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Warren Buffett Biography

Taking Control of Berkshire Hathaway

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The next year, Warren went much further than closing the fund to new accounts; he liquidated the partnership. In May 1969, he informed his partners that he was "unable to find any bargains in the current market". Buffett spent the remainder of the year liquidating the portfolio, with the exception of two companies - Berkshire and Diversified Retailing. The shares of Berkshire were distributed among the partners with a letter from Warren informing them that he would, in some capacity, be involved in the business, but was under no obligation to them in the future. Warren was clear in his intention to hold onto his own stake in the company (he owned 29% of the Berkshire Hathaway stock) but his intentions weren't revealed.

Warren Buffett Gains Control of Berkshire Hathaway

Buffett's role at Berkshire Hathaway had actually been somewhat defined years earlier. On May 10, 1965, after accumulating 49% of the common stock, Warren named himself Director. Terrible management had run the company nearly into the ground, and he was certain with a bit of tweaking, it could be run better. Immediately Mr. Buffett made Ken Chace President of the company, giving him complete autonomy over the organization. Although he refused to award stock options on the basis that it was unfair to shareholders, Warren agreed to cosign a loan for $18,000 for his new President to purchase 1,000 shares of the company's stock.

Two years later, in 1967, Warren asked National Indemnity's founder and controlling shareholder Jack Ringwalt to his office. Asked what he thought the company was worth, Ringwalt told Buffett at least $50 per share, a $17 premium above its then-trading price of $33. Warren offered to buy the whole company on the spot - a move that cost him $8.6 million dollars. That same year, Berkshire paid out a dividend of 10 cents on its outstanding stock. It never happened again; Warren said he "must have been in the bathroom when the dividend was declared".

In 1970, Buffett named himself Chairman of the Board of Berkshire Hathaway and for the first time, wrote the letter to the shareholders (Ken Chace had been responsible for the task in the past). That same year, the Chairman's capital allocation began to display his prudence; textile profits were a pitiful $45,000, while insurance and banking each brought in $2.1 and $2.6 million dollars. The paltry cash brought in from the struggling looms in New Bedford, Massachusetts had provided the stream of capital necessary to start building Berkshire.

A year or so later, Warren Buffett was offered the chance to buy a company by the name of See's Candy. The gourmet chocolate maker sold its own brand of candies to its customers at a premium to regular confectionary treats. The balance sheet reflected what Californians already knew - they were more than willing to pay a bit "extra" for the special "See's" taste. The businessman decided Berkshire would be willing to purchase the company for $25 million in cash. See's owners were holding out for $30 million, but soon conceded. It was the biggest investment Berkshire or Buffett had ever made.

Following several investments and an SEC investigation (after causing a merger to fail, Warren and Munger offered to buy the stock of Wesco, the target company, at the inflated price simply because they thought it was "the right thing to do". Not surprisingly, the government didn't believe them), Buffett began to see Berkshire's net worth climb. From 1965 to 1975, the company's book value rose from $20 per share to around $95. It was also during this period that Warren made his final purchases of Berkshire stock (when the partnership dolled out the shares, he owned 29%. Years later, he had invested more than $15.4 million dollars into the company at an average cost of $32.45 per share). This brought his ownership to over 43% of the stock with Susie holding another 3%. His entire fortune was placed into Berkshire. With no personal holdings, the company had become his sole investment vehicle.

In 1976, Buffett once again became involved with GEICO. The company had recently reported amazingly high losses and its stock was pummeled down to $2 per share. Warren wisely realized that the basic business was still in tact; most of the problem were caused by an inept management. Over the next few years, Berkshire built up its position in this ailing insurer and reaped millions in profits. Benjamin Graham, who still held his fortune in the company, died in in September of the same year, shortly before the turnaround. Years later, the insurance giant would become a fully owned subsidiary of Berkshire.

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