Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) largest holdings, Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo, get a lot of press. In fact, these companies get almost all of the press surrounding Buffett and his giant conglomerate.
However, often neglected are Berkshire's smaller holdings -- the likes of Lee Enterprises (NYSE:LEE), Verisk Analytics (NASDAQ:VRSK), and Starz (NASDAQ:STRZA). In total, these three holdings only amount to $274 million -- around 0.3% of Berkshires overall portfolio -- but do they look like they could be attractive investment opportunities?
Small fish, big pond
Both Lee Enterprises and Starz are small fish in a big pond of larger, more dangerous fish with lots of teeth. Lee itself is a newspaper company. Buffett has expressed his love for this sector, though it's in secular decline. Starz is an integrated global media company, fighting the likes of DirecTV, Time Warner, and News Corp. However, although it might appear at first glance that Lee and Starz are both fighting a losing battle, the two companies have some appealing qualities.
Lee, for example, is highly cash-generative, reporting within its recent fiscal second-quarter results that despite a revenue decline of slightly less than 3% for the quarter, cash generation was up 5.6% year on year.
Unfortunately, Lee does have a high level of debt. Net debt was 4.9 times adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization for the 53 weeks ended June 30, 2013. However, the company is working hard to reduce debt and is already two years ahead of plan. What's more, all of the company's unlevered free cash flow is being devoted to debt reduction.
But why is Lee so cash-generative despite falling revenue? Well, Lee is slashing costs at its legacy printing business but also driving forward into the mobile and online advertising space, which is high-growth. Additionally, the majority of Lee's publications are local, and the circulation of local newspapers is declining at a slower rate than that of national papers. Just take a look at Lee's fiscal second-quarter results, which state that during the quarter, the advertising revenue from national publications declined 20%, while overall print advertising revenue, including local publications, only declined 6.1 %.
Snapping at the heels
Starz, on the other hand, is making impressive progress in a highly competitive industry. The company's new long-term affiliation agreement with Time Warner Cable will help drive content sales across multichannel markets. Moreover, the company has a number of original series planned and has major movie-library agreements with Twentieth Century Fox and MGM.
That said, the company is still a small fish and only had 22 million subscribers at the end of the second quarter. Still, the company's on-demand film division, ENCORE PLAY, had 35 million subscribers at the end of the quarter, which gives the company 56.9 million subscriptions overall. According to STARZ' own website this means that the company leads the U.S. premium television category.
STARZ, like Lee, is a cash-generative company and has used this cash generation to buy back 4.2% of its stock since coming to the market earlier this year. That said, the company has a high level of debt -- around 86% of assets as of the end of the fiscal second quarter -- so this could be cause for concern.
The final "small" holding in Buffett's portfolio is Verisk Analytics. I have "small" in quotation marks because the company actually has a market capitalization of $11.3 billion -- more than 70 times the size of Lee and three times the size of STARZ. Nonetheless, Verisk only makes up a tiny part of Berkshire's portfolio.
Anyway, as you might have guessed, Verisk is an analytics and risk management company. These are two services that are going to be under ever-increasing demand going forward. As many markets become more regulated, risks become harder to manage, and data for mining and oil-drilling projects becomes more complicated to interpret. Indeed, according to data released in 2012 by International Data Corporation, the business analytics market grew 14.1% during 2011 and is expected to grow 9.8% annually until 2016, when it is estimated that it will be worth around $50.7 billion.
Verisk is already riding this trend. The company's earnings per share have expanded 174% during the last for years and are on track this year for further growth. In particular, during the first six months of this year the company's EPS grew 16.1% from the same period in 2012. Moreover, the company's net profit margin for the first half of the year was just under 20%, which makes Verisk highly cash-generative, giving the company plenty of room for share repurchases (currently $300 million is authorized) and acquisitions to boost growth.