HDN STAFF AND WIRE REPORT NEW YORK
Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. today agreed to buy Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., making a $34 billion bet on the future of the U.S. economy. Burlington Northern, the nation's second-largest railroad, is the biggest hauler of food products like corn and coal for electricity, making it an indicator of the country's economic health. The railroad also ships a large amount of goods from Western ports including everyday items such as refrigerators, clothing and Tvs. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas in Seattle said the sale should not change operations in Montana. “There will be no impact on BNSF’s local operations in Montana,” Melonas said this morning. “It will be business as usual. We will continue to operate our railroad as we have, with the focus on safety and customer service.” Changes in operations could have a major impact in the region the Hi-Line is so-called after the northern line of the railroad running through Montana, and the railroad is still a major employer in the state. Melonas said BNSF employs about 2,000 people in the state, operating about 2,000 miles of track. That includes about 600 employees in Hill County. Havre and many Montana towns essentially grew up around the railroad. James J. Hill ran the Great Northern Railway lines through the state in the late 1800s. In 1970, that company merged with Burlington Rai lway to c reat e Bur l ingto n Northern. The latest merger was in 1995, when the company merged with the Santa Fe Pacific Corp. to form BNSF. Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said she hopes the sale will help the region changes in BNSF can have major impacts. When BNSF Shifted employment after Burlington Northern merged with Santa Fe, moving personnel to new locations l ike Houston hurt, she said. “We’re still suffering from the loss of jobs,” Bessette said. She said the company employed more than 1,000 people she thought about 1,200 in Hill County at one time, although she was not sure what the current staffing is. Bessette added that she hopes Buffet and his management team will continue to serve areas like north-central Montana. “I hope he understands mega-rural,” Bessette said. Analysts say Buf fet t i s planting both feet in an industry that is poised to grow as the economy gets back on solid ground. If approved, it would be the biggest acquisition ever for Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Berkshire Hathaway already owns about 22 percent of Burlington Northern, and said it will pay $100 a share in cash and stock for the rest of the company, a 31.5 percent premium on Burlington Northern's Mo n d a y c l o s i n g p r i c e. Shareholders have the option to convert their stock for a cash payment of $100 per share or receive Berkshire Class A or Class B common stock. Up to 60 percent of the deal is cash and 40 percent is in stock. "Berkshire's $34 bi l l ion investment in BNSF is a huge bet on that company, CEO Matt Rose and his team, and the railroad industry," Buffett said in a statement. "Most important of all, however, it's an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States. I love these bets," he said. The majority of the stock in the deal will be Berkshire's "A'' shares, but Berkshire's board also approved a 50-for-1 split of its Class B common stock for holders of smaller amounts of Burlington shares who opt for a share exchange rather than cash. Berkshire's Class B shares closed Monday at $3,265. With the split, each share will be worth $65.30. Burlington shares shot up $21.33, or 28 percent to $97.40 in morning trading. Shares of other major rails, including Burlington's larger rival Union Pacific Corp., rose as well. Berkshire also owns stock in two other major U.S. railroads 9.56 million shares of Union Pacific Corp. and 1.93 mi l l ion shares of Norfolk Southern Corp., as of June 30. The deal for Burlington Northern has been approved by the boards of both companies, but still needs two-thirds approval of Burlington's shareholders and antitrust clearance. The railroad expects to clear those hurdles in the first three months of next year. Last week the railroad reported third-quarter profit dropped 30 percent to $488 million, or $1.42 per share, as consumers continued to hold back on buying retail goods and industrial production struggled. Burlington was one of the least optimistic among major railroads about the pace of economic recovery. CEO Matt Rose said consumers are going to be the dr iver of any improvement in the economy, but no one is buying yet. Analysts say Buffett is looking for an investment that will reap rewards for many years into the future, and isn't so concerned about immediate gains. "(Buffett is) buying at the trough things aren't going to get much worse. He's getting in at a good time," said Art Hatfield, an analyst with inve s tment f i rm Mo rgan Keegan. Hatfield said he believes Buffett went for Burlington Northern in part because of its good management team, an important aspect in any of the billionaire's deals. Hatfield also said that Burlington Northern has been more progressive than its peers in developing new technology, allowing it to be more profitable. Major railroads have been able to slash costs during the recession by cutting jobs, parking railcars and making strides to improve train speeds and other metrics that improved efficiency.