Most investors are familiar with Warren Buffett, who is the man in command at Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A,BRK.B). Buffett is one of the most successful investors of all time, with a net worth placing him somewhere in the top three richest people in the world. His partner in crime was Charlie Munger, who has worked with him for the past 50 years. While most investors are familiar with the story of Berkshire Hathaway, few seem to know how exactly Buffett made his first millions, that catapulted him to Berkshire Hathaway and the companies and stocks he owns through it.
Buffett started several investment partnerships in 1956 with approximately $105,000 in investor money, after his former employe, Graham-Newmann investment partnership, was liquidated. Buffett had put an initial $700 of his own money, which ballooned to a stake worth $20 million by the time he liquidated his investment partnership in 1969. The assets under management had grown to $100 million by that time. The Berkshire Hathaway annual letters to investors have been inspired by Buffett’s annual and semi-annual letters to his limited partners.
Per the Buffett Partners agreement, Buffett as the General Partner received a cut of the profits. For every percentage point gain above 6% in a given year, Buffett collected 25% of the gains. The Buffett Partnership Limited (BPL) was essentially a hedge fund, which pooled investor’s money and invested them at the discretion of the fund manager. Buffett never had a losing year during the thirteen years he ran the partnership, and he also managed to add new investors along the way. In addition, he reinvested any gains he made as a general partner back into the partnership.
Buffett invested in the following types of companies at the partnership: generally undervalued securities, work-outs and control situations. Work-outs included stocks whose financial results depend on corporate actions rather than supply and demand factors created by buyers and sellers. Control situations include occasions where BPL either controlled the company or took a sufficiently large position that allowed it to influence policies of the company.
After the BPL was liquidated, Buffett received shares in Berkshire Hathaway, as well as shares in companies which ultimately merged in Berkshire. And the rest is history.
The lesson to be learned from this exercise is that in order to become rich, Warren Buffett had a scalable business model, with a substantial amount of leverage. Unfortunately, BPL was mostly a one-man operation, although the turnaround expert he employed with Dempster Mill Manufacturing company is a rare situation where he employed others. He did exchange ideas with several of his value investing friends however.
Buffett’s investment model worked well when he had $100,000 in the partnership, as well as during the time that he had $100 million. The overvalued market in the late 1960’s however presented a change to his investment strategy. Buffett had leverage to make a lot of money, simply by being the general partner and earning a good cut on any earnings that the partnership generated, without much downside for himself. On the other hand, Charlie Munger made his initial million by using debt leverage to invest and build real estate.
The true genius of Buffett is his complete transformation in the 1970’s, when he started purchasing stock in companies with strong competitive advantages. He essentially held those stocks as long-term investments, and in the event where Berkshire acquired entire businesses, he delegated the whole oversight of day to day operations to skilled management.
The companies he invested in the 1950’s and 1960’s represented mostly investments that were one-time producers of substantial gains for BPL. It took Buffett a lot of time to uncover those opportunities, but once they reached full valuation and he sold them, they were no longer producing any benefit for his partnership. He then had to spend more time to find more investments to allocate the now higher cash hoard.
However, the companies and securities that Buffett purchased since the 1970’s for Berkshire Hathaway generate recurring cash flow streams to the company. As a result, the effort required to uncover these hidden gems resulted in cash distributions paid to the main holding company for decades. He then used these cash streams to purchase even more cash flow generating assets, which is why I believe that he is a closet dividend investor.
The genius of Buffett is that he has been able to uncover undervalued assets, over many different asset classes. Examples include his purchase of silver (SLV) in 1998, real estate investment trusts in 1999, foreign currencies such as the Euro in the early 2000’s as well as selling long-dated puts on major market indexes.
While he has a strategy of always looking for undervalued assets, he has been able to make a fortune for Berkshire by being flexible, and avoiding following a “rigid” strategy. By training himself to spot opportunities when they arose, he has been able to constantly reinvent himself and make money in different environments.
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