Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Business Information, Profile, and History
Omaha, Nebraska 68131
Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership. Charlie Munger and I think of our shareholders as owner-partners, and of ourselves as managing partners. (Because of the size of our shareholdings we are also, for better or worse, controlling partners.) We do not view the company itself as the ultimate owner of our business assets but instead view the company as a conduit through which our shareholders own the assets.
Charlie and I hope that you do not think of yourself as merely owning a piece of paper whose price wiggles around daily and that is a candidate for sale when some economic or political event makes you nervous. We hope you instead visualize yourself as a part owner of a business that you expect to stay with indefinitely, much as you might if you owned a farm or apartment house in partnership with members of your family. For our part, we do not view Berkshire shareholders as faceless members of an ever-shifting crowd, but rather as co-venturers who have entrusted their funds to us for what may well turn out to be the remainder of their lives.
The evidence suggests that most Berkshire shareholders have indeed embraced this long-term partnership concept.—Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO
History of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is a holding company with an ever increasing number of subsidiaries engaged in a myriad of business activities. Originally in textiles, Berkshire's reach has extended to insurance, retailing, manufacturing, publishing, and banking. Run by the dynamic Warren Buffett and his partner Charles Munger, Berkshire has become synonymous with its legendary investment portfolio, which historically has garnered results far in excess of advances in the S&P 500 and other benchmark indices. Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and its subsidiaries are involved in several different businesses, the most significant of which is property, casualty, and auto insurance, both directly (GEICO) and through reinsurance (General Reinsurance Corporation). Noninsurance subsidiaries include the furniture retailers Nebraska Furniture Mart, R.C. Willey Home Furnishings, Star Furniture, and Jordon's Furniture; the fine jewelry retailers Borsheim's, Helzberg Diamond Shops, and Ben Bridge Jeweler; and footwear retailers H.H. Brown, Dexter, and Justin Brands. Berkshire's other businesses include publishing (the Buffalo News, World Book, Childcraft); manufacturing (See's Candies, Campbell Hausfeld, Kirby, Fechheimer Brothers Company); and interior decorating supplies (paint and stain manufacturer Benjamin Moore, carpet manufacturer Shaw Industries). Investing through its insurance subsidiaries, Berkshire often buys major shares of other publicly traded companies (American Express, Capital Cities/ABC, Coca-Cola, Gillette, The Washington Post Company, and Wells Fargo). Its chairman, Warren Buffett, is renowned for his expertise in selecting stocks with hidden appeal and staying power.
Humble Beginnings: 1889 Through the 1940s
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. began as a textile company, incorporated as Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company in Massachusetts in 1889. In 1929 several other New England textile manufacturers with much common ownership—Valley Falls Company, Coventry Company, Greylock Mills, and Fort Dummer Mills—merged into the company, which was then renamed Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates. This operation accounted for about 25 percent of the fine cotton textile production in the United States.
The glory years of the New England textile industry were numbered. The Great Depression of the 1930s contributed to its decline, as did competition from the South and overseas. Wages were lower in the South, and Southern workers had fewer alternatives than New Englanders for working in the textile mills. Further, market factors favored the coarser types of goods produced in the South, while wage differentials between the United States and foreign competition were often significant.
The New England textile business recovered somewhat during World War II, thanks to military demand for its products, and had a similar brief recovery during the Korean conflict. Still, the industry declined again after each of these upswings.
In 1955 Berkshire Fine Spinning merged with Hathaway Manufacturing Company, a New Bedford, Massachusetts textile maker dating back to 1888. The resulting company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., had more than 10,000 employees and nearly six million square feet of plant space, but its financial performance was dismal. Berkshire Hathaway closed its extensive operations in Adams, Massachusetts, in 1958, and the same year sold its curtain plant in Warren, Rhode Island, to Pilgrim Curtain Company. The company recovered a bit the following year; a contract negotiated between Berkshire and its unionized employees in 1959 marked the first wage increase for New England textile workers since 1956.
