Below you will find another case study from the Buffett with “more ideas than money” years. Thanks go out to a regular reader for sending me the Moody’s sheet.
During a question and answer session with University of Kansas students in 2005, one student asked what he would do differently given his belief that “it’s a huge structural advantage not to have a lot of money.” Buffett went on to say that with small capital he would look for “little anomalies, companies that are off the map – way off the map.” An example given was Union Street Railway of New Bedford, Massachusetts that was “selling at $30 when $100 is sitting in cash.”
You will see below page 1492 of the 1954 Moody’s Transportation Manual. At the time of this publication Buffett was three years removed from graduating from Columbia and was working for his father’s brokerage firm in Omaha. I believe it was around this time when he came across Union Street, an example he frequently provides students of a small, obscure cheap cigar butt-type investment.
Union Street operated a bus service near New Bedford, an area containing about 120,000 people. The company owned 113 buses in total (more about these in Alice Schroeder’s book). Union Street was a business in decline as evidenced by the drop in revenue passengers from 27 million in 1946 to 13.9 million in 1953, to the point where the business was operating in the red. Looking to the balance sheet you would see why an enterprising Graham-Dodd investor would be interested. You will see listed in current assets, cash and U.S. government securities totaling $969,363, or $52.79 per share. As Buffett mentioned the stock was selling around $30 per share, or $32 to $38.50 in 1953. If you look in non-current assets you will see two line items labeled “Special Deposits” and “Accid. Ins. Trust” which were $386,376 and $600,000 respectively, or $53.72 per share. Adding it all up, you had $106.50 per share in cash and cash-type items. The company had no debt to speak of. There were 18,363 shares out, so at $30 per share the market cap was $550,890, which is roughly $3.7 million in today’s dollars.
Incidentally, you may notice one of Union Street’s directors listed is Seabury Stanton. Stanton was running another New Bedford-based company at the time named Berkshire Hathaway. Like Ken Lewis unknowingly saved the U.S. economy, Stanton unknowingly saved Berkshire. As the story goes, Buffett, whom owned roughly 10% of the outstanding shares, came to an agreement with Stanton to tender all of his Berkshire shares to the company at $11.50. The following week, Stanton sent a letter indicating a tender for his stock at $11.375 per share. This low-ball offer angered Buffett leading him to continue buying up more Berkshire shares, eventually gaining control of the company. If Stanton would simply have tendered Buffett’s stock at the agreed upon price, we likely would never have heard of Berkshire Hathaway.
Here is another holding from the 1962 year-end statement of the Buffett Partnership Ltd. Black, Sivalls & Bryson, Inc. (BS&B) was the 18th largest holding (18/54) accounting for 1.8% of the net assets. Buffett owned 13,353 shares @ $13.31 per share, totaling $177,762.
This company was a cigar butt! It manufactured bolted and welded steel and wood tanks, separators and dehydrators, heaters, valves, etc., for use in the oil and gas and chemical processing industry. It also manufactured grain and propane tanks, as well as moldings and trim for the auto, refrigeration and appliance industries. The company had 510,250 common shares outstanding for a market cap of $6.8 million. In 1961, it earned just over $0.9 million after-tax, or $1.39 per share, but it was most likely the balance sheet which drew Buffett to this company. At year-end 1961, it had $36 per share in net current assets (current assets less current liabilities) and $24.25 per share in net-net current assets (current assets less total liabilities). Even if you classify the preferred stock as debt, net-net current asset value is $17.26 per share. The company had $2.84 per share in cash and owned over 750,000 square feet of real estate in Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. I have no idea when BPL purchased BS&B, but it would appear to me that at $13.31 per share, there was a significant margin of safety in the nearly 50% discount from net-net current asset value, exactly what Buffett was looking for in those days.
The Monday following the Berkshire meeting, I attended my second SHLD in as many years. Overall, I felt both the questions and answers were a step back from last year. You can find my (disorganized) notes below.
2009 Sears Holdings – Annual Meeting Notes
Monday May 4, 2009 – Hoffman Estates, IL
1.) Bruce Johnson, interim CEO, opened the meeting with a brief presentation.
- Disappointed with 2008 performance caused in part by excess poor economy
- Chart shows that relative to SHLD’s largest 12 competitors, SHLD’s comps exceeded 9/12 in the Q4….in the past SHLD was one of the worst
-K-Mart improved profitability by 18% in Q4….among closest competitors; WMT was the only other one able to do this
-Layaway was a success in Q4, added 1.4 million new layaway customers, which has the ancillary benefit of getting them in the stores every two weeks to make payments
- Appliances: 34.6% (regained momentum in 08 with Blue Crew ad campaign…market share went from 30% in Q107 to 34.6% at end of 08)
- Tools: 22.3% (working on invigorating Craftsmen brand)
- Power lawn and garden: 21% (expanding Blue Crew to lawn & garden)
- Home repair: 14%
-working on building home brands in 09 (Cannon, Jaclyn Smith)
-Sears apparel business has been and still is quite challenging….Land’s End does well as reported in the shareholder’s letter, but they are focusing on these brands: Carter’s, Arrow, LL Cool J, Oshkosh
-Bringing Protégé shoes (sponsored by NBA player Al Harrington) to Sears stores in July
Q&A w/ Lampert
-Question about prototype stores and what was learned from Sears Grand/Essentials stores (neither of which worked as well as planned):
- Can we make the existing real estate footprint useful post Wal-Mart Supercenter world
- Selling off real estate was never intention. Whether that was a good decision remains to be seen.
- My Gofer – service as much as it is a store, a fulfillment warehouse
- Want to make it easier for customers to shop
- Question is whether it resonates with customers (Essentials did not)
- “I want to get it right.”
