Buying well-known consumer brands unlikely to be derailed by the digital age may be the key to the billionaire's success.
Beanz now meanz Buffett: the world’s third richest man and most successful investor has turned his attention to store-cupboard comfort foods and snapped up the Heinz baked beans and ketchup firm in a deal worth $28bn (£18bn).
Warren Buffett, known as the Sage of Omaha and famous for his down-home approach to investment – buying well-known consumer brands unlikely to be derailed by the digital age – has linked up with the world’s 69th richest man, Jorge Paulo Lemann of Brazil, to pull off the biggest takeover the food business has seen.
Heinz, which sells more than 650m bottles of ketchup a year as well as billions of single-serving sachets, will now become part of Buffett’s sprawling investment portfolio, which covers everything from insurance to underwear and stakes in Coca Cola, WalMart, Tesco and Kraft.
Buffett, 82, who has a fortune estimated at $46bn and is the second richest man in the US behind his friend Bill Gates, said he had been following Heinz’s fortunes for 30 years. “This is my kind of deal,” the billionaire said. “I’ve got a file on Heinz that goes back to 1980.”
Buffett, who has pledged to give most of his fortune to the charitable foundation run by Gates and his wife Melinda, likes to invest in what he calls “The Inevitables”: businesses and products where he can see at least 10 years ahead and which he knows aren’t going to change. Heinz, which also owns a variety of other labels including Classico pasta, HP Sauce, Complan and a range of foods sold under the WeightWatchers name, fits that bill.
Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment fund has turned thousands of ordinary investors into millionaires. A $1,000 investment in 1966 would now be worth millions. A share then was worth $22; today they change hands at $150,000 each. Buffett has a folksy image and regularly dispenses homespun wisdom. He has railed against excess executive pay, called for higher taxes on high earnings, and before the crash warned about the dangers of derivatives trading – calling them “financial weapons of mass destruction”.
Berkshire Hathaway is working with 3G Capital, an investment firm led by Lemann, 72, a former investment banker who with two partners is a big shareholder in the Anheuser-Busch Inbev beer empire, whose brands include Budweiser and Stella Artois. Two years ago 3G bought Burger King for $4bn, and it still owns a major stake.
Their $23bn offer for Heinz, which was founded more than 140 years ago, was 20% higher than Heinz’s stock market value on Wednesday. Berkshire Hathaway is putting $13bn of cash into the acquisition, but that will make only a small dent in the Buffett cash pile of $47bn. The buyers will also take on $5bn of debt, taking the total deal price to $28bn.
“It’s our kind of company. It’s got a group of fantastic brands led by ketchup,” said Buffett. “The ketchup brand has been around for 135 years or so and I’ve sampled it many, many times.”
He would not be drawn on whether Heinz could be used as a vehicle to snap up other famous food brands. But the deal – big even by Buffett’s standards – may not be his last. He told shareholders last year he was looking for deals. “We’re prepared. Our elephant gun has been reloaded, and my trigger finger is itchy,” he wrote.
Famous for its “57 varieties”, Heinz was founded in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania in 1869, and has been based in nearby Pittsburgh for 120 years. It sells its goods in more than 200 countries.
Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital pledged to maintain Pittsburgh as the company’s global HQ, and to continue supporting community initiatives and related investments. Unite, Britain’s biggest union, wants to meet the management to seek reassurance about the company’s 3,000 British workers.
William Johnson – chairman, president and chief executive of Heinz – said Buffett’s offer was “tremendous value” for shareholders.
Henry J Heinz, a devout Methodist of German descent, founded Heinz Noble and company with his partner Clarence Noble. Their first product was horseradish. The company went bankrupt in 1875 and Heinz went back into business with his brother and cousin. One of their first products was tomato ketchup.
The “57 varieties” slogan was introduced in 1896 after Heinz saw an advert in New York offering “21 styles” of shoes. In fact, the company already produced more than 57 varieties. Heinz told several stories about how the number came about, saying five was his lucky number and seven was his wife’s but also speaking of the “psychological influence” and “enduring significance” of the number seven.
Jorge Paulo Lemann, 73
Ranked 69th wealthiest man in the world. One-time Wimbledon tennis player turned investment banker and philanthropist, made his first fortune at Garantia, Brazil’s answer to Goldman Sachs. He then built his wealth in the beer business, and with partners has a big stake in the vast Anheuser-Busch Inbev business, whose brands include Budweiser, Stella Artois and Beck’s.
Warren Buffett, 82
Fortune: $46bn (has pledged to give most of it to Bill Gates’s charitable foundation).
Third wealthiest man in the world and arguably its most canny investor.. Built his empire in insurance – first deal was 1967. Now owns stakes in American Express, Coca Cola and Tesco. In 2011 he declared he was on the lookout for deals. “We’re prepared. Our elephant gun has been reloaded and my trigger finger is itchy.”
Officially HJ Heinz, founded by Henry J Heinz.
Brands: “Heinz Beanz” baked beans, tomato ketchup and tomato soup. Also owns HP and Lea & Perrins.