What to Read Into Warren Buffett's Retirement From the Kraft Heinz Board of Directors
Having Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) as a large investor in a company is generally deemed to be one of the strongest endorsements a company can have. After all, Buffett is considered to be one of the greatest investors in modern history. But what happens when a company loses Buffett on its board of directors?
That is the dilemma that is facing Kraft Heinz Co. (NASDAQ: KHC) at this time. Late on Friday, the food giant announced that Buffett will retire from the company’s board of directors following the end of his term at the upcoming Kraft Heinz 2018 annual shareholder meeting.
Some investors may read something deeper into this, but the reality is that Buffett has been dialing down some of his ongoing commitments on multiple fronts. He even effectively set the road to succession for Berkshire Hathaway itself. And Kraft’s announcement signaled that Buffett’s retirement from its board was “as he decreases his travel commitments.”
Kraft Heinz also announced that its board of directors plans to nominate Alexandre Van Damme to stand for election at the annual meeting to fill Buffett’s vacancy. Van Damme is a board member of Anheuser-Busch Inbev and Restaurant Brands International.
The Berkshire Hathaway top stocks for 2018 showed that Buffett and his entities held roughly $191 billion worth of equities as of December 31, 2017. Of the top half-dozen stakes the company holds, the one in Kraft Heinz was just over 325.6 million shares. Even if you consider that Kraft Heinz shares have been a poor performer, this stake still would have a value of roughly $22.5 billion with its shares at roughly $69.00.
What may seem unusual about this press release, and considering the raw size of the Kraft Heinz stake owned by Berkshire Hathaway, is that Buffett himself made no formal statement. Alex Behring, board chair for Kraft Heinz, said:
It has been an honor to work with Warren for the past five years. His many invaluable contributions to Kraft Heinz will have a lasting impact on the Company for years to come. The Board of Directors looks forward to his continued partnership as Chairman of our largest shareholder, Berkshire Hathaway. We are thrilled to add Alexandre’s expertise and perspective to Kraft Heinz, and believe that his executive experience and leadership will be extremely valuable to the Board, our leadership and company as a whole.
Buffett has served on many boards in his career. What might matter to some outsiders now is that Kraft Heinz shares are down more than 25% from their 52-week high. This is one of the world’s top food companies by far, but the company has reached a point where it is struggling to find much growth beyond its $26 billion in annual revenues.
Another consideration is how 3G fits into this scenario of a Kraft Heinz without partner Buffett. The private equity group was able to make many inroads in the past by trimming costs and raising profitability, but that seems to have hit a wall after integrating Kraft and Heinz into a single parent. In today’s trends and during the rise of millennials, is it possible that the many brands and products under Kraft and Heinz have just lost their appeal?
3G itself has called the U.S. retail environment both challenging and dynamic. It may not just be that consumers are wanting organic and natural foods. There has been a decade-plus trend for grocery stores and other food retailers to private label their offerings, and this takes up more of the prized shelf space and can allow many companies to score better margins than being forced to buy higher-priced name brands and selling them against their own line of products.
On top of members of 3G remaining on the board, Berkshire Hathaway’s Gregory Abel and Tracy Britt Cool still remain. It will be hard to determine that Buffett’s exit from the Kraft Heinz board of directors will be an ill omen for its shareholders. After all, its stock is already down handily. That being said, it’s never really considered a good thing to lose Buffett as a director or investor.
Kraft Heinz shares closed up 2% at $69.02 on Friday, in a 52-week trading range of $67.05 to $93.88. The consensus analyst price target from Thomson Reuters is $83.71, and the market cap is $84 billion at the current share price.