130 billion, with nearly 40 percent of the stock, worth more than $40 billion. Berkshire invests in companies in traditional businesses like newspapers, soft drinks and insurance. Besides Berkshire, Buffett is on the boards of Coca- Cola Co. and The Washington Post Co., two companies in which Berkshire has large stock holdings. Buffett was not conducting interviews, said his assistant, Debbie Bosanek.
Gates is worth more than $46 billion as founder of the world’s largest software company. He owns about $300 million in Berkshire stock and was appointed to the board in December, to fill the vacancy left by the July death of Buffett’s wife, Susan. Gates was traveling and was not available to comment for this article, Microsoft spokesman Corey duBrowa said.
Gates’ appointment, which shareholders must formally approve, marks the first time he and Buffett have been on the same board, though they have been friends since meeting at a social event in Seattle in 1991. When Gates became engaged to his wife, Melinda, in 1993, they bought an engagement ring at Berkshireowned Borsheim’s jewelry story in Omaha; Buffett met them at the airport. Melinda Gates is also a member of the Washington Post board, where Buffett also sits.
While all are friends of Buffett’s, the Berkshire board members also bring talent, experience and solid business ideas, said Andrew Kilpatrick, author of ‘‘Of Permanent Value, the Story of Warren Buffett.’’ Other members include Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s vice chairman and Buffett’s right hand man; Walter Scott Jr., chairman emeritus of Omaha construction giant Peter Kiewit Sons; and Ronald L. Olson, a Los Angeles attorney who is a partner in a firm Munger helped found and that does work for Berkshire.
The board is not powerful because Buffett owns controlling interest in Berkshire, but that will change in the future, Miles said.
‘‘They will be a lot more powerful after he is gone, when the CEO doesn’t control that large block of stock,’’ he said.
At the same time, Miles and Kilpatrick said, the board has had little if any reason to argue with Buffett’s business moves.
‘‘Buffett is so influential and so smart, I don’t know what else he needs,’’ Kilpatrick said. However, he added, ‘‘all these people are outstanding, honest people and I think he gets a lot of help from them.’’
Adding Gates to that group is only a plus, Kilpatrick said.
‘‘Clearly he can talk to Buffett as an equal,’’ he said.
Gates and Buffett — Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on Forbes magazine’s list of of the world’s richest men — share similar backgrounds, Connelly said. They grew up in comfortable circumstances; Buffett’s father was a Nebraska congressman, while Gates’ is a prominent Seattle attorney. Both built their own companies, and they share a love of hamburgers, bridge and golf, and have vacationed together, including a trip to China in 1995.
Just what Gates’ presence on the board might mean for Berkshire is not clear. For example, Buffett says he shuns big investments in high technology companies because he cannot predict their growth — a stance that enabled Berkshire to weather the stock market’s dot-com bust quite well. Miles said he did not expect Gates to persuade Buffett to start pouring money into pricey high-tech stocks.
Gates sat on the board of biotechnology company ICOS Corp. of Bothell, Wash., until Buffett approached him. Gates said he restricts his activities because he wants to manage his time effectively to feel confident about his contributions to Microsoft, his charitable foundation and his home.
‘‘I hadn’t expected this,’’ Gates wrote, ‘‘but given my friendship with Warren, and my interest in helping out in any way he ever asks, Berkshire is now my highest priority for board membership.’’