Buffett’s story of Diversified Retail
Diversified Retail was an early purchase of Berkshire and an instructive mistake to look at.
How did that fair?
Buffett in recounting many of his mistakes writes about Diversified Retail in his 1989 letter:
Shortly after purchasing Berkshire, I acquired a Baltimore department store, Hochschild Kohn, buying through a company called Diversified Retailing that later merged with Berkshire. I bought at a substantial discount from book value, the people were first-class, and the deal included some extras – unrecorded real estate values and a significant LIFO inventory cushion. How could I miss? So-o-o – three years later I was lucky to sell the business for about what I had paid. After ending our corporate marriage to Hochschild Kohn, I had memories like those of the husband in the country song, “My Wife Ran Away With My Best Friend and I Still Miss Him a Lot.”
I could give you other personal examples of “bargain-purchase” folly but I’m sure you get the picture: It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. Charlie understood this early; I was a slow learner. But now, when buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-class managements.
That leads right into a related lesson: Good jockeys will do well on good horses, but not on broken-down nags. Both Berkshire’s textile business and Hochschild, Kohn had able and honest people running them. The same managers employed in a business with good economic characteristics would have achieved fine records. But they were never going to make any progress while running in quicksand.
I’ve said many times that when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact. I just wish I hadn’t been so energetic in creating examples. My behavior has matched that admitted by Mae West: “I was Snow White, but I drifted.”
“A further related lesson: Easy does it. After 25 years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers.”