Does Warren Buffett still hate private equity?February 14, 2013: 3:30 PM ET
Warren Buffett has teamed up with 3G Capital to buy Heinz. Yes, that's a private equity firm.
FORTUNE -- Warren Buffett is no fan of private equity, having said that buyout firms are short-term financial engineers who "don't love" the companies in which they invest. He also has bragged about how he never has bought a company from private equity firms.
From my perspective, it's a bit hypocritical.
3G has been referred to in the press as both a private equity firm and a hedge fund manager, and both are factually accurate. 3G manages several private equity funds, the most recent of which had gross asset value of $1.12 billion as of last October. Here is how 3G describes this fund family in its brochure:
The 3G Special Situations Funds' objectives are to achieve superior long-term capital appreciation by making either controlling or non-controlling (but, in such cases, typically influential) investments in a small number of companies operating fundamentally good businesses with easy to understand business models that are being undermanaged or to which the Adviser believes it can add meaningful value. The 3G Special Situations Funds focus on leveraged acquisitions, recapitalizations, and acquisitions of controlling or influential stakes of businesses in industries where the Adviser has either operating experience or a strong network of contacts within the industry.
It also appears to charge a 20% carried interest on these funds, with a management fee of between 1% and 2%. Around one-quarter of the capital comes from firm principals, while the remainder comes from a small group of high-net-worth Brazilian individuals (plus an even smaller group of institutional investors).
So perhaps it's best to describe 3G as an alternative investment platform, which features multiple strategies. Similar to how one might characterize The Blackstone Group (BX) or Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR).
Those familiar with 3G seem uncomfortable with the comparisons, however, saying that the firm has a much longer investment horizon than does garden-variety private equity. In that sense, they say, 3G more resembles Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) than Blackstone or KKR.
I've been unable to learn the investment lifecycle of a 3G private equity fund, in order to compare it to the industry-standard of 10 years. In fact, one source suggested that there may not even be one. If true, then it's a major distinction. If not, the only real difference would be that 3G raises its money from rich friends in Brazil rather than from public pension funds and university endowments in the U.S. And it certainly doesn't have publicly-traded securities like Berkshire Hathaway (which means there must be some viable path to investor liquidity).
A look at the firm's private equity track record doesn't help dispel the private equity label either. For example, 3G acquired Burger King (BKW) in 2010 largely by leveraging bank debt, and then returned it to the public markets just two years later via a reverse merger (as opposed to an IPO). 3G still holds a majority stake, but there's nothing novel about a private equity firm retaining control of a portfolio company three or four years after the initial acquisition.
Speaking of bank debt, even the Heinz deal is a leveraged buyout. It does include more equity than does a typical mega-LBO with Berkshire putting in between $12 billion and $13 billion (plus a smaller equity slug from 3G), but that still leaves billions of dollars of new debt on Heinz's books.
Perhaps Buffett was being hyperbolic when expressing his disdain for private equity, painting the entire industry with a brush of its worst excesses. After all, if he really believed 100% of what he said, then you'd think he would have found someone else to buy Heinz with.
Below is a CNBC interview with Buffett from earlier this morning, discussing the Heinz deal:
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