By late 1959 and into 1960, the company was operating profitably and had a backlog of unfilled orders. Depressed conditions returned quickly, however, and in 1961 Berkshire cut its work week to four days at several plants and showed a loss for the year. In 1962 the company closed three plants in Rhode Island and showed even greater losses, due to depressed prices for its products. The financial hemorrhaging continued into the mid-1960s, despite cuts in Berkshire's workforce and an extensive plant modernization. In 1965 came a major change in the company's management: a partnership led by investor Warren Buffett had purchased enough stock to control the company, and in a resulting dispute Seabury Stanton, a 50-year Berkshire employee, resigned as president. Kenneth V. Chace, a vice-president who had been with the company 18 years, replaced Stanton. After Buffett gained control of Berkshire, its operations were gradually moved from New Bedford to Omaha, Nebraska, where Buffett was based.
Berkshire Hathaway was profitable in 1965 and 1966, but profits fell sharply as it began its 1967 fiscal year. The company was actively shopping for acquisitions to help it diversify, and in 1967 it entered the insurance business, buying National Indemnity Company and National Fire & Marine Insurance Company for a total of $8.5 million. Acquisition of the two Omaha-based companies, which primarily handled automobile insurance, was expected to help Berkshire overcome the cyclical nature of the textile business. In 1968 the company made another significant acquisition, of Sun Newspapers, a group of Omaha-area weeklies. In 1969 it bought Illinois National Bank & Trust Company of Rockford. Buffett, who became Berkshire's chairman in 1969, tended to acquire companies whose management and products he liked, rather than buying companies with the intention of making major changes. Both Buffett's company and his reputation as an expert investor continued to grow for decades to come.
From Medium to Large: 1970–79
Berkshire Hathaway's expansion and diversification continued at a steady pace. During 1969 and 1970 it bought controlling interests in Blue Chip Stamps (which owned See's Candies, a chocolate maker and retailer) and Wesco Financial Corporation, a savings and loan operator. Berkshire's insurance operations grew with the formation of Cornhusker Casualty Company as part of the National Indemnity group in 1970 and Lakeland Fire and Casualty Company (later National Indemnity Company of Minnesota) also as part of that group, in 1971. In addition, in 1971, Berkshire acquired Home & Automobile Insurance Company (later National Liability and Fire Insurance Company) and in 1972 formed Texas United Insurance Company, which it eventually merged into National Indemnity. Four years later, in 1976, the National Fire & Marine subsidiary acquired its only wholly owned subsidiary, Redwood Fire & Casualty Insurance Company, and Berkshire began buying shares in GEICO (Government Employees Insurance Company).
In 1977 Berkshire continued to acquire related businesses, with the acquisition of Cypress Insurance Company and the formation of the Kansas Fire & Casualty Company. The same year, it made another move into the newspaper business by purchasing, through Blue Chip Stamps, the Buffalo Evening News, a six-day afternoon paper. The News competed against a morning paper with a Sunday edition, at a time when morning papers were outstripping evening papers in popularity. After the acquisition by Berkshire, the News increased competition by publishing a Sunday edition and within five years had bested its rival, the Courier-Express, which then went out of business.
Berkshire formed another insurance company, Continental Divide Insurance Company, in 1978. Through a merger with Diversified Retailing Company, Berkshire acquired two more insurers, Columbia Insurance Company and Southern Casualty Insurance Company, in 1978; Southern Casualty was later merged into National Indemnity. Even with Warren Buffett's growing reputation, not every company was eager to become part of Berkshire; CSE Corporation, the holding company for Civil Service Employees Insurance Company, turned down an informal takeover offer in 1979. Because Berkshire did not execute hostile takeovers, the acquisition was not pursued.
From Large to Gargantuan: 1980s
In 1980 Berkshire spun off Illinois National Bank & Trust, a move required by the Bank Holding Company Act of 1969. A year later the company sold Sun Newspapers to Chicago publisher Bruce Sagan and began work on a rather unheard of practice. The next year, 1982, Berkshire instituted an unusual corporate philanthropy program that won praise from shareholders by allowing them to direct a portion of the company's charitable contributions. With this policy, Buffett said he hoped to foster an "owner mentality" among shareholders. Shareholders responded enthusiastically, with more than 95 percent of eligible shareholders participating in each year since the program's inception. The amount directed to charities of their choice was $2 a share in 1981 (the figure rose to $6 a share by 1989). Buffett's own favorite causes included population control and nuclear disarmament.
