2018 Horatio Alger Award Recipient
Gregory E. Abel
Vice Chairman - Non-Insurance Businesses
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy
“Throughout life, continue to invest in yourself.”
Gregory Abel was born in 1962 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Before his birth, his mother worked as a legal assistant and then became a stay-at-home mom. His father was in sales. They lived in a working-class neighborhood that was family oriented. "I remember getting together with other neighborhood kids as soon as we could after school," says Abel. "We played hockey nearly every day in summer and winter and stayed out until we were called in for dinner. It was one of those traditional family environments that felt safe and secure."
A big part of Abel's life was his extended family. Efforts were made to get together with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, even those who lived two hours away. "Understanding the importance of family and making that a clear priority is one of the first values my parents imparted to me," he says. "They also taught me the importance of working hard and having goals and dreams. They emphasized to me that if I was going to do something, I needed to give it my best effort."
Although Abel loved sports, he also understood the importance of education. His parents emphasized the idea that education is the foundation for a brighter future. Abel had great respect for his teachers, even in elementary school. He recalls one day in the fourth grade, his teacher introduced two new boys to the class. She asked the children to be welcoming, as these boys were a positive addition to their group. "I learned the importance of working well in groups," he says. "My teacher was trying to create bonds and relationships that would result in us having a better experience as students. I befriended those boys, and they are still great friends of mine."
Along with so many of his Canadian peers, Abel loved hockey. "When you play hockey," he says, "you quickly learn that you are more successful if you play as a team than as an individual. It's a physical sport and you build strong relationships with your teammates because you have to support one another. I believe sport helped me develop my leadership skills. I had a great deal of respect for my coaches, who served as my mentors. At an early age, I felt an obligation to help our team get better and for me that meant being a leader on the team through working hard."
In high school, Abel decided that he wanted his future career to be in business, but that was a competitive major at the University of Alberta, his target school. To better ensure his acceptance, he studied and took extra credit exams to enhance his overall grades. "I think my father influenced my decision to pursue business," says Abel. "He worked hard but I could tell he enjoyed what he was doing. He actively engaged with people and always had a positive view of life." Abel was also influenced by his mother. "My mom encouraged strong commitment and drive around all of my pursuits," says Abel.
Since boyhood, Abel worked a variety of jobs. He started with delivering advertising flyers to homes, which he supplemented by cleaning discarded bottles and redeeming them for money. He also worked as a laborer for a forest product company. In high school as well as college, he worked for a company where he filled fire extinguishers. It was from this company, Levitt Safety, that he earned a small scholarship to the University of Alberta.
Abel had always taken his studies seriously, but as he completed his first year of college and heard about the Dean's List, his competitive nature told him he should strive to be on the list. He could see that the more he put into his schoolwork, the more he got out of it. "It became a good life lesson for me," he says. "My quest for learning was a good investment in myself, because it helped me to seek more opportunities to learn and contribute to my classes. My college years set me up for a lifetime of learning."
Abel spent his college summers working for the City of Edmonton's Parks and Recreation Department as a program planner and sports camp counselor. He went above and beyond his job responsibilities and acted as a mentor for the children participating in the city's programs.
After graduating with distinction in 1984, Abel joined PricewaterhouseCoopers in Edmonton. Looking to expand his opportunities, he soon moved to the company's San Francisco office, where one of his clients was CalEnergy. Shortly thereafter, he joined CalEnergy, where his partners and the team took the small geothermal business with 500 employees to an international, diversified global holding company with 23,000 employees.
From 1992 to 2008, Abel served the company as a senior executive; in 1999, the company became MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, and he was named president. In 2008, he became CEO, and, in 2011, chairman was added to his title. In 2014, MidAmerican became Berkshire Hathaway Energy. The company has assets in excess of $90 billion and owns subsidiaries principally engaged in energy businesses in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the Philippines. In January 2018, while remaining executive chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Abel was appointed vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Berkshire Hathaway and its subsidiaries engage in diverse business activities including insurance and reinsurance, utilities and energy, freight rail transportation, finance, manufacturing, services and retailing.
