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Top Candidate to Succeed Warren Buffett Widens Lead, But Probably Isn't Ordering New Business Cards Just Yet

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The man who had already been widely seen as the leading candidate to be the "next" Warren Buffett has put a little more space between him and the rest of the pack, but probably doesn't have the job sewn up just yet.

Buffett selected David Sokol to be Chairman and interim CEO of NetJets after the resignation this week of the Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary's founder. That choice is being interpreted as an additional vote of confidence in Sokol's management abilities, making it even more likely the MidAmerican Energy Chairman will eventually succeed Buffett as Berkshire's CEO.

Well over a year ago, Barron's used its cover to proclaim Sokol the "Next Buffett," calling him the "most likely candidate to lead Berkshire Hathaway once the Great One departs."

Now, Barron's Andrew Bary, a longtime Buffett-watcher, says the NetJets appointment "seems to solidify Sokol's position as the likely successor to Buffett." Bary notes that Sokol "has no known experience" in the fractional jet business, making his choice look like a "strong vote of confidence by Buffett."

The Wall Street Journal writes that Sokol's appontment, "even on a temporary basis, could be seen as another sign of Mr. Sokol's growing clout in the conglomerate and with Mr. Buffett."

Berkshire shareholder Thomas Russo tells Reuters, "David has been increasingly appearing as a person who might be a strong horse in the race for CEO. This certainly wouldn't be inconsistent with that direction."

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Analyst Justin Fuller, posting on buffettologist.com, says it could be "yet another vote of confidence" for Sokol that would give him additional experience running another Berkshire unit, "which would seem to strengthen his qualifications." But Fuller says Sokol may have been chosen simply due to a weak succession plan at NetJets that didn't put any qualified internal candidates in line to take over.

And Buffett biographer Alice Schroeder isn't jumping to any conclusions. She tells Bloomberg, “You could view it as a creeping announcement of the successor. The direction he’s headed seems apparent, but I don’t think anybody should believe that this is an absolute decision that he’s made. Warren is somebody who always keeps his options open until the very last moment. That’s one of his great strengths.”

Sokol, whose MidAmerican Energy has been at the center of Berkshire's already hugely profitable investment in Chinese electric car maker BYD, has been playing down all the speculation for months.

In a live interview from Omaha on CNBC's Squawk Box with Becky Quick last May, Sokol told us no one has approached him from Berkshire about succeeding Buffett:

"The reality is there are a dozen or more executives more qualified than I am to succeed Warren, should that ever happen. Frankly, I've been working with Warren, fortunately, for ten years and I think he's every bit more capable today than he was ten years ago. So, A, I don't think it's going to happen in the next twenty years, and B, frankly, the speculation is kind of a waste of time."

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