A Berkshire Opportunity Cost: Listed Family Firms

aaaaaThe following is adapted from “Berkshire’s Blemishes,” a working paper delineating the costs, rather than the vaunted benefits, of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway as a management model.  

Warren Buffett loves family businesses whose owner-managers care more about their constituents than about profits, recognizing instead that customer care tends to translate into economic gain. Those entrepreneurs, in turn, love Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s company, because it offers intangible benefits such as managerial autonomy and a permanent home. When family businesses sell to Berkshire, they know they can still run them as they see fit and will not be sold if prospects falter: Berkshire has not sold a subsidiary in forty years and promises not to.

Buffett hates using Berkshire stock to pay for acquisitions, however, since few companies can match the time-tested premium currency Berkshire has come to represent. In fact, Berkshire’s worst acquisition was paid for in stock and Buffett still translates the cost into current values: $443 million paid in 1993, equivalent to more than $5 billion in Berkshire stock now. Preferring to pay cash, Berkshire is often able to acquire family businesses at a discount because selling shareholders value Berkshire culture. Buffett also hates auctions, plagued by frightful dangers like the winner’s curse, which can push bids well above value, rationally calculated.

Sensible as these tenets are, there is always an opportunity cost, in this case forsaking listed family firms–publicly traded companies controlled by a family. Unlike those owned solely by close-knit groups who all wish to sell to Berkshire, directors of listed family businesses owe duties to non-family shareholders when selling control. In most states, led by Delaware, they are duty-bound to get the best value for shareholders.  (The doctrine is known by famous cases illustrating it, including Revlon and Paramount v. QVC.)

In a stock deal where all holders share gains in future business value, directors could consider Berkshire’s special culture in valuing the transaction. But with cash, all such future value goes to Berkshire’s shareholders, not selling public stockholders, who would also gain nothing from the autonomy or permanence that family members prize in a sale to Berkshire. So directors resist an all cash sale at a discount and seek rival suitors at higher prices, even stimulating an auction to drive price up—repelling Berkshire’s interest.

An example can be drawn from Berkshire’s 2003 acquisition of Clayton Homes, a publicly traded family business bought for a modest (seven percent) premium to market. Many Clayton shareholders objected; one, Cerberus Capital Management, told Clayton it wanted the chance to make a competing bid; another sued. The result was a six-month delay in getting to a shareholder vote, which narrowly approved the Berkshire deal. Many Clayton shareholders were disappointed, but Cerberus opted not to outbid Berkshire, and the court dismissed the lawsuit.

The scenario remains unattractive to Berkshire, however, given the risk of litigation, delay and rival bids. After all, courts might require directors to take affirmative steps, presenting the risk of an auction, which in itself suffices to deter Berkshire from bidding in the first place. The upshot: the publicly traded family business is outside Berkshire’s acquisition model, amounting to an opportunity cost for what would otherwise be a sweet spot. On balance, it is probably a price worth paying, but it’s useful to know the price.

Lawrence A. Cunningham, a professor at George Washington University,  has written numerous books on a wide range of subjects relating to business and law. 

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