Abel serves as a director and vice chairman of Edison Electric Institute, an association of U.S. investor-owned electric companies, and Associated Electric & Gas Insurance Services Limited, a mutual insurance company. He also serves on the board of directors for Nuclear Electric Insurance Limited, a mutual insurance company of nuclear power facilities, and The Kraft Heinz Company.
Looking back over his career, Abel says, "I think hard work leads to good outcomes. In my schooling, in sports, and in my business positions, I learned that if I put in a lot of work and was well-prepared, then success would be more likely. I have been fortunate to have had great partners and a great team that believes we are on this long journey of becoming the best in our industry. But to accomplish that, it takes more than one leader at the top. It takes multiple layers of leaders who galvanize around what we are trying to achieve, believing in it, and then as a group accomplishing the goal."
After more than 20 years in his industry, Abel still wakes up each morning with a passion for what he is doing. "I want to have an impact," he says. "I want to roll up my sleeves and be actively engaged in making our company successful. I not only think that attitude is important on the business side of life; I also believe you should put equal effort into your family's well-being. If your family is happy, healthy, and moving forward, then that allows other positive things in life to happen. In the end, you need to find a balance between the two."
Abel is the first to admit that his business success has had a lot to do with the mentors he has had throughout his career. In the early days of CalEnergy, he joined David Sokol ('04) and met Walter Scott ('97), both Horatio Alger Members. "They gave me such exciting opportunities," says Abel. "Having the opportunity to work with them was a defining moment in my life." Scott served as a mentor for Abel and influenced Abel with his business experience and knowledge. Sokol shared his management and operating experience. "David was not only a mentor for me, but to this day I could not have a closer friend," says Abel. When MidAmerican was taken private by Berkshire Hathaway, Abel began working with Warren Buffett. "He has such a positive view on life and focuses on sharing and teaching," says Abel. Abel is a firm believer in mentorship and investing in oneself. "If we are continually investing in ourselves, through education or challenging ourselves to take on new experiences, new people, or new mentors, then we are creating a stronger foundation. In the process, I think you are also discovering the thing that drives you and finding the passion and energy to pursue it."
"I've watched what my business mentors and friends in my community do to address problems and look for solutions. Their actions make our communities a better place to live. I've learned a lot from these people, and it has influenced me in my attempts at giving back. My mentors have taught me how to be better in business, but they have also taught me how to be a better, more giving person" Abel says. "It's true when you hear successful people say it's important to surround yourself with good people. Watch them, learn from them, and it will have a far-reaching impact not only on you personally but on those around you."
Abel grew up influenced by the closeness of his family and watching his parents care for other family members, friends, and neighbors. He learned from his parents that when you give back to your community, it has a positive impact. He is on the board of directors for the Hockey Canada Foundation and on the executive board of the Mid-Iowa Council Boy Scouts of America. He is the founding sponsor of Future Leaders in Action, a nonprofit that supports developing youth leaders to implement programs at child-focused nonprofits. He is the lead supporter of the Cornea Excellence Fund through the University of Iowa Foundation, which advances research in ophthalmology. He is supportive of the American Football Coaches Foundation, which gives funding to high school and non-division-one college coaches, so that they can become better coaches and mentors by fostering players who need strong mentors in their lives. In 2015, he was awarded the prestigious CEO Coach of the Year Award.
Excited and honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Abel says, "To become a member of a group of esteemed colleagues who have accomplished so much in their careers is truly humbling. The members have done what I've been talking about. They have made an impact, on their companies and industries, on their employees, in the communities they live, and on the young adults who receive college scholarships through their support. They are doing remarkable things in their careers and in this organization, and I am very proud to be a part of contributing and making a difference.""