Warren Buffett is America's most successful investor, and one of the wealthiest people in the world. He's known as the "Oracle of Omaha," since he lives and works primarily in Nebraska. However, his company, Berkshire Hathaway, has its roots in the ruins of an 18th century Rhode Island mill (link opens as a .pdf).

Here are 10 really surprising facts about Berkshire Hathaway and its origins.

1. The company existed for almost 100 years before Buffett was born.

Buffett began to buy into Berkshire Hathaway in the 1960s, but the company traces its roots to the late stages of the Industrial Revolution in New England, and a textile business called the Valley Falls Company.

It was originally founded in 1839 in Cumberland, Rhode Island, by a former carpenter turned industrialist named Oliver Chace, and his sons Harvey and Samuel B. Chace. The two brothers were ardent abolitionists; Samuel's wife, Elizabeth, even ran a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves.

2. It owes its origins in part to a case of industrial espionage from the 1700s.

Chace had learned about the textile industry by working under an early immigrant American entrepreneur from England, named Samuel Slater. Slater, in turn, established his first mill in the United States after memorizing plans for mills and machinery in England--and thus smuggling them into the United States.

While this was a great boon for America, it was against British law and didn't exactly make him a hero in Great Britain, where Slater was reportedly known afterward as "Slater the Traitor."

3. It grew as a result of mergers and acquisitions.

Chace died in 1852, and his sons and others continued running Valley Falls Company and other interests for decades afterward. In 1929, Valley Falls Company merged with a Massachusetts textile company and took a new name: Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates.

The company took on its modern name in 1955, after another merger--this time with the Hathaway Manufacturing Company.

4. It was successful in its original industry for quite a while before Buffett arrived.

At its height in 1948, Berkshire was still being led by Chace's descendants, and it employed 11,000 people and earned $29.5 million (about $296 million in 2015 dollars).

After the merger with Hathaway, however, a man named Seabury Stanton took the reins as chief executive of the combined company, and it reportedly reached a peak of $120 million in revenue immediately afterward (about $1 billion in 2015).

5. Buffett's original interest was a classic example of his theory of value investing.

Berkshire Hathaway began to decline in the 1950s, and Buffett began buying shares in 1962. His rationale was that although the overall value of the company was shrinking because the industry itself was imperiled, he believed the company's share price was falling faster than the business's actual intrinsic value. He also noticed that every time Berkshire Hathaway closed or divested itself of a mill, it would offer to buy its own stock back from investors.

6. He later called it the dumbest stock he ever bought.

The reason was simply that the textile industry was becoming a more and more difficult business. As he explained to CNBC in 2009:

The dumbest stock I ever bought was--drum roll here--Berkshire Hathaway. And that may require a bit of explanation. It was early in 1962, and I was running a small partnership, about $7 million. They'd call it a hedge fund now.

And here was this cheap stock...in a textile company that had been going downhill for years. So it was a huge company originally, and they kept closing one mill after another.

In other words, it seems that Buffett didn't follow one of his own most-quoted pieces of advice: "I don't look to jump over 7-foot bars. I look for 1-foot bars I can step over."

7. Buffett wound up taking control of the entire company anyway, largely because he was angry with the CEO.

Buffett got along with and respected Chace's descendants who were still with the company, but he had a strong disagreement with Stanton. Also from the CNBC interview:

In 1964...I went back and visited the management, Mr. Seabury Stanton. And he looked at me and he said, 'Mr. Buffett. We've just sold some mills. We got some excess money. We're gonna have a tender offer. And at what price will you tender your stock?' And I said, '$11.50'.... I went back to Omaha.

And a few weeks later, I opened the mail [and found] a tender offer from Berkshire Hathaway.... And if you look carefully, you'll see the price is...11 and three-eighths. He chiseled me for an eighth. And if that letter had come through with 11 and a half, I would have tendered my stock. But this made me mad. So I went out and started buying the stock, and I bought control of the company, and fired Mr. Stanton.

8. Buffett said buying and running Berkshire Hathaway was a great learning experience for him.

In 1985, Berkshire Hathaway got out of textiles entirely. (The original Valley Falls Company mills are in ruins, but they are preserved as an historic site in Rhode Island.) Berkshire Hathaway now functions as a holding company with interests in insurance and finance, retail, media, and many other fields.

"It took me 20 years to give up on the textile business," Buffett said in the CNBC interview. "I had a wonderful guy running it after Seabury Stanton--a fellow named Ken Chase [sic].... And he was terrific. Honest and able, hardworking. And he couldn't make it go. But we just kept working at it, trying.... Another mistake. If you're gonna be brilliant with a lousy business, why not be brilliant with a good business?"

9. As a result of Buffett's acquisition, Oliver Chace's mill really paid off for his descendants.

That reference Buffett made to "Ken Chase" is actually a transcription error; Buffett was talking about Malcolm "Kim" Chace Jr., one of Oliver Chace's descendants, who stayed with the company after Buffett bought it. That turned out to be a smart decision. In the early 2000s, Forbes magazine included his family on its list of the wealthiest Americans.

Malcolm Chace's son, Malcolm Chace III, inherited his father's board seat and position. Besides his work with Berkshire Hathaway, he went on to found a Rhode Island bank, and his family were among the leading philanthropists in New England. When the younger Chace died in 2011, a Rhode Island newspaper called him "an exemplar of the old-fashioned public-spirited businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist."

10. The company now has the most expensive stock in America.

A single Class A share of Berkshire Hathaway goes for more than $200,000, making it by far the most expensive publicly traded stock. While most companies split their stock in order to keep the price low, say under $1,000 per share, Buffett refuses to split Berkshire Hathaway stock, so as to discourage short-term trading and volatility.

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Published on: Jul 6, 2015
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