Billionaire Warren Buffett, the most closely watched investor in America, is putting his money in ketchup, agreeing Thursday to buy H.J. Heinz Co. for $23.3 billion in the richest deal ever in the food industry.
For his money, the Oracle of Omaha gets one of the oldest and most familiar American brands, one that's in refrigerators and kitchen cupboards all over the US
The deal is intended to help Heinz accelerate its expansion from a dominant American name into a presence on grocery shelves worldwide. The Pittsburgh-based company also makes baked beans, pickles, vinegar, Classico pasta sauces and Ore-Ida potatoes, as well as a growing stable of sauces suited to regional tastes around the world.
Buffett's investment firm, Berkshire Hathaway, is teaming with another firm, 3G Capital, to snap up Heinz, which had long been a subject of takeover speculation. New York-based 3G is best known for its acquisition of Burger King and its role in the deal that created Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's biggest beer maker.
The deal, expected to close in the third quarter, sent shares of Heinz soaring. The company's stock price was up nearly 20 percent, closing at $72.50 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange.
Berkshire picked up steam, too. Its Class A shares gained $1,490, or about 1 percent, to close at $149,240.
Berkshire remains the most expensive US stock but it's still below its all-time high of $151,650, reached in December 2007. That came before the financial turmoil of 2008 and just after an exceptionally profitable quarter that was helped by a $2 billion investment gain.
The plans to take Heinz private apparently began to take shape on a plane in early December. In an interview with CNBC, Buffett said he was approached at that time by Jorge Lemann, a fellow billionaire and a co-founder of 3G. The two had known each other since serving on the board of Gillette about 12 years ago.
Soon after that encounter, two of 3G's managing partners traveled to Pittsburgh to have lunch with Heinz CEO William Johnson and raise the prospect of buying the 144-year-old company.
"The offer was such that I simply felt compelled to take it to my board,'' Johnson said at a news conference Thursday.
Over the next several weeks, Johnson said, the board worked out details of the transaction.
Berkshire is putting up $12.12 billion in return for half of the equity in Heinz, as well as $8 billion of preferred shares that