Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Did Buffett underpay Mrs B?

I did a post some time back highlighting that perhaps the acme of investing might actually be not to short-change anyone in any transaction. ie to buy a stock at its intrinsic value while waiting for the intrinsic value to grow. This is a very sensitive point when we are dealing with day-to-day business owners rather than the stock market.

Obviously buying at intrinsic value is also different from buying a company at a huge discount and then waiting for it to revert back to its intrinsic value, which is the original thesis of value investing.

I thought that Buffett might have just pulled this off, and that is why he is the greatest investor on Earth.

Recently I did some study on the exact transaction that he did: buying over Nebraska Furniture Mart from its long-time founder and operator Mrs B.

The story goes something like this. In 1983, Buffett on his birthday, simply went in to the Mart and asked Mrs B. if she would like to sell, and at what price?

Here are some no.s at the time the transaction was done.

Sales 100mn (reported)
NP 5-10mn (estimate by 8%pa)

GPM of NFM 60% (reported)
Furnture mkt OPM 10% (industry average)

$55mn of 80% stake (reported)
$69mn for 100% stake (reported)

Buffett paid 7-14x PE

Based on my estimate, Buffett probably paid 7-14x PE for NFM. Now this is a huge range. If he paid 7x, he would have obviously underpaid Mrs B. If he paid 14x, then it's probably fair. So did he underpay Mrs B?

Well, sadly we will never know for sure, but chances are Buffett probably did underpay somewhat, judging by his track record and considering how the firm grew over the past 30 years. However we must also note that Mrs B was a willing seller at $69mn. She quoted Buffett that price.

Also, Mrs B probably would not have gotten much more if she were to list her company in the stock market. The brokers will take a cut. She has to pay for some auditors. Perhaps hire a few more staff to handle Wall Street people etc. With Buffett, she got her $55mn check on that day. And the best part, she continues to do what she does bcos Buffett wanted her to continue to run the business. No Wall Street analysts on her back every quarter!

I guess the conclusion here is that Buffett might not have been as noble as I thought. He did underpay his acquaintance somewhat but judging from the circumstances, Mrs B didn't mind that she got a couple of millions less (that is assuming she actually bothered to go and do a thorough valuation of her own co.) and she gets to do her job exactly the same way she liked it.

In fact, a couple of years later, Mrs B sold another business to Buffett. If she felt cheated, would she had gone back to Buffett?

The real lesson learnt for me here would actually be thinking about the best solution for both parties in every transaction. This means disclosing all the pros and cons to each party about the transaction, not witholding any information at all and working out the seek the win-win situation. I think this is very possible if both parties are rational, honest and committed to a long term relationship.

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