During the early 1980s the textile business continued to languish and the insurance industry was hit by poor sales and price cutting. Berkshire's performance, however, was buoyed by the performance of its investment portfolio. Buying significant but noncontrolling blocks of stock in such companies as The Washington Post Company, Media General, and additional shares of GEICO Corporation, Berkshire's holdings grew in value by 21 percent in 1981—a year in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined by 9.2 percent—and earnings grew 23 percent per share.
In 1983 the 60 percent-owned Blue Chip Stamps merged with Berkshire Hathaway, the same year the company acquired 90 percent of the Nebraska Furniture Mart, a high-volume Omaha discount retailer and the largest U.S. home furnishings store founded by a Russian immigrant, Rose Blumkin. The Blumkin family retained management and the remaining ownership of the store. Buffett had been known to promote it during annual shareholder meetings, often running buses to the store (a practice continued to this day). Also in 1983, another insurance company, National Indemnity Company of Florida, was formed and added to the National Indemnity group.
The mid-1980s proved a heady time for Berkshire with several monumental agreements and the sad denouement of its textiles business. Early in 1985 the company participated in Capital Cities Communications' acquisition of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Buffett agreed to put up $517.5 million in financing for the deal and came out with an 18 percent share of the merged company, Capital Cities/ABC. The investment community saw the move as unusual for Buffett, who tended to hunt for undervalued companies and stay away from high-priced deals. Buffett, however, said he saw the investment climate changing, with good prospects for companies like television networks that had intangible assets rather than heavy investments in plants and equipment.
Then came the end of Berkshire Hathaway's money-losing textiles operation, which the company had tried to sell. After finding no buyer, Berkshire liquidated the conglomerate's originating business due to increasing lower-cost foreign competition. Buffett lauded the efforts of Kenneth Chace—who remained a Berkshire director—and of Garry Morrison, who had succeeded him as president of textiles. Buffett had kind words for the unionized textile workers as well, who had made only reasonable demands in view of the company's financial position.
Later the same year Berkshire agreed to acquire Scott & Fetzer Company, a Cleveland, Ohio-based diversified manufacturing and marketing company, for about $320 million. Scott & Fetzer's products included World Book and Childcraft encyclopedias and Kirby vacuum cleaners. At the same time Berkshire's insurance business underwent several changes. In a tight market for insurance, many commercial insurance buyers needed a financially stable company to underwrite large risks, so National Indemnity, Berkshire Hathaway's largest insurance company, advertised in an insurance trade publication its willingness to write property and casualty policies with a premium of $1 million or more. The advertisement produced an explosion in large-premium business for Berkshire; the company wrote $184.5 million in net premiums for large accounts from August 1985 through December 1986, compared with virtually no such business previously.
Also during 1985, Berkshire reached an agreement with Fireman's Fund Insurance Company, which allowed it a 7 percent participation in Fireman's business. John J. Byrne, an executive of GEICO—an insurer partly owned by Berkshire and that shared a long history with Buffett—left to become chairman of Fireman's Fund earlier in the year, and had arranged the deal. Another insurance move during 1985 was the establishment of Wesco-Financial Insurance Company by Berkshire's Wesco Financial Corporation subsidiary.
In 1986 Berkshire finalized its Scott & Fetzer deal and went on to acquire 84 percent of Fechheimer Bros. Company, a uniform manufacturer and distributor based in Cincinnati, Ohio. The next year, as the stock market continued the upward rise begun earlier in the decade, Buffett's policy of buying undervalued stocks and holding them for the long term paid off well. In August 1987 the Wall Street Journal reported that in the five years since the market's surge began, Berkshire's stock portfolio had grown in value by 748 percent, far surpassing the Dow Jones average (which increased 233.6 percent) and Standard & Poor's (S&P) 500 stock index (which gained 215.4 percent).
