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MidAmerican Energy, the utility holding company under the Berkshire umbrella, is snapping up Las Vegas' NV Energy (UNKNOWN:NVE.DL). Once you throw in NV Energy's debt, the deal weighs in at a cool $10 billion.
There's a lot that's not surprising about the acquisition. The size, if anything, is small. Buffett's been very vocal about his desire to make "elephant"-sized purchases. Nor is it surprising that the conglomerate is expanding its reach with a steady utility business. These types of businesses add stability to the insurance and consumer-goods-heavy Berkshire. And it shouldn't be all that surprising that the price for NV Energy doesn't look all that cheap. If the Heinz (NYSE: HNZ) deal reminded us of anything, it's that Buffett is willing to shell out a "full" price for a good buy.
But what may surprise a lot of investors is that by all appearances, Buffett had very little to do with this multibillion-dollar acquisition. Greg Abel, the CEO of MidAmerican, appears to have been firmly in the driver's seat on this one. Sure, Buffett knows that Abel is tapping MidAmerican's cash resources for the billions to purchase of NV Energy -- he even chimed in on MidAmerican's press release that the company is "a great fit for Berkshire Hathaway." But this was very much the Greg Abel Show.
This should be a notable positive for Berkshire investors for at least a couple of reasons. First, we're seeing the empowerment of key Berkshire Hathaway executives in action. With many investors fretting about the day that Buffett is no longer at the helm of Berkshire, this provides a concrete example of how current managers at the company can move it forward and drive real growth -- including through acquisition -- without a starring role from Buffett.
In addition, this underscores what promises to be a continued theme for Berkshire on into the future: the "bolt-on" acquisition. As my fellow Fool Steve Symington noted earlier in the year, Berkshire spent more than $2 billion on bolt-on buys in 2012. These deals are great because they require little involvement from Berkshire's top brass -- particularly Buffett and Charlie Munger -- and provide the opportunity to expand the company's presence in an already-established market. This is how Berkshire has carved out such a strong and diversified position in the insurance industry, and I could easily see continued action like this across its other business lines.
NV Energy itself should be a great addition for MidAmerican. Based on its numbers, it looks like a well-run operation. And while Nevada -- and Las Vegas in particular -- was hit especially hard in the housing downturn, it's a region that may offer above-average growth in the years ahead. But while the specific NV Energy addition is nice, what the deal says from a bigger-picture perspective may be even more promising for Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.