- Trying to encourage customer involvement/interaction
-Eddie comments on creating an internal system, P&L for each business unit to increase focus on profitability
- Rights of each business unit
- Real estate unit to be responsive to third parties for utilizing store space
- Significant space dedicated to apparel
- Unproductive productivity (?)
- Giving each area a P&L, cap ex
- Compared old system to socialist system
- Allowing people to run at their own pace that way
-How much do you listen to people?
- Encourage experiments
- Encourage employee feedback
- Proud of progress
- Want to position the business to benefit on upside, operating leverage on upside
- Don’t go in shell
-Biggest disappointment and discussion of retail operations:
- Biggest disappointment was failure of Kmart prototype stores
- Specialty retailers took advantage of one-stop shops
- Home & auto service will be managed as brands going forward
- People are changing the way they make decisions
- Asking how do we communicate with customers if half of newspapers go away
- Order online and pick-up in store is coming to Kmart
- Where people chose to shop depends on what’s going on online with friends
- Online appliance experience is the best
- They have 200 million square feet of space they need to maximize
*NOTE: at about this time I took notes less frequently as the questions got worse and worse. Overall, the quality of the questions and answers left a lot to be desired this year.
- From Third World to First
- Road to Serfdom
- When you get incentives aligned properly, the odds are much greater for a good outcome. The biggest mistakes come from misaligned incentives.
- Would like to have sales go up, but not at the expense of profit
- Could “rent” market share (referring to worrying solely on increasing sales)
- Problem with naked shorting
- Lending SHLD treasury shares is not the right was for the co. to make money
- Commented on status of credit line renewal (good news)
- Availability of credit to make acquisitions
- Sufficient access to credit for operations or acquisitions
- Credit markets have improved
- Types of funding, cost will change
- On a relative basis, they would have been as good repurchasing stock at $160 (which they of course did) as almost anything else. (No regret to speak of from the Chairman here)
- Store-in-store prototypes are not getting specialty retailing results
- Lands’ End is a much more stable business
- Competing for customers not against competitors
-Question about insiders selling SHLD stock (Perry Corp., Richard Perry’s firm had recently shed over half its position)
- Insiders sell stock all the time
- Will sell stock at some point (not something I was fond of hearing)
- Know your goals, when you will need money
- They have constructed a board of owners
The University of Western Ontario Ivey School of Business posted a videoconference with Seth Klarman. Klarman is the founder of The Baupost Group and a very successful value investor. The video which lasts just over an hour, was taped in March. Thanks go to the Ivey School for sharing such a valuable resource!
The video can be found here: Enjoy!
Last month, the New York Times DealBook created a website called Perks Watch. I love it. They search through proxy filings looking for ridiculous perquisites awarded to managers of America’s largest companies. Call me an idealist, but I would be either embarrassed or outraged if I worked for or owned these companies. At the very least it is good for a laugh and/or shake of the head. Here is one example:
Mattel: “According to the proxy statement that Mattel filed Monday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mr. Eckert appears to have joined a new country club — with Mattel picking up the $150,000 initiation fee.”
Here is a link to a presentation given by Tom Russo to a value investing class taught by Bruce Greenwald at Columbia Business School on February 26th. Worth watching..
Thomas A. Russo, Gardner Russo & Gardner
Thomas A. Russo joined Gardner Russo & Gardner as a partner in 1989. Eugene Gardner, Thomas Russo and Eugene Gardner, Jr., as partners, each manage individual separate accounts and share investment approaches and strategies. In addition, Thomas Russo serves as General Partner to Semper Vic partnerships. Mr. Russo oversees $4 billion through separately managed accounts and partnerships. Gardner Russo & Gardner is a registered investment adviser under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, and is not associated with any bank, security dealer or other third party.
Mr. Russo’s investment philosophy emphasizes return on invested capital, principally through equity investments. His approach to stock selection stresses two main points: value and price. While these would seem to be obvious key considerations in any manager’s approach, it is equally obvious that all too often they are either misjudged or, perhaps more frequently, simply not viewed together.
Mr. Russo looks for companies with strong cash-flow characteristics, where large amounts of “free” cash flow are generated. Portfolio companies tend to have strong balance sheets and a history of producing high rates of return on their assets. The challenge comes in finding these obviously desirable situations at reasonable or bargain prices.
Mr. Russo’s investment approach is focused on a small number of industries in which companies have historically proven to be able to generate sustainable amounts of net free cash flow. (These industries typically have included food, beverage, tobacco, and advertising supported media.) This fairly narrow approach reflects his training and discipline at the Sequoia Fund in New York, where he worked from 1984 to 1988. Mr. Russo tries to limit risk by not paying too large a multiple of a company’s net free cash flow in light of prevailing interest rates. He attempts to broaden this otherwise narrow universe by including companies with smaller market capitalizations and companies in similar industries based abroad.
Mr. Russo’s goal is one of an absolute return rather than a relative return, and he continues his long-term investment objective of compounding assets between 10 and 20 percent per year without great turnover, thereby realizing a minimum amount of realized gains and net investment income.
Thomas A. Russo is General Partner of Semper Vic Partners, L.P., and Semper Vic Partners (Q.P.), L.P., limited partnerships whose combined investments exceed $1 billion, along with overseeing substantially more funds through separate accounts for individuals, trusts, and endowments. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College (B.A., 1977), and Stanford Business and Law Schools (JD/MBA, 1984). Memberships include California Bar Association and Board of Visitors for Stanford Law School. Mr. Russo is a charter member of the Advisory Board for the Heilbrunn Center for Graham & Dodd Investing at Columbia Business School. He is a member of Dartmouth College’s President’s Leadership Council.
For further information on Tom Russo and his fund which has performed quite well over the years I refer you to the following presentation slides from November 2008…