When the stock market crashed in October and wiped out the year's gains, Berkshire's portfolio weathered the storm and was up 2.8 percent—while the S&P 500 experienced a 2.5 percent decline. Just before the crash, Berkshire had bought $700 million worth of preferred stock (convertible to a 12 percent common stake) in Salomon Inc., the Wall Street investment firm whose fortunes were closely tied to the market. Even after the crash, however, Buffett expressed his confidence in Salomon's management and the investment's inherent value. Another major event of 1988 was the listing of Berkshire's stock on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Although the stock had previously traded in the over-the-counter market, the move was designed to reduce transaction costs for shareholders.
Berkshire Hathaway became the highest-priced stock on the exchange, at about $4,300 a share, up from $12 a share when Buffett first bought the company. The price hit a high for the decade of more than $8,000 a share, but Buffett always encouraged buyers to be in the market for the long haul. He was not of the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do school, for both he and Berkshire had proven themselves to be long-term shareholders in other companies, leading some to view Buffett as a protector against hostile takeovers. During 1989 the company bought significant shares of the Gillette Company, USAir Group, and Champion International Corporation, with each purchase widely interpreted as a defense against takeovers. Another major purchase was 6.3 percent or $1 billion worth of the Coca-Cola Company (making Berkshire Coke's second largest shareholder) and an 80 percent interest in Borsheim's, an Omaha jewelry store run by the Friedman family, relatives of the Nebraska Furniture Mart's Blumkins.
As Berkshire grew, so did Buffett's recognition and reputation as a no-nonsense businessman. To many, part of Buffett's charm was speaking his mind, even if his opinions were not always fashionable. Buffett's frank assessment of situations brought him both fans and foes, including when he pulled the Wesco Financial-owned Mutual Savings & Loan Association of Pasadena, California, out of the U.S. League of Savings Institutions in 1989. Buffett's move was in response to the League's lobby for more leniency during the federal bailout of the S & L industry, which Buffett likened to a "mugging" of taxpayers. Another of Buffett's business stratagems, to the chagrin of many corporate honchos, was his belief that executive compensation be tied to a company's performance, not its size.
The Mega-Conglomerate with a Down-Home Feel: 1990s
In the early 1990s Berkshire continued its trend of buying complementary companies and large blocks of stock, with the acquisition of H.H. Brown Shoe Company, 31.2 million shares of Guinness PLC, and 82 percent of Central States Indemnity in 1991, and Lowell Shoe Company and 14.1 percent of General Dynamics Corp. in 1992. In a related though somewhat surprising move in 1991, Buffett was appointed interim chairman of Salomon Inc. (in which the company still owned stock). After serving ten months and effecting a turnaround, Buffett was happily back at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway full-time, although both Buffett and Munger joined the board of the ailing USAir in 1992.
The following year, H.H. Brown added Dexter Shoe to its holdings, Buffett sold ten million shares of Capital Cities/ABC, and net earnings posted a spectacular surge from 1992's $407.3 million (down from 1991's $439.9 million) to $688.1 million. In 1994, Berkshire added major stock holdings of two companies to its portfolio (4.9 percent of Gannett Co., Inc. and 8.3 percent of PNC Bank Corp.) and Buffett admitted to two expensive gaffes: a $222.5 million faux pas from unloading ten million Cap Cities shares for $64 each when prices topped $85, and taking a $268.5 million writedown for its questionable USAir stock (both Buffett and Munger stepped down from the airline's board after a year). Though Buffett was perhaps too optimistic with USAir and a bit pessimistic about Cap Cities, neither setback made more than a tiny ripple in Berkshire's bottom line.
During the mid-1990s Berkshire Hathaway imperceptibly changed course from a strategic long-term investment conglomerate to one still very much interested in investing but leaning more heavily toward acquiring and actually operating these investment opportunities. As early as 1993 in its annual solicitation for attractive acquisitions, Berkshire had raised the stakes by including the statement, "We would be likely to make an acquisition in the $2-3 billion range." By 1995, after the company acquired Helzberg's Diamond Shops and R.C. Willey Home Furnishings through stock swaps, the stakes had risen further—up to the $5 billion range. Meanwhile, as Berkshire's "permanent four" (Capital Cities/ABC, Coca-Cola, GEICO, and The Washington Post) lost a hint of their luster in 1995, the retailing segment more than offset this slip with Borsheim's, Kirby, Nebraska Furniture Mart, and Scott Fetzer (which posted exceptional numbers for the entire decade) exceeding expectations.
