Saturday, June 18, 2016

Buffett Partnership, control situations and Dempster Mill

I thought this was a good reminder of Warren Buffett's reasons for holding control situations (especially when he thought the market was on the high side of valuation), as well as a reminder of how concentrated he was willing to be. From Mr. Buffett's January 1962 letter to partners:
We are presently involved in the control of Dempster Mill Manufacturing Company of Beatrice, Nebraska. Our first stock was purchased as a generally undervalued security five years ago. A block later became available, and I went on the Board about four years ago. In August 1961, we obtained majority control, which is indicative of the fact that many of our operations are not exactly of the "overnight" variety. 
Presently we own 70% of the stock of Dempster with another 10% held by a few associates. With only 150 or so other stockholders, a market on the stock is virtually non-existent, and in any case, would have no meaning for a controlling block. Our own actions in such a market could drastically affect the quoted price. 
Therefore, it is necessary for me to estimate the value at yearend of our controlling interest. This is of particular importance since, in effect, new partners are buying in based upon this price, and old partners are selling a portion of their interest based upon the same price. The estimated value should not be what we hope it would be worth, or what it might be worth to an eager buyer, etc., but what I would estimate our interest would bring if sold under current conditions in a reasonably short period of time. Our efforts will be devoted toward increasing this value, and we feel there are decent prospects of doing this. 
Dempster is a manufacturer of farm implements and water systems with sales in 1961 of about $9 million. Operations have produced only nominal profits in relation to invested capital during recent years. This reflected a poor management situation, along with a fairly tough industry situation. Presently, consolidated net worth (book value) is about $4.5 million, or $75 per share, consolidated working capital about $50 per share, and at yearend we valued our interest at $35 per share. While I claim no oracular vision in a matter such as this, I feel this is a fair valuation to both new and old partners. Certainly, if even moderate earning power can be restored, a higher valuation will be justified, and even if it cannot, Dempster should work out at a higher figure. Our controlling interest was acquired at an average price of about $28, and this holding currently represents 21% of partnership net assets based on the $35 value. 
Of course, this section of our portfolio is not going to be worth more money merely because General Motors, U.S. Steel, etc., sell higher. In a raging bull market, operations in control situations will seem like a very difficult way to make money, compared to just buying the general market. However, I am more conscious of the dangers presented at current market levels than the opportunities. Control situations, along with work-outs, provide a means of insulating a portion of our portfolio from these dangers.