«Note: The following table appears in the printed Annual Report on the facing page of the Chairman's Letter and is referred to in that letter. ...»
• Since joining Berkshire in 1986, Ajit Jain has built a truly great specialty reinsurance operation from scratch. For one-of-a-kind mammoth transactions, the world now turns to him.
Last year I told you in detail about the Equitas transfer of huge, but capped, liabilities to Berkshire for a single premium of $7.1 billion. At this very early date, our experience has been good. But this doesn’t tell us much because it’s just one straw in a fifty-year-or-more wind. What we know for sure, however, is that the London team who joined us, headed by Scott Moser, is first-rate and has become a valuable asset for our insurance business.
• Finally, we have our smaller operations, which serve specialized segments of the insurance market. In aggregate, these companies have performed extraordinarily well, earning aboveaverage underwriting profits and delivering valuable float for investment.
Last year BoatU.S., headed by Bill Oakerson, was added to the group. This company manages an association of about 650,000 boat owners, providing them services similar to those offered by AAA auto clubs to drivers. Among the association’s offerings is boat insurance. Learn more about this operation by visiting its display at the annual meeting.
Below we show the record of our four categories of property/casualty insurance.
Regulated Utility Business Berkshire has an 87.4% (diluted) interest in MidAmerican Energy Holdings, which owns a wide variety of utility operations. The largest of these are (1) Yorkshire Electricity and Northern Electric, whose
3.8 million electric customers make it the third largest distributor of electricity in the U.K.; (2) MidAmerican Energy, which serves 720,000 electric customers, primarily in Iowa; (3) Pacific Power and Rocky Mountain Power, serving about 1.7 million electric customers in six western states; and (4) Kern River and Northern Natural pipelines, which carry about 8% of the natural gas consumed in the U.S.
Our partners in ownership of MidAmerican are Walter Scott, and its two terrific managers, Dave Sokol and Greg Abel. It’s unimportant how many votes each party has; we make major moves only when we are unanimous in thinking them wise. Eight years of working with Dave, Greg and Walter have underscored my original belief: Berkshire couldn’t have better partners.
Somewhat incongruously, MidAmerican also owns the second largest real estate brokerage firm in the U.S., HomeServices of America. This company operates through 20 locally-branded firms with 18,800 agents. Last year was a slow year for residential sales, and 2008 will probably be slower. We will continue, however, to acquire quality brokerage operations when they are available at sensible prices.
Here are some key figures on MidAmerican’s operation:
Earnings (in millions) U.K. utilities
Western utilities (acquired March 21, 2006)
Earnings before corporate interest and taxes
Interest, other than to Berkshire
Interest on Berkshire junior debt
Earnings applicable to Berkshire*
Debt owed to others
Debt owed to Berkshire
*Includes interest earned by Berkshire (net of related income taxes) of $70 in 2007 and $87 in 2006.
We agreed to purchase 35,464,337 shares of MidAmerican at $35.05 per share in 1999, a year in which its per-share earnings were $2.59. Why the odd figure of $35.05? I originally decided the business was worth $35.00 per share to Berkshire. Now, I’m a “one-price” guy (remember See’s?) and for several days the investment bankers representing MidAmerican had no luck in getting me to increase Berkshire’s offer. But, finally, they caught me in a moment of weakness, and I caved, telling them I would go to $35.05. With that, I explained, they could tell their client they had wrung the last nickel out of me. At the time, it hurt.
Later on, in 2002, Berkshire purchased 6,700,000 shares at $60 to help finance the acquisition of one of our pipelines. Lastly, in 2006, when MidAmerican bought PacifiCorp, we purchased 23,268,793 shares at $145 per share.
In 2007, MidAmerican earned $15.78 per share. However, 77¢ of that was non-recurring – a reduction in deferred tax at our British utility, resulting from a lowering of the U.K. corporate tax rate. So call normalized earnings $15.01 per share. And yes, I’m glad I wilted and offered the extra nickel.
Manufacturing, Service and Retailing Operations Our activities in this part of Berkshire cover the waterfront. Let’s look, though, at a summary balance sheet and earnings statement for the entire group.
