How Buffett and Munger grow Berkshire’s portfolio of companies

Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s Vice Chairman and my partner, and I want to build a collection of companies—both wholly- and partly-owned—that have excellent economic characteristics and that are run by outstanding managers. Our favorite acquisition is the negotiated transaction that allows us to purchase 100% of such a business at a fair price. But we are almost as happy when the stock market offers us the chance to buy a modest percentage of an outstanding business at a pro-rata price well below what it would take to buy 100%. This double-barrelled approach—purchases of entire businesses through negotiation or purchases of part-interests through the stock market—gives us an important advantage over capital-allocators who stick to a single course. Woody Allen once explained why eclecticism works: “The real advantage of being bisexual is that it doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.”

Over the years, we’ve been Woody-like in our thinking, attempting to increase our marketable investments in wonderful businesses, while simultaneously trying to buy similar businesses in their entirety. The following table illustrates our progress on both fronts. In the tabulation, we show the marketable securities owned per share of Berkshire at ten-year intervals. A second column lists our per-share operating earnings (before taxes and purchase-price adjustments but after interest and corporate overhead) from all other activities. In other words, the second column shows what we earned excluding the dividends, interest and capital gains that we realized from investments. Purchase-price accounting adjustments are ignored for reasons we have explained at length in previous reports and which, as an act of mercy, we won’t repeat. (We’ll be glad to send masochists the earlier explanations, however.)

YearMarketable Securities Per SharePre-tax Earnings Per Share Excluding All Income from Investments
Yearly Growth Rate (1965-1995):33.4%14.7%

These results have not sprung from some master plan that we concocted in 1965. In a general way, we knew then what we hoped to accomplish but had no idea what specific opportunities might make it possible. Today we remain similarly unstructured: Over time, we expect to improve the figures in both columns but have no road map to tell us how that will come about.

Most acquisitions harm the owners of the buyer

It may seem strange that we exult over a year in which we made three acquisitions, given that we have regularly used these pages to question the acquisition activities of most managers. Rest assured, Charlie and I haven’t lost our skepticism: We believe most deals do damage to the shareholders of the acquiring company. Too often, the words from HMS Pinafore apply: “Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream.” Specifically, sellers and their representatives invariably present financial projections having more entertainment value than educational value. In the production of rosy scenarios, Wall Street can hold its own against Washington.

In any case, why potential buyers even look at projections prepared by sellers baffles me. Charlie and I never give them a glance, but instead keep in mind the story of the man with an ailing horse. Visiting the vet, he said: “Can you help me? Sometimes my horse walks just fine and sometimes he limps.” The vet’s reply was pointed: “No problem—when he’s walking fine, sell him.” In the world of mergers and acquisitions, that horse would be peddled as Secretariat.

“I will tell you a secret: Dealmaking beats working. Dealmaking is exciting and fun, and working is grubby. Running anything is primarily an enormous amount of grubby detail work . . . dealmaking is romantic, sexy. That’s why you have deals that make no sense.”

Peter Drucker

At Berkshire, we have all the difficulties in perceiving the future that other acquisition-minded companies do. Like they also, we face the inherent problem that the seller of a business practically always knows far more about it than the buyer and also picks the time of sale—a time when the business is likely to be walking “just fine.”

Even so, we do have a few advantages, perhaps the greatest being that we don’t have a strategic plan. Thus we feel no need to proceed in an ordained direction (a course leading almost invariably to silly purchase prices) but can instead simply decide what makes sense for our owners. In doing that, we always mentally compare any move we are contemplating with dozens of other opportunities open to us, including the purchase of small pieces of the best businesses in the world via the stock market. Our practice of making this comparison—acquisitions against passive investments—is a discipline that managers focused simply on expansion seldom use.

Talking to Time Magazine a few years back, Peter Drucker got to the heart of things: “I will tell you a secret: Dealmaking beats working. Dealmaking is exciting and fun, and working is grubby. Running anything is primarily an enormous amount of grubby detail work . . . dealmaking is romantic, sexy. That’s why you have deals that make no sense.”

In making acquisitions, we have a further advantage: As payment, we can offer sellers a stock backed by an extraordinary collection of outstanding businesses. An individual or a family wishing to dispose of a single fine business, but also wishing to defer personal taxes indefinitely, is apt to find Berkshire stock a particularly comfortable holding. I believe, in fact, that this calculus played an important part in the two acquisitions for which we paid shares in 1995.

