Buffett’s Powerhouse: 5 Companies at the Heart of Berkshire Hathaway

Plant Money

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There’s a lot to be said about business magnate Warren Buffett. As chair and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRKA)(NYSE:BRKB) and a champion of common sense value investing, Buffett has earned himself a place in the pantheon of legendary business leaders. He has steered Berkshire through a dozen economic recessions and business crises, all the while guiding the value of Berkshire higher and higher. In his 2013 letter to shareholders, Buffett reported that the book value of Berkshire stock has increased at a compounded annual rate of 19.7 percent since 1965, soundly outperforming the 9.8 percent annual compounded gain of the S&P 500 including dividends.

In that same letter, Buffett revealed that the so-called ‘Powerhouse Five’ — “a collection of large non-insurance businesses” that together make up a cornerstone of Berkshire’s empire — had record pre-tax earnings of $10.8 billion. This is up about 7 percent from 2012, and in the coming year Buffett expects the earnings of the group to improve “perhaps by $1 billion or so pre-tax.”

But Buffett doesn’t have much more to say about the Powerhouse Five. The companies — MidAmerican Energy, BNSF Railway, Iscar, Lubrizol, and Marmon — aren’t often in the headlines despite their size, and Buffett generally only has high-level praise for them in public. Here’s an overview of those companies and how they fit into Berkshire’s growing empire.

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1. MidAmerican Energy Holding

MidAmerican Energy Holding is — well, a holding company that Berkshire owns the vast majority of. It’s important to remember that the holding company owns a business named simply MidAmerican Energy Company, which is just one of many energy companies such as PacifiCorp, CalEnergy Generation, Northern Natural Gas Co., and — most recently and perhaps most importantly — NV Energy, which make up the holding company’s portfolio.

NV Energy is an energy holding company serving approximately 1.3 million electric and natural gas customers in Nevada. Combined with MidAmerican Energy Holdings, Berkshire owns the largest U.S. utility company in the United States with 8.4 million total customer accounts and total assets of approximately $66 billion. Berkshire owns utilities in Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

“This acquisition fits nicely into our existing electric-utility operation and offers many possibilities for large investments in renewable energy,” said of the deal in his 2013 letter to shareholders, adding that, “NV Energy will not be MidAmerican’s last major acquisition.” Utility companies fit nicely under the umbrella of reliable “big chunks of earnings powers” that Buffett has targeted for the future of Berkshire.

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2. BNSF Railway

BNSF (or, Burlington North Santa Fe) is a vertebrae in the backbone of the U.S. economy. The company operates one of the largest railroad systems in North America, and serves most of the western region of the U.S. Berkshire purchased the company in late 2009 “amidst the gloom of the Great Recession,” as Buffett puts it in the company’s 2013 annual report.

“At the time, I called the transaction an ‘all-in wager on the economic future of the United States,’” Buffett wrote — and that bet is paying off. If we’re sticking with human biology, another apt analogy may be to describe BNSF as part of the circulatory system. At least, it’s the analogy that Buffet prefers. In the 2013 report, Buffett wrote that BNSF carries about 15 percent of “all inter-city freight … Indeed, we move more ton-miles of goods than anyone else, a fact establishing BNSF as the most important artery in our economy’s circulatory system.”

BNSF reported revenues of $22 billion in 2013, up about 5.8 percent from 2012, and net earnings of $3.8 billion, up about 11.8 percent from 2012.

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3. ISCAR Metalworking

Iscar is an Israeli toolmaking company with operations in more than 60 countries around the world. Berkshire purchased an 80 percent stake in the company in 2006 for about $4 billion, making it the first time Berkshire had acquired a company based outside of the U.S. Berkshire purchased the remaining 20 percent of the company in 2013 after the Wertheimer family, which founded the company, elected to sell the stake.

“As a truly international business, IMC is a top performer in its industry, with exposure to European, Asian, and Latin American markets, as well as significant opportunities for growth as it continues to penetrate the North American market,” commented Buffett when the deal was announced. “My partner Charlie Munger and I have been impressed by IMC’s simple and profitable business model. With this acquisition, we have the benefit of investing in a stable business with very significant growth prospects.”

Speaking in 2008, when he was attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony at an Iscar facility in China, Buffett said that, “Iscar is a dream deal. It has surpassed all the expectations I had when buying the company, and my expectations had been very high.”

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4. Lubrizol Corporation

Lubrizol, founded in 1928, is a Cleveland-based company that also makes stuff that people, you know, actually use. Lubrizol is a designer and manufacturer of specialty chemicals, producing additives and advanced materials for everything from engine oil and industrial polymers to hair conditioners and toothpaste. The company has product lines that touch dozens of markets and are used in the essential day-to-day activities of many businesses and consumers.

Berkshire announced the purchase of Lubrizol in March 2011. Berkshire paid about $9.7 billion for the company, which generated $5.4 billion in revenue the year before the purchase was announced. That year, Lubrizol generated about 35 percent of revenue from North America, 30 percent from Europe, and 30 percent from Asia and the Middle East, giving the company an enormous and sturdy footprint. The company also reported a 34 percent return on equity that year and a gross margin of 33 percent.

“Lubrizol is exactly the sort of company with which we love to partner – the global leader in several market applications run by a talented CEO, James Hambrick,” said Buffett at the time of the purchase. “Our only instruction to James: just keep doing for us what you have done so successfully for your shareholders.” Hambrick, who has been with the company since 1973, is still CEO.

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5. The Marmon Group

The Marmon Group is one of those companies that makes stuff. In particular, it makes useful stuff that people actually use, like electrical and industrial components for transportation equipment, as well as some transportation equipment itself, such as tank cars (big storage cars for trains.)

Berkshire purchased 60 percent of the Marmon Group for $4.5 billion in 2007, and has been rounding out his ownership ever since. At the time, it was Buffett’s largest non-insurance acquisition. The deal, which famously took just two weeks to complete, was likely helped by the fact that Buffett was acquainted with the family that owned it.

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