*Does not include purchase-accounting adjustments.
This motley group, which sells products ranging from lollipops to motor homes, earned a pleasing 23% on average tangible net worth last year. It’s noteworthy also that these operations used only minor financial leverage in achieving that return. Clearly we own some terrific businesses. We purchased many of them, however, at large premiums to net worth – a point reflected in the goodwill item shown on the balance sheet – and that fact reduces the earnings on our average carrying value to 9.8%.
Here are a few newsworthy items about companies in this sector:
• Shaw, Acme Brick, Johns Manville and MiTek were all hurt in 2007 by the sharp housing downturn, with their pre-tax earnings declining 27%, 41%, 38%, and 9% respectively. Overall, these companies earned $941 million pre-tax compared to $1.296 billion in 2006.
Last year, Shaw, MiTek and Acme contracted for tuck-in acquisitions that will help future earnings. You can be sure they will be looking for more of these.
• In a tough year for retailing, our standouts were See’s, Borsheims and Nebraska Furniture Mart.
Two years ago Brad Kinstler was made CEO of See’s. We very seldom move managers from one industry to another at Berkshire. But we made an exception with Brad, who had previously run our uniform company, Fechheimer, and Cypress Insurance. The move could not have worked out better. In his two years, profits at See’s have increased more than 50%.
At Borsheims, sales increased 15.1%, helped by a 27% gain during Shareholder Weekend. Two years ago, Susan Jacques suggested that we remodel and expand the store. I was skeptical, but Susan was right.
Susan came to Borsheims 25 years ago as a $4-an-hour saleswoman. Though she lacked a managerial background, I did not hesitate to make her CEO in 1994. She’s smart, she loves the business, and she loves her associates. That beats having an MBA degree any time.
(An aside: Charlie and I are not big fans of resumes. Instead, we focus on brains, passion and integrity. Another of our great managers is Cathy Baron Tamraz, who has significantly increased Business Wire’s earnings since we purchased it early in 2006. She is an owner’s dream. It is positively dangerous to stand between Cathy and a business prospect. Cathy, it should be noted, began her career as a cab driver.) Finally, at Nebraska Furniture Mart, earnings hit a record as our Omaha and Kansas City stores each had sales of about $400 million. These, by some margin, are the two top home furnishings stores in the country. In a disastrous year for many furniture retailers, sales at Kansas City increased 8%, while in Omaha the gain was 6%.
Credit the remarkable Blumkin brothers, Ron and Irv, for this performance. Both are close personal friends of mine and great businessmen.
• Iscar continues its wondrous ways. Its products are small carbide cutting tools that make large and very expensive machine tools more productive. The raw material for carbide is tungsten, mined in China. For many decades, Iscar moved tungsten to Israel, where brains turned it into something far more valuable. Late in 2007, Iscar opened a large plant in Dalian, China. In effect, we’ve now moved the brains to the tungsten. Major opportunities for growth await Iscar. Its management team, led by Eitan Wertheimer, Jacob Harpaz, and Danny Goldman, is certain to make the most of them.
• Flight services set a record in 2007 with pre-tax earnings increasing 49% to $547 million.
Corporate aviation had an extraordinary year worldwide, and both of our companies – as runaway leaders in their fields – fully participated.
FlightSafety, our pilot training business, gained 14% in revenues and 20% in pre-tax earnings.
We estimate that we train about 58% of U.S. corporate pilots. Bruce Whitman, the company’s CEO, inherited this leadership position in 2003 from Al Ueltschi, the father of advanced flight training, and has proved to be a worthy successor.
At NetJets, the inventor of fractional-ownership of jets, we also remain the unchallenged leader.
We now operate 487 planes in the U.S. and 135 in Europe, a fleet more than twice the size of that operated by our three major competitors combined. Because our share of the large-cabin market is near 90%, our lead in value terms is far greater.
The NetJets brand – with its promise of safety, service and security – grows stronger every year.
Behind this is the passion of one man, Richard Santulli. If you were to pick someone to join you in a foxhole, you couldn’t do better than Rich. No matter what the obstacles, he just doesn’t stop.
