Commentary: Bolt-On Acquisitions Continue to Power Berkshire’s Growth

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

With the price of acquiring large businesses high, Berkshire Hathaway has been hard-pressed to spend down its $116 billion cash hoard on a major acquisition or two. Its proposed $143 billion Unilever bid, made in conjunction with 3G Capital Partners, fell on deaf ears, and other than an agreement to acquire Pilot and Flying J travel centers, the big fish have remained elusive.

However, Berkshire’s bolt-on acquisitions, which add capability and value to its existing businesses, have continued unabated, and were highlighted by Warren Buffett in his annual letter to shareholders.

In the letter, Buffett noted some of the larger acquisitions.

“Clayton Homes acquired two builders of conventional homes during 2017, a move that more than doubled our presence in a field we entered only three years ago. With these additions – Oakwood Homes in Colorado and Harris Doyle in Birmingham – I expect our 2018 site built volume will exceed $1 billion.

Clayton’s emphasis, nonetheless, remains manufactured homes, both their construction and their financing. In 2017 Clayton sold 19,168 units through its own retail operation and wholesaled another 26,706 units to independent retailers.

All told, Clayton accounted for 49% of the manufactured-home market last year. That industry-leading share – about three times what our nearest competitor did – is a far cry from the 13% Clayton achieved in 2003, the year it joined Berkshire.

Both Clayton Homes and PFJ are based in Knoxville, where the Clayton and Haslam families have long been friends. Kevin Clayton’s comments to the Haslams about the advantages of a Berkshire affiliation, and his admiring comments about the Haslam family to me, helped cement the PFJ deal.

Near the end of 2016, Shaw Industries, our floor coverings business, acquired U.S. Floors (“USF”), a rapidly growing distributor of luxury vinyl tile. USF’s managers, Piet Dossche and Philippe Erramuzpe, came out of the gate fast, delivering a 40% increase in sales in 2017, during which their operation was integrated with Shaw’s. It’s clear that we acquired both great human assets and business assets in making the USF purchase.

Vance Bell, Shaw’s CEO, originated, negotiated and completed this acquisition, which increased Shaw’s sales to $5.7 billion in 2017 and its employment to 22,000. With the purchase of USF, Shaw has substantially strengthened its position as an important and durable source of earnings for Berkshire.

I have told you several times about HomeServices, our growing real estate brokerage operation. Berkshire backed into this business in 2000 when we acquired a majority interest in MidAmerican Energy (now named Berkshire Hathaway Energy). MidAmerican’s activities were then largely in the electric utility field, and I originally paid little attention to HomeServices.

But, year-by-year, the company added brokers and, by the end of 2016, HomeServices was the second-largest brokerage operation in the country – still ranking, though, far behind the leader, Realogy. In 2017, however, HomeServices’ growth exploded. We acquired the industry’s third-largest operator, Long and Foster; number 12, Houlihan Lawrence; and Gloria Nilson.

With those purchases we added 12,300 agents, raising our total to 40,950. HomeServices is now close to leading the country in home sales, having participated (including our three acquisitions pro-forma) in $127 billion of “sides” during 2017. To explain that term, there are two “sides” to every transaction; if we represent both buyer and seller, the dollar value of the transaction is counted twice.

Despite its recent acquisitions, HomeServices is on track to do only about 3% of the country’s home-brokerage business in 2018. That leaves 97% to go. Given sensible prices, we will keep adding brokers in this most fundamental of businesses.

Finally, Precision Castparts, a company built through acquisitions, bought Wilhelm Schulz GmbH, a German maker of corrosion resistant fittings, piping systems and components.”

And the bolt-on acquisitions have continued.

QS Partners, the aircraft brokerage subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets, acquired aircraft brokers Cerretani Aviation Group of Boulder, Colorado.

And, Berkshire’s Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance, a financier of manufactured and modular homes, acquired Silverton Mortgage.

Silverton Mortgage has 22 locations and is licensed in Alabama, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

So, if you think that Berkshire Hathaway is sitting still, think again.

© 2018 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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