Beyond that, sellers sometimes care about placing their companies in a corporate home that will both endure and provide pleasant, productive working conditions for their managers. Here again, Berkshire offers something special. Our managers operate with extraordinary autonomy. Additionally, our ownership structure enables sellers to know that when I say we are buying to keep, the promise means something. For our part, we like dealing with owners who care what happens to their companies and people. A buyer is likely to find fewer unpleasant surprises dealing with that type of seller than with one simply auctioning off his business.

In addition to the foregoing being an explanation of our acquisition style, it is, of course, a not-so-subtle sales pitch. If you own or represent a business earning $25 million or more before tax, and it fits the criteria listed on page 23, just give me a call. Our discussion will be confidential. And if you aren’t interested now, file our proposition in the back of your mind: We are never going to lose our appetite for buying companies with good economics and excellent management.

Concluding this little dissertation on acquisitions, I can’t resist repeating a tale told me last year by a corporate executive. The business he grew up in was a fine one, with a long-time record of leadership in its industry. Its main product, however, was distressingly glamorless. So several decades ago, the company hired a management consultant who—naturally—advised diversification, the then-current fad. (“Focus” was not yet in style.) Before long, the company acquired a number of businesses, each after the consulting firm had gone through a long—and expensive—acquisition study. And the outcome? Said the executive sadly, “When we started, we were getting 100% of our earnings from the original business. After ten years, we were getting 150%.”

“Retailing is a tough business.”

During my investment career, I have watched a large number of retailers enjoy terrific growth and superb returns on equity for a period, and then suddenly nosedive, often all the way into bankruptcy. This shooting-star phenomenon is far more common in retailing than it is in manufacturing or service businesses. In part, this is because a retailer must stay smart, day after day. Your competitor is always copying and then topping whatever you do. Shoppers are meanwhile beckoned in every conceivable way to try a stream of new merchants. In retailing, to coast is to fail.

How it all started: GEICO corporation

Right after yearend, we completed the purchase of 100% of GEICO, the seventh largest auto insurer in the United States, with about 3.7 million cars insured. I’ve had a 45-year association with GEICO, and though the story has been told before, it’s worth a short recap here.

I attended Columbia University’s business school in 1950-51, not because I cared about the degree it offered, but because I wanted to study under Ben Graham, then teaching there. The time I spent in Ben’s classes was a personal high, and quickly induced me to learn all I could about my hero. I turned first to Who’s Who in America, finding there, among other things, that Ben was Chairman of Government Employees Insurance Company, to me an unknown company in an unfamiliar industry.

A librarian next referred me to Best’s Fire and Casualty insurance manual, where I learned that GEICO was based in Washington, DC. So on a Saturday in January, 1951, I took the train to Washington and headed for GEICO’s downtown headquarters. To my dismay, the building was closed, but I pounded on the door until a custodian appeared. I asked this puzzled fellow if there was anyone in the office I could talk to, and he said he’d seen one man working on the sixth floor.

And thus I met Lorimer Davidson, Assistant to the President, who was later to become CEO. Though my only credentials were that I was a student of Graham’s, “Davy” graciously spent four hours or so showering me with both kindness and instruction. No one has ever received a better half-day course in how the insurance industry functions nor in the factors that enable one company to excel over others. As Davy made clear, GEICO’s method of selling—direct marketing—gave it an enormous cost advantage over competitors that sold through agents, a form of distribution so ingrained in the business of these insurers that it was impossible for them to give it up. After my session with Davy, I was more excited about GEICO than I have ever been about a stock.

When I finished at Columbia some months later and returned to Omaha to sell securities, I naturally focused almost exclusively on GEICO. My first sales call—on my Aunt Alice, who always supported me 100%—was successful. But I was then a skinny, unpolished 20-year-old who looked about 17, and my pitch usually failed. Undaunted, I wrote a short report late in 1951 about GEICO for “The Security I Like Best” column in The Commercial and Financial Chronicle, a leading financial publication of the time. More important, I bought stock for my own account.

You may think this odd, but I have kept copies of every tax return I filed, starting with the return for 1944. Checking back, I find that I purchased GEICO shares on four occasions during 1951, the last purchase being made on September 26. This pattern of persistence suggests to me that my tendency toward self-intoxication was developed early. I probably came back on that September day from unsuccessfully trying to sell some prospect and decided—despite my already having more than 50% of my net worth in GEICO—to load up further. In any event, I accumulated 350 shares of GEICO during the year, at a cost of $10,282. At yearend, this holding was worth $13,125, more than 65% of my net worth.