Europe is the best example of how Rich’s tenacity leads to success. For the first ten years we made little financial progress there, actually running up cumulative losses of $212 million. After Rich brought Mark Booth on board to run Europe, however, we began to gain traction. Now we have real momentum, and last year earnings tripled.
In November, our directors met at NetJets headquarters in Columbus and got a look at the sophisticated operation there. It is responsible for 1,000 or so flights a day in all kinds of weather, with customers expecting top-notch service. Our directors came away impressed by the facility and its capabilities – but even more impressed by Rich and his associates.
Finance and Finance Products
Our major operation in this category is Clayton Homes, the largest U.S. manufacturer and marketer of manufactured homes. Clayton’s market share hit a record 31% last year. But industry volume continues to shrink: Last year, manufactured home sales were 96,000, down from 131,000 in 2003, the year we bought Clayton. (At the time, it should be remembered, some commentators criticized its directors for selling at a cyclical bottom.) Though Clayton earns money from both manufacturing and retailing its homes, most of its earnings come from an $11 billion loan portfolio, covering 300,000 borrowers. That’s why we include Clayton’s operation in this finance section. Despite the many problems that surfaced during 2007 in real estate finance, the Clayton portfolio is performing well. Delinquencies, foreclosures and losses during the year were at rates similar to those we experienced in our previous years of ownership.
Clayton’s loan portfolio is financed by Berkshire. For this funding, we charge Clayton one percentage point over Berkshire’s borrowing cost – a fee that amounted to $85 million last year. Clayton’s 2007 pre-tax earnings of $526 million are after its paying this fee. The flip side of this transaction is that Berkshire recorded $85 million as income, which is included in “other” in the following table.
The leasing operations tabulated are XTRA, which rents trailers, and CORT, which rents furniture.
Utilization of trailers was down considerably in 2007 and that led to a drop in earnings at XTRA. That company also borrowed $400 million last year and distributed the proceeds to Berkshire. The resulting higher interest it is now paying further reduced XTRA’s earnings.
Clayton, XTRA and CORT are all good businesses, very ably run by Kevin Clayton, Bill Franz and Paul Arnold. Each has made tuck-in acquisitions during Berkshire’s ownership. More will come.
Investments We show below our common stock investments at yearend, itemizing those with a market value of at least $600 million.
*This is our actual purchase price and also our tax basis; GAAP “cost” differs in a few cases because of write-ups or write-downs that have been required.
Overall, we are delighted by the business performance of our investees. In 2007, American Express, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, three of our four largest holdings, increased per-share earnings by 12%, 14% and 14%. The fourth, Wells Fargo, had a small decline in earnings because of the popping of the real estate bubble. Nevertheless, I believe its intrinsic value increased, even if only by a minor amount.
In the strange world department, note that American Express and Wells Fargo were both organized by Henry Wells and William Fargo, Amex in 1850 and Wells in 1852. P&G and Coke began business in 1837 and 1886 respectively. Start-ups are not our game.
I should emphasize that we do not measure the progress of our investments by what their market prices do during any given year. Rather, we evaluate their performance by the two methods we apply to the businesses we own. The first test is improvement in earnings, with our making due allowance for industry conditions. The second test, more subjective, is whether their “moats” – a metaphor for the superiorities they possess that make life difficult for their competitors – have widened during the year. All of the “big four” scored positively on that test.
We made one large sale last year. In 2002 and 2003 Berkshire bought 1.3% of PetroChina for $488 million, a price that valued the entire business at about $37 billion. Charlie and I then felt that the company was worth about $100 billion. By 2007, two factors had materially increased its value: the price of oil had climbed significantly, and PetroChina’s management had done a great job in building oil and gas reserves. In the second half of last year, the market value of the company rose to $275 billion, about what we thought it was worth compared to other giant oil companies. So we sold our holdings for $4 billion.
A footnote: We paid the IRS tax of $1.2 billion on our PetroChina gain. This sum paid all costs of the U.S. government – defense, social security, you name it – for about four hours.