Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. bought a stake in Pilot Travel Centers LLC, owner of the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain, and detailed plans to become the company’s biggest shareholder in six years.
Berkshire Hathaway agreed to acquire 38.6 percent of Pilot Flying J, a closely held company based in Knoxville, Tennessee, according to a statement Tuesday. The Haslam family will continue for now to hold the majority of Pilot Flying J, with Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam remaining as chief executive officer of the company.
The Maggelet family’s FJ Management Inc. will keep its 11.3 percent stake in Pilot Flying J until 2023, when Buffett plans to become the company’s biggest shareholder. Buffett will boost his stake to 80 percent at that point, leaving the Haslams with a fifth of the business.
Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but the Bloomberg Billionaires Index values the business at $9.1 billion, and calculates the Haslam family’s 50.1 percent stake at $4.5 billion.
The investment in one of the biggest private U.S. companies marks a return to large dealmaking for Buffett, who’s had a relatively quiet 2017 after walking away from a $143 billion attempt to acquire Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever. His bid to purchase Oncor Electric Delivery Co. was bested by Sempra Energy in August, after activist investor Paul Singer bought up the target’s debt to block Buffett and back the rival suitor.
Haslam said in an interview he hit it off with Buffett after being introduced earlier this year by Chicago merchant banker Byron Trott, who suggested the Berkshire chairman buy a minority stake in the truck stop operator. Pilot Flying J generates annual revenue of more than $20 billion and was named the 15th largest private company in the U.S. by Forbes magazine.
“Jimmy Haslam and his team have created an industry leader and a key enabler of the nation’s economy,” Buffett, 87, said in the statement. “We look forward to a partnership that supports the trucking industry for years to come.”
Trott’s BDT Capital Partners is selling its minority stake in Pilot Flying J as part of the transaction.
Pilot Flying J started life as a single Pilot gas station in Gate City, Virginia in 1958. It now has more than 750 locations across North America and employs 27,000 people. Buffett said by phone he isn’t going to lose sleep over potential threats from autonomous vehicles.
“Trucks are going to be around for a very long time. Who knows when driverless trucks are going to come along and what level of penetration they have,” Buffett said in an interview. “There is nothing that we own that doesn’t have something in the future that might affect it.”
Pilot Flying J has been run by Haslam, the son of Pilot Corp. founder Jim Haslam, since 1996. The brother of Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, Jimmy has owned the Cleveland Browns National Football League franchise since 2012, when he paid more than $1 billion to buy control of the team from Randy Lerner.
Shortly after, Pilot was rocked by scandal. The Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the company in April 2013 as part of a criminal investigation into whether the truck-stop operator had defrauded customers out of diesel-fuel rebates.
Pilot ultimately agreed to pay a $92 million federal fine. Several employees pleaded guilty to mail- and wire-fraud. At the time, Haslam said he looked forward to putting the episode in the past.
Buffett told the Knoxville News Sentinel that he was aware of the scandal but that it wouldn’t affect the future of the company. He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the matter on Tuesday.
Haslam said in an interview with CNBC Tuesday that the deal with Buffett is a fit because Berkshire is a "long-term investor" and "hands off."
“He truly wants us to run the company, wants us to maintain the culture, and of course, if there is an opportunity for us to grow the company substantially, he’s got plenty of capital," Haslam said on CNBC. "It’s just a marriage that we thought made a lot of sense.”
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