Warren Buffett on Dempster Mill Manufacturing Company [Case Study]

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Warren Buffett’s communication to shareholders on Dempster is presented in the same order here—so please expect some repetition. How did Buffett find this investment and what ways did he reach an intrinsic value? How many margins of safety did he have? What “type” of investment is this—is earning power below Asset Value? Is this a franchise? Why or why not is this occurring? Was Buffett lucky in this investment? Why or why not? How would Graham approach an investment like this? What would have been the big difference between Graham and Buffett concerning Dempster Mills?

Warren Buffett writes below:

We are presently (1962) involved in the control of Dempster Mill Manufacturing Company of Beatrice, Nebraska. Our first stock was purchased as a generally undervalued security five years ago. A block later became available, and I went on the Board about four years ago. In August 1961, we obtained majority control, which is indicative of the fact that many of our operations are not exactly of the “overnight” variety.

Presently we own 70% of the stock of Dempster with another 10% held by a few associates. With only 150 or so other stockholders, a market on the stock is virtually non-existent, and in any case, would have no meaning for a controlling block. Our own actions in such a market could drastically affect the quoted price.

Therefore, it is necessary for me to estimate the value at year-end of our controlling interest. This is of particular importance since, in effect, new partners are buying in based upon this price, and old partners are selling a portion of their interest based upon the same price. The estimated value should not be what we hope it would be worth, or what it might be worth to an eager buyer, etc., but what I would estimate our interest would bring if sold under current conditions in a reasonably short period of time. Our efforts will be devoted toward increasing this value, and we feel there are decent prospects of doing this.

Dempster is a manufacturer of farm implements and water systems with sales in 1961 of about $9 million. Operations have produced only nominal profits in relation to invested capital during recent years. This reflected a poor management situation, along with a fairly tough industry situation. Presently, consolidated net worth (book value) is about $4.5 million, or $75 per share, consolidated working capital about $50 per share, and at year-end we valued our interest at $35 per share. While I claim no oracular vision in a matter such as this, I feel this is a fair valuation to both new and old partners. Certainly, if even moderate earning power can be restored, a higher valuation will be justified, and even if it cannot, Dempster should work out at a higher figure. Our controlling interest was acquired at an average price of about $28, and this holding currently represents 21% of partnership net assets based on the $35 value.

Of course, this section of our portfolio is not going to be worth more money merely because General Motors, U.S. Steel, etc., sell higher. In a raging bull market, operations in control situations will seem like a very difficult way to make money, compared to just buying the general market. However, I am more conscious of the dangers presented at current market levels than the opportunities. Control situations, along with work-outs, provide a means of insulating a portion of our portfolio from these dangers.

— 1963

Having read this far, you are entitled to a report on how we have done to date in 1962. For the period ending October 31st, the Dow-Jones Industrials showed an overall loss, including dividends received, of approximately 16.8%. We intend to use the same method or valuing our controlling interest in Dempster Mill Manufacturing at this yearend that we did at the end of last year. This involved applying various discounts to the balance sheet items to reflect my opinion as to what could be realized on a very prompt sale. Last year this involved a 40% discount on inventories, a 15% discount on receivables, estimated auction value of fixed assets, etc., which led to an approximate value or $35.00 per share.

The successful conversion of substantial portions of the assets of Dempster to cash, at virtually 100 cents on the dollar, has been the high point of 1962. For example, inventory of $4.2 million at last yearend will probably be about $1.9 million this yearend, reducing the discount on this item by about $920,000 (40% of $2.3 million reduction). I will give this story my full journalistic treatment in my annual letter. Suffice to say at this point that applying the same discounts described above will probably result in a yearend value of at least $50.00 per share. The extent of the asset conversion job can perhaps best be illustrated in a sentence by pointing out that whereas we had $166,000 of cash and $2,315,000 of liabilities at November 30, 1961 (Dempster fiscal yearend), we expect this year to have about $1 million in cash and investments (of the type the Partnership buys) against total liabilities of $250,000. Prospects for further improvement in this situation in 1963 appear good, and we expect a substantially expanded investment portfolio in Dempster next year.

Valuing Dempster at $50 per share, our overall gain (before any payments to partners) to October 31st for the Partnership has been 5.5%. This 22.3 percentage-points advantage over the Dow, if maintained until the end of the year, will be among the largest we have ever had. About 60% of this advantage was accomplished by the portfolio other than Dempster, and 40% was the result of increased value at Dempster.

Warren Buffett on Dempster Mill Manufacturing Company via CSInvesting

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