Who is Henry Singleton? by Jeffrey Saut of Raymond JamesVW Staff
From Jeffrey Saut, chief Investment Strategist, Raymond James on Henry Singleton from May 13th 2013.
“‘So Jeff, in your November Strategy Report you said, I recommend the gradual accumulation of stocks because they are trading at below known values. What are your top three stock picks?’ My response was Teledyne, Teledyne and Teledyne!”
. . . Jeffrey Saut, E.F. Hutton (11/20/1974)
Henry Singleton and TDY
The year was 1974 and Teledyne (TDY/$77.56/Outperform), on a split-adjusted basis, was trading at about $0.05 per share. By 1986 it was changing hands around $75 per share. Unfortunately, back in 1974 I didn’t have enough money to buy more than 10 shares, having lived through the devastating bear market of 1973 – 1974 where the D-J Industrial Average (INDU/15118.49) lost 47% of its value. At the time Warren Buffett was stating he felt like, “A kid in a candy store” because companies were selling at below net/net working capital and the INDU was changing hands at 6x earnings, below book value and with a dividend yield of 6%+. I was reminded of Teledyne last week by the excellent article written by Andrew Ross Sorkin co-anchor of CNBC’s Opening Bell. Andrew was a gifted writer for the New York Times before joining my friends at CNBC and regrettably he now writes more sparingly for the Times. However, his article in the Times last week, titled “For Buffet, the Past Isn’t Always Prologue,” was, by my pencil, the best article of the week!
For the record, Henry Singleton was the Warren Buffet of that era. Singleton was the co-founder of Teledyne in 1960 and built it into one of the most profitable companies ever. He was the pioneer of company share repurchases, as well as the instigator of the purchase of deeply undervalued companies. He had an uncanny ability to resist fads, as well as criticism. His focus was on 1) defining his investment framework by following a strict discipline; and, 2) always doing his own work. Those focuses generated extraordinary results from ordinary businesses whereby Teledyne enjoyed 30%+ returns on equity, and EPS growth of greater than 1200% in a 10-year period. Teledyne’s businesses were diverse, but with exceptional returns on capital that included companies like offshore drilling units, auto parts, machine tools, electronic components, engines, Water Pik, etc. Singleton often stated, “After we acquire a business, we reflect on all aspects of that business. Our conclusion was that the key was cash flow.” He went on to note that investors should NOT focus on accounting profits, but free cash flow that can be redeployed in the business at a high rate of return to shareholders.
Moreover, like Buffett, Henry Singleton concentrated his investments with Litton, at one point making up 25% of his investment portfolio. He also tried to stay within his “circle of competence” by buying companies that paralleled Teledyne’s strengths. Further, Singleton liked to buy companies at 6x earnings (price/earnings), with an earnings yield of 17% (earnings/price), because such metrics provide a large margin of safety on the downside. After spending decades creating one of the world’s largest conglomerates, Singleton stepped down as CEO in 1986, but remained as Chairman, and decided to break the company into three pieces, believing it had become too big for a single manager to oversee.
I revisit the Henry Singleton’s Teledyne story this morning because my friend Doug Kass, of Seabreeze Partners fame, peppered Warren Buffett with questions at last week’s Berkshire Hathaway annual event in Omaha. One of his more prickly questions was, “Should Berkshire be broken up into various pieces, like Henry Singleton did with Teledyne, to maximize shareholder value?” After a long pause a scowling Warren Buffett responded, “Breaking them up into several companies I’m convinced would create a poorer result.” Charlie Munger, Buffett’s partner, added, “I don’t think you should get into your head, just because he is a genius, [that] he did it better than us.”
I read Sorkin’s article a few times and got the sense that Warren Buffett, and Charlie Munger, have been merely copying the traits of Henry Singleton’s investment style. I also have to question, after the transition to new leadership, if Berkshire can compound money as well as it has under the current dynamic duo? For example, it is doubtful that new management will be able to command the kind of special convertible preferreds, with very high dividend yields, that Buffett was able to garner from companies like Goldman Sachs and General Electric among others, which have clearly helped Berkshire’s performance.
Dougie concluded by asking Buffett if his son Howard would be installed as the nonexecutive chairman of Berkshire by asking, “How, beyond the accident of birth, is your son qualified to be nonexecutive chairman?” Buffett responded, “He has no illusions at all of running the business.” Charlie Munger chimed in with, “I want to say to the many Mungers in the audience:
Don’t be stupid and sell these shares.” And, last week that advice proved correct as Berkshire shares traded to new all-time highs.