Warren Buffett: “The Worst Deal That I’ve Made”

Johnny HopkinsInvesting Strategy, Warren BuffettLeave a Comment

We’ve just been listening to a great podcast at NPR with Michael Batnick discussing his new book – Big Mistakes: The Best Investors and Their Worst Investments. During the conversation Batnick tells the story of Warren Buffett’s greatest mistake, the purchase of Dexter Shoes. Here’s how he describes it:

“So what he did was he bought a company called Dexter Shoes. And he was quite certain in his ability to analyze this company because he had been very successful with previous acquisitions of shoe companies. So he had other experience to draw on. Things were going well. But his big mistake, one that he certainly learned from, was that he paid for this company with shares of Berkshire Hathaway. So at the time of the purchase, he paid $433 million in stock for Dexter Shoes, all in shares of Berkshire Hathaway.”

If we go back to the 2007 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter, Buffett describes a couple of his biggest mistakes, including the worst deal he ever made – Dexter Shoes.

Here’s an excerpt from that letter:

And now it’s confession time. It should be noted that no consultant, board of directors or investment banker pushed me into the mistakes I will describe. In tennis parlance, they were all unforced errors.

To begin with, I almost blew the See’s purchase. The seller was asking $30 million, and I was adamant about not going above $25 million. Fortunately, he caved. Otherwise I would have balked, and that $1.35 billion would have gone to somebody else.

About the time of the See’s purchase, Tom Murphy, then running Capital Cities Broadcasting, called and offered me the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC station for $35 million. The station came with the Fort Worth paper that Capital Cities was buying, and under the “cross-ownership” rules Murph had to divest it. I knew that TV stations were See’s-like businesses that required virtually no capital investment and had excellent prospects for growth. They were simple to run and showered cash on their owners.

Moreover, Murph, then as now, was a close friend, a man I admired as an extraordinary manager and outstanding human being. He knew the television business forward and backward and would not have called me unless he felt a purchase was certain to work. In effect Murph whispered “buy” into my ear. But I didn’t listen.

In 2006, the station earned $73 million pre-tax, bringing its total earnings since I turned down the deal to at least $1 billion – almost all available to its owner for other purposes. Moreover, the property now has a capital value of about $800 million. Why did I say “no”? The only explanation is that my brain had gone on vacation and forgot to notify me. (My behavior resembled that of a politician Molly Ivins once described: “If his I.Q. was any lower, you would have to water him twice a day.”)

Finally, I made an even worse mistake when I said “yes” to Dexter, a shoe business I bought in 1993 for $433 million in Berkshire stock (25,203 shares of A). What I had assessed as durable competitive advantage vanished within a few years. But that’s just the beginning: By using Berkshire stock, I compounded this error hugely. That move made the cost to Berkshire shareholders not $400 million, but rather $3.5 billion. In essence, I gave away 1.6% of a wonderful business – one now valued at $220 billion – to buy a worthless business.

To date, Dexter is the worst deal that I’ve made. But I’ll make more mistakes in the future – you can bet on that. A line from Bobby Bare’s country song explains what too often happens with acquisitions: “I’ve never gone to bed with an ugly woman, but I’ve sure woke up with a few.”

You can listen to the NPR podcast with Michael Batnick here:

You can read the 2007 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter here.

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