Still No Berkshire in a Remodeled Sears

Have you picked up an article on Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD  ) chairman Eddie Lampert lately? When I do, I always seem to find some obligatory reference to his being the latest incarnation of Warren Buffett. Admittedly, I've been guilty of the same assertion a time or two myself.

Emulating the Oracle of Omaha's transformation of a dwindling textile maker into modern-day Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) , Lampert set out to turn the once-dilapidated retailers Kmart and Sears into similar success stories. Tying the knot between the two, Lampert created the third-largest discount retailer.

Many of the investments involved in this battle between billionaires are similar. Both have been purchasing stakes of car retailers. Lampert has a large interest in AutoNation (NYSE: AN  ) , and Buffett recently revealed a purchase of rival CarMax (NYSE: KMX  ) . And both gurus certainly share traits when it comes to scouting out undervalued securities. But Lampert's investing strategies don't completely mirror those of his role model. Lampert typically milks his investments for cash, selling off assets to buy back shares and purchase new investments, whereas Buffett is loathe to put anything on the block -- his preferred holding period is forever.

Lampert's style is hurting Sears right now. It's an assault on the senses and psyche to shop at a Sears store these days, but rather than spend what it takes to make the experience a more pleasurable one, Lampert instead has targeted money for share buybacks, some at prices as high as $150 a share. As a result, cash on Sears' balance sheet has dropped precipitously, from almost $4 billion in February down to just about $1.4 billion in the latest reported quarter.

Lampert has at last come around to reorganizing the retailer and setting up operating units with greater independence -- which helped the stock bounce up $10 yesterday, or more than 12%. Lampert's direct style of controlling his companies perhaps separates him most from Buffett. Where the Oracle of Omaha finds businesses with good managers and gives them the autonomy and capital to run their enterprise, Lampert has been far more hands-on. We have to ask whether a hedge-fund manager can run a sprawling retail operation; the answer thus far has been "no."

Lampert has been a very good investor, no doubt, enjoying 29% returns while also holding significant stakes in companies like Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) . Those returns may surpass those of Buffett himself, but keep in mind: The genius behind Berkshire Hathaway has been at the game a lot longer, and his investments have stood the test of time. To paraphrase a quote from former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, I don't know Warren Buffett, and he isn't a friend of mine, but Eddie Lampert is no Warren Buffett.

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