Berkshire’s insurance group includes firms such as General Re and GEICO. They maintain capital strength at exceptionally high levels, which gives them an advantage even a cave man could understand.
Berkshire’s financial health is also fueled by utilities and energy companies that are part of the MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company.
Their apparel businesses include well-known names such as Fruit of the Loom and Justin Brands.
Building companies include Acme Building Brands, makes of the famous brick, as well as paint company Benjamin Moore & Co.
FlightSafety International Inc. is a Berkshire firm that engages in high-tech training to aircraft and ship operators.
Retail holdings include a number of furniture businesses such as R.C. Willey Home Furnishings, Star Furniture Company, and Jordan’s Furniture, Inc.
Hungry for more businesses to manage, Berkshire acquired The Pampered Chef, Ltd.—the largest direct kitchen tools seller—in 2002.
Buffett had a sweet tooth for See’s Candies, who he purchased from the See’s family in 1972.
Shareholders were all on board for the purchase of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation in 2009.
Why would a soft-drink company buy a movie studio? It’s hard to imagine the logic behind such a move, but Coca-Cola did just this when it purchased Columbia Pictures in 1982 for $750 million. This is a good example of unrelated diversification, which occurs when a firm enters an industry that lacks any important similarities with the firm’s existing industry or industries (Table 8.5 “Unrelated Diversification at Berkshire Hathaway”). Luckily for Coca-Cola, its investment paid off—Columbia was sold to Sony for $3.4 billion just seven years later.
Most unrelated diversification efforts, however, do not have happy endings. Harley-Davidson, for example, once tried to sell Harley-branded bottled water. Starbucks tried to diversify into offering Starbucks-branded furniture. Both efforts were disasters. Although Harley-Davidson and Starbucks both enjoy iconic brands, these strategic resources simply did not transfer effectively to the bottled water and furniture businesses.
Lighter firm Zippo is currently trying to avoid this scenario. According to CEO Geoffrey Booth, the Zippo is viewed by consumers as a “rugged, durable, made in America, iconic” brand (Townhall, 2010). This brand has fueled eighty years of success for the firm. But the future of the lighter business is bleak. Zippo executives expect to sell about 12 million lighters this year, which is a 50 percent decline from Zippo’s sales levels in the 1990s. This downward trend is likely to continue as smoking becomes less and less attractive in many countries. To save their company, Zippo executives want to diversify.