Warren Buffett's Best Investment Ever

Berkshire Hathaway  (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) has been a huge winner for its long-term shareholders. Between 1965 and 2012, the per-share book value of Berkshire has grown 586,817% (no, that's not a typo). 

We can chalk a healthy chunk of those outsized returns up to the capital allocation and investing prowess of Berkshire's CEO, Warren Buffett. Over the years, Buffett has made a lot of impressive investments on behalf of Berkshire shareholders; but is it possible that one investment could be slapped with the superlative "best?"

To find out, I asked five of our Foolish analysts to weigh in.

Dan Dzombak: In two delicious words: See's Candies.

Berkshire Hathaway purchased See's Candies in 1972 for $25 million. For those unfamiliar with the company, See's is the dominant boxed chocolate company on the West Coast. Buffett has called See's a "dream business" in that the company is a market leader, has great customer loyalty and pricing power, and doesn't take much invested capital. That means that most, if not all, of the profits flow back to Berkshire.

Financially, See's Candies has been a great investment -- it had returned over 2,000% by 2006. However, I believe See's Candies is Buffett's best investment ever because it changed his mind-set from only buying undervalued companies to realizing that it's okay to pay up for a great business.

As Buffett said in an interview with Fortune last year:

We have made a lot more money out of See's than shows from the earnings of See's, just by the fact that it's educated me, and I'm sure it's educated Charlie, too.

Buffett has also said it taught him about the power of brands. The education provided by See's has profited Berkshire immensely over the years, thanks to this interest in great brands. Look no further than Berkshire's stake in Coca-Cola  (NYSE: KO  ) and GEICO as evidence.

(Dan can be found on Twitter @DanDzombak or on his Facebook page, DanDzombak.)

John Divine: Picking Warren Buffett's best investment is like being asked to choose the best book ever written -- I think we can only choose our favorites.

That said, one investment Buffett made less than two years ago in the wake of the financial crisis shows Buffett at his finest. In September 2011, Berkshire Hathaway invested $5 billion in Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) . It wasn't just an investment, but a vote of confidence in B of A at a time when markets were fretting over the bank's balance sheet. Not only did the preferred shares Buffett got in return pay a cool $300 million a year in dividends, but when they're redeemed, Berkshire will get a 5% premium for them. 

But here's the best part: Berkshire also has the right to buy 700 million shares of common stock at about $7.14 a pop -- anytime before 2021. At today's prices, the deal has already netted Berkshire about $3.6 billion on paper, excluding dividends and the redemption premium. The deal shows the absurd level of respect Buffett has earned from his decades of inhuman returns. No longer does his backing merely attract attention to a stock; it actually validates the underlying company.

Robert Eberhard: There are plenty of choices available when considering Buffett's best investment ever. However, I'm going to look beyond companies he's purchased, and talk about the investment he made in himself nearly 60 years ago.

Buffett was a great admirer of Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, two investment analysts who had great success, even during the Great Depression. Because of this admiration, Buffett left the comfort of Omaha in 1950 and went to New York, to study under both at Columbia Business School. He graduated with a degree in economics, and returned to Omaha to work for his father as a stockbroker.

Columbia was only part of the investment Buffett made in himself, however. Graham soon offered Buffett a position at the Graham-Newman partnership. For nearly two years, Buffett learned at the hip of one of the most successful investors ever, eventually returning to Omaha to start up his own investing partnership when Graham closed his down. It's hard to say if Buffett would be as successful today without three years of mentorship from Ben Graham, but I'm sure that it didn't hurt.

Dan Caplinger: Buffett's best investments have taken full advantage of his reputation, and the impact his moves have on the investing community. My pick for the top candidate is one that hasn't yet fully paid off: His $5 billion investment in Bank of America back in late 2011.
 
At the time, B of A was struggling under the market's perception that it needed to raise capital and, despite its denials to the contrary, the bank needed to make a move to gain confidence. With Buffett having made similar moves during 2008 with other blue-chip companies exposed to the financial crisis, it was a natural fit for B of A to go to him. Preferred stock yielding 6% is quite a bit more attractive than the 0.3% yield that common shareholders are getting right now, but the real clincher was the equity kicker Buffett got in the form of 700 million 10-year warrants -- warrants that he can exercise at a price that's now $5 less than the prevailing market price. These deals aren't without risk, but Buffett gets terms that make them attractive despite the risks involved.
 
Chuck Saletta: Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Buffett's best ever investment is the very company he has called his worst investment -- Berkshire Hathaway. While it's absolutely true that on a rate-of-return basis, Berkshire's textile mills were a lousy investment for that otherwise master investor, that investment did give Buffett his position as CEO of an operating company.

There's a famous Buffett quote painted on a conference room wall at Fool Headquarters: "I am a better investor because I am a businessman, and a better businessman because I am an investor." Were it not for the Berkshire Hathaway acquisition that made Buffett not only an investor, but the CEO of an operating company, he may never have gotten that cross-training experience. On a dollars-and-cents basis, it may have been a lousy investment, but from an educational perspective, it was unbelievably valuable.

Heading to Omaha
On May 4, Berkshire Hathaway will be holding its epic annual meeting in Omaha, and the Fool will be there to bring you everything you need to know from this "Woodstock for Capitalists." Simply click here to follow along with all of the Fool's coverage.


Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (20)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 02, 2013, at 12:20 PM, ks4wn wrote:

    WHAT ABOUT BUFFETTT

    THE GIVES HIS MONEY TO BILL GATES TO HELP PEOPLE OVER SEAS AN TO HELL WITH THE PEOPLE HERE IN THE UNITED STATES THAT MAID HIM RICH .I WONT BUY ANYTHING THAT COMES FROM ANY OF HIS CO.IF I CAN HELP IT.

    CHARLES

  • Report this Comment On May 02, 2013, at 3:06 PM, sikiliza wrote:

    @ks4wn - You do realize that a good number of the companies he owns have overseas operations, right? And that those operations are just as profitable if not more profitable than their US-based operations? Further, that these companies employee thousands of American workers and that his company stock is held by mutual funds in which thousands of people have their retirement funds invested, right?

    You have got to think about this from a global perspective and realize that if he wants to go the way of charity then it might be in countries where the people have no medicare, no social security, no unemployment benefits, no low cost housing alternatives, no soup kitchens nor homeless shelters.... In those places, his dollar will go a long way in lending a helping hand.

    Now to the crux of the matter - A lot of big money managers follow Warren Buffet's lead. By investing in Goldman, Wells Fargo and BAC, he helped in his own little way to inject a little confidence in the banking sector - confidence that was much needed if the country were to begin to crawl out of the hole that we dug for ourselves.

    In that regard alone, Warren Buffet is doing a lot for the people that got him where he is today - His investors - many of whom are international, non-American investors as well.

  • Report this Comment On May 03, 2013, at 12:23 PM, ershler wrote:

    That Buffet is real selfish bastard, trying to maximize the amount of good the money he donates does for the world.

  • Report this Comment On May 03, 2013, at 6:04 PM, sm2200 wrote:

    Buffett went to Columbia Univ. with Graham & Dodd because he was rejected by his first choice; Harvard.

    It was one of the luckiest rejections of all time.

  • Report this Comment On May 03, 2013, at 6:11 PM, sm2200 wrote:

    When donating his money to foreign charities, he takes that as a tax deduction which other U.S. taxpayers have to make up.

    In effect I'm contributing to foreign countries.

    I'd rather have the money stay in the U.S. where most of it was made.

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