You can see why GEICO was my first business love. Furthermore, just to complete this stroll down memory lane, I should add that I earned most of the funds I used to buy GEICO shares by delivering The Washington Post, the chief product of a company that much later made it possible for Berkshire to turn $10 million into $500 million.

Alas, I sold my entire GEICO position in 1952 for $15,259, primarily to switch into Western Insurance Securities. This act of infidelity can partially be excused by the fact that Western was selling for slightly more than one times its current earnings, a p/e ratio that for some reason caught my eye. But in the next 20 years, the GEICO stock I sold grew in value to about $1.3 million, which taught me a lesson about the inadvisability of selling a stake in an identifiably-wonderful company.

In the early 1970’s, after Davy retired, the executives running GEICO made some serious errors in estimating their claims costs, a mistake that led the company to underprice its policies—and that almost caused it to go bankrupt. The company was saved only because Jack Byrne came in as CEO in 1976 and took drastic remedial measures.

Because I believed both in Jack and in GEICO’s fundamental competitive strength, Berkshire purchased a large interest in the company during the second half of 1976, and also made smaller purchases later. By yearend 1980, we had put $45.7 million into GEICO and owned 33.3% of its shares. During the next 15 years, we did not make further purchases. Our interest in the company, nonetheless, grew to about 50% because it was a big repurchaser of its own shares.

Then, in 1995, we agreed to pay $2.3 billion for the half of the company we didn’t own. That is a steep price. But it gives us full ownership of a growing enterprise whose business remains exceptional for precisely the same reasons that prevailed in 1951.

Any company’s level of profitability is determined by three items:

  1. what its assets earn;
  2. what its liabilities cost; and
  3. its utilization of “leverage”—that is, the degree to which its assets are funded by liabilities rather than by equity.

Berkshire’s Class B Common Stock

We are making this move, though, for other reasons—having to do with the appearance of expense-laden unit trusts purporting to be low-priced “clones” of Berkshire and sure to be aggressively marketed. The idea behind these vehicles is not new: In recent years, a number of people have told me about their wish to create an “all-Berkshire” investment fund to be sold at a low dollar price. But until recently, the promoters of these investments heard out my objections and backed off.

I did not discourage these people because I prefer large investors over small. Were it possible, Charlie and I would love to turn $1,000 into $3,000 for multitudes of people who would find that gain an important answer to their immediate problems.

In order to quickly triple small stakes, however, we would have to just as quickly turn our present market capitalization of $43 billion into $129 billion (roughly the market cap of General Electric, America’s most highly valued company). We can’t come close to doing that. The very best we hope for is—on average—to double Berkshire’s per-share intrinsic value every five years, and we may well fall far short of that goal.

In the end, Charlie and I do not care whether our shareholders own Berkshire in large or small amounts. What we wish for are shareholders of any size who are knowledgeable about our operations, share our objectives and long-term perspective, and are aware of our limitations, most particularly those imposed by our large capital base.

The unit trusts that have recently surfaced fly in the face of these goals. They would be sold by brokers working for big commissions, would impose other burdensome costs on their shareholders, and would be marketed en masse to unsophisticated buyers, apt to be seduced by our past record and beguiled by the publicity Berkshire and I have received in recent years. The sure outcome: a multitude of investors destined to be disappointed.

Through our creation of the B stock—a low-denomination product far superior to Berkshire-only trusts—we hope to make the clones unmerchandisable.But both present and prospective Berkshire shareholders should pay special attention to one point: Though the per-share intrinsic value of our stock has grown at an excellent rate during the past five years, its market price has grown still faster. The stock, in other words, has outperformed the business.

That kind of market overperformance cannot persist indefinitely, neither for Berkshire nor any other stock. Inevitably, there will be periods of underperformance as well. The price volatility that results, though endemic to public markets, is not to our liking. What we would prefer instead is to have the market price of Berkshire precisely track its intrinsic value. Were the stock to do that, every shareholder would benefit during his period of ownership in exact proportion to the progress Berkshire itself made in the period.

Obviously, the market behavior of Berkshire’s stock will never conform to this ideal. But we will come closer to this goal than we would otherwise if our present and prospective shareholders are informed, business-oriented and not exposed to high-commission salesmanship when making their investment decisions. To that end, we are better off if we can blunt the merchandising efforts of the unit trusts—and that is the reason we are creating the B stock.




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