In a general sense, holding companies are conglomerates that own other firms. Investorwords.com offers a more specific definition: "A company that owns enough voting stock in another firm to control management and operations by influencing or electing its board of directors. Also called parent company."
A good example is Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway
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While many companies routinely gobble up other companies, they frequently aim to blend these acquisitions into their operations. Holding companies keep the businesses they buy more separate.
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