Late in 1995 Berkshire began the process of taking GEICO, the seventh largest auto insurer in the nation, private. Buffett's long history (45 years) with GEICO came full circle—after years of mentoring from Ben Graham and Lorimer Davidson, 43 years after selling his original 350 shares, and 15 years since Berkshire paid $45.7 million for a 33.3 percent stake of GEICO (which grew to 50 percent in the ensuing years)—the company spent $2.3 billion to make GEICO its own. With the GEICO deal completed in January 1996, Berkshire Hathaway's insurance segment mushroomed in both float and potential earnings, becoming more stalwart as the company's core segment. Number-wise, Berkshire finished 1995 with $29.9 billion in assets, a good-sized leap from the previous year's $21.3 billion, while Berkshire stock traded at $36,000 per share, more than three-and-a-half times higher than 1992's mere $10,000 a share.
News in 1996 was the planned issuance of $100 million in new Class "B" stock (the company's original shares were now designated Class "A" stock), valued at one-30th the price of its predecessor. The recapitalization was done in part, Buffett explained in the 1995 annual report, to discourage brokers from marketing unit trusts and seducing clients with the Berkshire name. Since most small investors found Berkshire's per share cost prohibitive, Buffett was attempting to make the company's stock available at a lower price without going through "expense-laden unit trusts" pretending to be Berkshire "clones." Yet what folks needed to remember, according to Buffett, was not book value, but intrinsic value. By measuring intrinsic value, an economic indicator rather than an accounting concept, investors had a better handle on worth and whether or not something was a good long-term risk. In these terms, Buffett hoped to double Berkshire's per-share intrinsic value (of Class A stock) every five years, which was still a rather daunting task.
The Late 1990s: No Dot Coms for Buffett
Buffett's interest in companies as acquisitions rather than investments increased in the late 1990s. Berkshire Hathaway upped its investment in the ice cream retailer International Dairy Queen in 1998 and Allied Domecq, owner of Dunkin' Donuts, in 1999. In 1998, however, the company made the uncharacteristic purchase of Executive Jet, an aviation company that initiated time-share purchases of private jets by businesses. The $725 million purchase brought Berkshire Hathaway into an emerging market, something Buffett had always avoided. In a more predictable move that year, Buffett added to Berkshire Hathaway's insurance group with the acquisition of General Reinsurance Corporation for $22 billion. One of the top three global property and casualty reinsurance companies, General Re had a reputation as one of the best-managed U.S. insurers.
The General Re purchase, however, contributed greatly to Berkshire Hathaway's poor performance in 1999. The transition to Berkshire Hathaway ownership was rocky: Ronald E. Ferguson, General Re's CEO, had kept the negotiations secret. Once the deal was signed, James Gustafson, General Re's president and COO, immediately resigned. Ferguson still had not replaced him by early 2000. In the leadership void, the company's underwriters seemed to be operating aimlessly. In addition, General Re was struck with a series of underwriting losses, combining to a total loss in 1999 of $1.6 billion. Buffett's hands-off management style left the subsidiary to find its own way through the muddle.
In part as a result of General Re's losses, net income for Berkshire Hathaway dropped from $2.8 billion to $1.6 billion in 1999. Earnings per share were cut in half. Criticism of Buffett and his investment philosophy became more common. His insistence on holding a stock for the long term was seen by some as stubborn and misguided when Coca-Cola stock hit a high of $87 a share in 1998. A sale at that point would have meant a $15.7 billion gain for Berkshire Hathaway; however, Buffett held the stock as it fell to $50 a share. Some questioned his continued resistance to high-tech and Internet stocks, which were driving a boom in the stock market. While the S&P 500 rose approximately 20 points in 1999, Berkshire Hathaway's per-share book value rose only 0.5 percent.
