It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. -- Warren Buffett
If you're looking for great stocks to buy, it's usually best to take Buffett's advice and begin by finding great companies. Since we are always on the lookout for great stocks, we reached out to three of our contributors and asked them about some of their favorite companies -- specifically, the ones they see as having the best businesses out there.
Our contributors think Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B), Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS), and Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) make the cut. Keep reading to learn more about what makes these more than just great stocks, but also great businesses.
When the best investor ever is also the best CEO ever
Jason Hall (Berkshire Hathaway): Warren Buffett is widely considered to be one of the best investors in history. But what often gets overlooked is how much of the value he has created for Berkshire Hathaway shareholders derived from his incredible skill as CEO.
This has become more and more apparent over the past couple of decades, as Berkshire's collection of wholly owned subsidiaries has expanded, and grown the company's cash-generating capabilities. As of this writing, Berkshire's market capitalization is $433 billion, while the value of its stock portfolio was $148 billion at the start of the year. In other words, Berkshire's non-stock holdings are worth nearly $347 billion.
Buffett's business-building efforts have generated huge returns for Berkshire's shareholders. After all, it's the cash flow thrown off by the operating businesses which gives Buffett the ammo for his elephant gun, and it's the quality of those businesses which allows them to generate so much consistent profit.
Today's Berkshire is an amazingly diverse company, with some of the best leaders you'll find. Its subsidiaries range across multiple industries, including railways, regulated utilities, insurance, consumer goods, and industrial manufacturing. This combination of holdings gives the company a broad safety net, reduces its exposure to any single industry, and tempers the potential downside impact of weak consumer spending in a recession.
Make no bones about it: In his role as CEO, Buffett has built an incredible business. The most amazing thing about it may not be what it has become under his leadership, but how strong it is set to remain after he's gone.
Keith Speights (Disney): If you've ever had kids, it's a near certainty that you have experienced the magic that only comes from Disney. Even if you're not a parent, you have still probably enjoyed something entertainment from Disney -- perhaps its ABC television shows, its movies, or ESPN sporting events.
What's especially fascinating about Disney's business is how the company cross-markets across all of its operating units. The entertainment giant will create an enormously successful movie, then market it through its broadcast TV network and its cable networks, and then sell toys, video games, and other products based on it through its own stores and other channels.
And there's more. Before you know it, Disney will have new rides at its theme parks based on characters from the movie. Its cruise line will feature performers in costume as the characters. Once the movie exits theaters, a video release typically isn't far behind. There could even be a spin-off TV series on one of Disney's networks.
The company has made magic for millions of children across the world, but it's made plenty of magic for investors, too. Disney stock has produced huge gains over the years, and its growth outpaced the S&P 500 Index by more than three times over the last decade.
Perhaps best of all, Disney's formula never seems to grow old. Future generations will probably enjoy the company's creations just as much as past and present generations have. That's what I'd call a great business.
To be everywhere you are
Rich Duprey (Procter & Gamble): Here's an idea for a business: Provide products that people not only need, but use regularly and throughout their day in all facets of their life so they have to go out and regularly buy them again and again. That's what consumer products giant Procter & Gamble does.
It's one of those companies whose products are tough to escape, even if you wanted to. More than likely, you'll find one or more of them right now in your bathroom, kitchen, or laundry room. From Crest toothpaste, Gillette razors, and Old Spice deodorant to Bounty paper towels, Febreze air freshener, and Tide laundry detergent, Procter & Gamble has a portfolio of leading brands in items that are essential to daily life in the modern world.
P&G has been in business for 179 years, and for 126 of them it has paid a dividend -- one that it has increased annually for the last 60 years. It sells some 65 products in 10 categories in over 180 countries, and typically holds the top or second-place spot in market share. In 2016, it generated $65.3 billion in sales, and though that was down 5% from the prior year, it's because over the past few years it has shed around 100 products to focus on its core categories.
At 26 times earnings and 22 times this year's estimates, Procter & Gamble's stock isn't cheap, though its valuation is not much different from those of Clorox, Colgate-Palmolive, or Unilever, similarly situated consumer products companies with broad portfolios of well-known brands.
What makes Procter & Gamble especially attractive, though, is the potential for growth, whether through acquisitions or even a breakup of the company into two businesses, one focused on personal care and the other on household goods. When billionaire activist investor Nelson Peltz recently revealed he had amassed a $3 billion stake in its stock, the prospects for strategic initiatives increased significantly.
It's true, Procter & Gamble has faced some headwinds in recent periods. Competition, currency exchange rates, and even internal miscues caused it to stumble. But with a history stretching back nearly 200 years and a still-solid financial base, having a portfolio of necessary and desired brands is one of the best business models you can build.