There was recently an article in The New York Times about how Warren Buffet is promoting the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) brand more than ever. Between his recent ventures into real estate and auto sales, there is definitely a strategy in place to make the brand more visible.
And when you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Warren Buffett's name is almost synonymous with the word "rich," but if you ask a room full of average American adults, I'd be willing to bet that half of them don't know the name of his company. At age 84, Buffett is likely thinking about the legacy he leaves behind and wants to give Berkshire the brand recognition that his name currently has.
So how big of a brand name could Berkshire Hathaway become?
Berkshire could become bigger than AutoNation
Recently, Warren Buffett announced that he agreed to buy the Van Tuyl Group, the largest privately owned chain of car dealerships in the U.S. with 78 dealerships in 10 states. The business will be renamed "Berkshire Hathaway Automotive," and Buffett implied this acquisition is just a starting point.
The auto dealership business is very fragmented. There are currently about 17,500 new car dealerships in the United States, and the market leader (AutoNation) has just 270 of these, or a 1.5% market share. This is incredibly low, and there is a huge opportunity for Buffett to put economies of scale to work here.
Companies like Van Tuyl and Auto Nation have proven that the large company model can translate into higher profits. In fact, Auto Nation's profit margin last year was 50% higher than that of the average U.S. car dealership.
Imagine if a company has 500 dealerships, or even 1000. There is incredible, untapped potential to consolidate some operations and take advantage of the efficiencies it creates. And, Buffett said he expects to hear from hundreds of car dealerships who want to be a part of the Berkshire family.
Think about the brand name recognition of AutoNation or used-car chains like CarMax. Now imagine a company with several times that footprint. That's the opportunity Berkshire has to get its name out there.
What about real estate?
Taking advantage of the real estate market's correction, Berkshire acquired a majority stake in a company that licensed the Prudential and Real Living brand names to more than 500 real estate brokerages. Since then, the company has bought other brokerages, and has increased the use of the Berkshire Hathaway Home Services brand name.
In fact, the number of U.S. real estate agencies using the name is expected to hit 1,400 by next spring, and Buffett recently announced his intention to license the name to agencies in Europe and Asia. And there are still parts of the United States where the brand doesn't yet have much of a presence.
To put the potential here in perspective, consider that industry leader Coldwell Banker has 3,100 offices worldwide, including 700 outside of the United States. And think of how recognizable of a brand name that is.
Berkshire Hathaway Home Services' website clearly states the companies intention to become the most recognizable brand in the industry. So far, they are well on the way.
Aside from auto sales and real estate, where else could the Berkshire brand extend? Well, if the auto and real estate businesses start to accumulate some serious brand recognition, what's to stop Berkshire from putting its name on some of its other subsidiary companies?
For example, GEICO has too much brand value on its own, but the other insurance companies in the portfolio like General Re and National Indemnity Company could be bundled into "Berkshire Hathaway Insurance" fairly easily.
Maybe NetJets would do even better as "Berkshire Hathaway Aviation." And maybe Borsheim's Fine Jewelry, Helzberg Diamonds, and Ben Bridge Jewelry could become "Berkshire Hathaway Jewelers" or something similar.
This isn't as far-fetched as it may seem. Earlier this year Berkshire's utility companies including MidAmerican Energy and PacifiCorp were rebranded together as Berkshire Hathaway Energy.
The next Coca Cola?
The point here is that Berkshire has the portfolio of assets to potentially become one of the most recognizable brand names in the world, right up there with Coca Cola, McDonalds, and Nike.
The big difference here is that each of those brands is associated with just one thing: soft drinks, fast food, and athletic apparel. In contrast, Berkshire has a diverse array of operations in a variety of industries, so there is no telling just how much of a household name Berkshire Hathaway can become.
Berkshire Hathaway has more than 40 subsidiary companies that don't currently have the Berkshire brand name, and if Berkshire starts putting its name on some of them and continues to grow its real estate and auto sales operations, the Berkshire Hathaway name has the potential to achieve a whole new level of brand recognition.