Buffett was, in large part, vindicated in 2000 as the high-tech bubble burst. The S&P 500 ended the year down approximately 9 percent, while Berkshire Hathaway's book value rose 6.5 percent. Buffett continued his strategy of acquiring low-tech companies in mundane, though proven, markets. In 2000 Berkshire Hathaway completed its acquisitions of the power company MidAmerican Energy and the "rent-to-rent" furniture company CORT Business Services. Berkshire also added to its insurance group with the purchase of U.S. Liability, to its jewelry retailers with Ben Bridge Jewelers, and to its manufacturers with boot and brick maker Justin Industries. Just before the end of the year, Berkshire purchased Benjamin Moore Paint for $1 billion cash and building products manufacturer Johns Manville Corporation for about $1.8 billion, although both deals were not completed until early 2001.
Back in 1973 Buffett warned that Bershire Hathaway's sheer bulk would prohibit it from continuing to grow at rates of 15 to 20 percent a year. That warning was premature. For the next decade, the company expanded at that rate, sometimes significantly more. As the century changed, however, the prediction was perhaps being realized. With sales of $34 billion, could Berkshire Hathaway keep up its phenomenal growth rate? Perhaps more important, how much longer would its 71-year-old mastermind, Warren Buffett, be around to lead the company?
Principal Subsidiaries: Acme Building Brands; Ben Bridge Jeweler; Benjamin Moore & Co.; Berkshire Hathaway Group; Berkshire Hathaway Homestates Companies; Borsheim's Fine Jewelry; Buffalo News; Central States Indemnity Company; CORT Business Services; Dexter Shoe Company; Executive Jet, Inc.; Fechheimer Brothers Company; FlightSafety International, Inc.; GEICO Corporation; General & Cologne Re Group; H.H. Brown Shoe Company, Inc.; Helzberg's Diamonds; International Dairy Queen, Inc.; Johns Manville Corporation; Jordan's Furniture; Justin Brands; Lowell Shoe Company; MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company; MiTek Inc.; National Indemnity Company; Nebraska Furniture Mart; Precision Steel Warehouse; RC Willey Home Furnishings; Scott Fetzer Company; See's Candies, Inc.; Shaw Industries; Star Furniture; United States Liability Insurance Group.
Principal Competitors: AIG; The Allstate Corporation; Andersen Group; AXA Financial; CIGNA Corporation; Citigroup Inc.; CNA Financial Corporation; GE Capital; The Hartford Insurance Group; Lincoln National Corporation; Loews Corporation; Munich Reinsurance; Prudential Insurance Company of America; State Farm Insurance Companies; Swiss Reinsurance Company; Washington Mutual, Inc.
- Key Dates:
- 1888: Hathaway Manufacturing Company incorporates in Massachusetts.
- 1889: Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company incorporates in Massachusetts.
- 1929: Company merges with four other textile manufacturers and changes its name to Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates.
- 1955: Berkshire Fine Spinning merges with Hathaway Manufacturing to form Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
- 1965: Partnership led by investor Warren Buffett purchases enough stock to control the company.
- 1967: Company enters the insurance business, buying National Indemnity Company and National Fire & Marine Insurance Company.
- 1968: Company acquires Sun Newspapers, a group of Omaha-area weeklies.
- 1969: Company buys Illinois National Bank & Trust Company.
- 1983: Berkshire Hathaway acquires Blue Chip Stamps and 90 percent of Nebraska Furniture Mart.
- 1985: Berkshire liquidates its original textile operations.
- 1986: Berkshire acquires Scott & Fetzer Company, owner of World Book and Childcraft encyclopedias as well as Kirby vacuums, for about $320 million.
- 1989: Company purchases 6.3 percent ($1 billion worth) of the Coca-Cola Company, making Berkshire Coke's second largest shareholder.
- 1995: Berkshire spends $2.3 billion to buy the remaining 50 percent of GEICO Corporation; Berkshire stock trades at $36,000 per share.
- 1996: As share price nears $36,000, the company issues $100 million in new Class "B" stock at one-thirtieth the value of the original stock.
- 1998: Class "A" stock hits $84,000 a share; the company purchases General Reinsurance for $22 billion.
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