Why Did Warren Buffett Buy Lubrizol for $10 Billion?


In other news on the markets this week, Warren Buffett quietly made an acquisition.

A big one. Even by his standards.

The 80-year old investor put down $9.7 billion, or about a quarter of Berkshire Hathaway‘s entire cash pile, to buy Lubrizol Corporation, a specialty chemicals company based in Wickliffe, Ohio.

What does this mean for you? Warren Buffett’s investment moves are usually worth a closer look, even if you’re not one of his stockholders. After all, he’s one of the most successful stock pickers ever. And it’s never too late to practice your swing, even if your own stock portfolio is closer to $20,000 than, say, $20 billion.

A look through the company’s financials reveals nine reasons Warren Buffett loves Lubrizol.

1. It has a lucrative niche.

Lubrizol’s main business is making additives for fuel, which make engines run better and last longer. They are a small part of the cost of the fuel, but they are valuable to the end users and they are lucrative. Lubrizol’s gross margins last year were a thumping 33%, up from 25% five years ago. The company’s return on equity is 34%.

2. It has a wide moat.

Lubrizol has little trouble defending its business from competition. It has been around for 82 years – even longer than Mr. Buffett – and has built up a strong franchise. It is the market leader in the industry. And the fuel additives industry is technically advanced. Lubrizol owns a remarkable 1,600 patents and has 6,900 employees worldwide.

3. It’s in a dull industry.

Nobody goes into the fuel additives business for the glamour. Venture capitalists are not throwing money after new fuel additives start-ups. Companies in the sector do not typically give away their products for free to gain market share, “eyeballs,” “mind share” or the like. Indeed some of the existing players have been getting out – making life better for those who are left.

4. It has pricing power.

Mr. Buffett recently said “the single most important decision in evaluating a business is pricing power. If you’ve got the power to raise prices without losing business to a competitor, you’ve got a very good business.” At a time of rising raw material costs, that’s especially important. Lubrizol fits the bill. The company’s own raw materials jumped 10% last year, but it was able to pass those costs on to its customers.

5. It’s stable.

Sales fell 9% in 2009, but gross profits actually rose, from $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion. And the company says less than half of its revenues rely on boom-and-bust cyclical industries, such as construction and industrial production. Lubrizol had $2.7 billion in total liabilities at the end of last year – and $2.5 billion in cash and other current assets. Dividends have risen steadily, from $1.04 per share five years ago to $1.39 last year.

6. It benefits from overseas growth.

Two-thirds of last year’s revenues came from outside the U.S.A. The company has 40% of its plant and equipment overseas. And that’s rising. Last fall Lubrizol broke ground on a new factory in southern China, that will begin production in 2013. The company is a big beneficiary from economic growth in emerging markets. In countries like China, India and Brazil, hundreds of millions of people are moving into the middle class, buying cars, and driving them more. Every drive needs fuel, and every gallon of gas needs additives.

7. It has low unionization.

Just 4% of Lubrizol’s U.S. employees are members of a union (although some overseas workers are also members of collective bargaining agreements). That’s good for profits. Mr. Buffett may be a Democrat at nights and on weekends, but when he’s at the office he’s all business.

8. The stock was reasonably priced.

Even a great company can be a bad investment if you pay too much for it. In the case of Lubrizol, Mr. Buffett is paying $135 a share. That’s less than 13 times last year’s earnings, and 12 times forecasts for 2011. If you find a good company at a good price, who cares what “the market” is doing?

9. He likes the management.

Lubrizol chief executive James Hambrick has been with the company since 1973, when he started there as a co-operative education student. He’s been CEO for seven years. “Lubrizol is exactly the sort of company with which we love to partner – the global leader in several market applications run by a talented CEO, James Hambrick,” Mr. Buffett said when he announced the deal. “Our only instruction to James – just keep doing for us what you have done so successfully for your shareholders.”

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