Insurance, trains and ice cream: the many sides of Warren Buffett's empire

New York (AFP) –


Since making his first stock purchase at 11 years old, Warren Buffett has built a business empire that extends to insurance, rail transport and frozen desserts, not to mention a bulging portfolio of financial market investments.

Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett's holding company, takes its name from a textile business he acquired in 1965 and which went bust in the 1980s.

But that unsuccessful investment did not stop the company from becoming one of the biggest in the world, with a market value of more than $500 billion and with nearly 400,000 employees.

- Insurance companies -

GEICO, the US auto insurer known for its mascot, a green, British-accented gecko, was one of Buffett's first big moves. But Berkshire also has stakes in life and health insurance coverage as well as reinsurance.

The multi-billionaire describes this business line as Berkshire Hathaway's growth engine, allowing the company to invest policyholder premiums and pay out claims as needed.

- Trains -

The BNSF Railway Company includes nearly 400 companies acquired over 160 years. With more than 8,000 locomotives rolling on more than 32,000 miles (50,000 kilometers) of railways and 45,000 employees, the company hauls passengers as well as grain and autos in the central and western United States.

- Energy -

With coal, natural gas and solar power, Berkshire Hathaway produces and delivers energy to nearly 12 million customers worldwide. The company also this week pledged $10 billion to help finance Occidental Petroleum's bid to beat out rival Chevron take over Anadarko Petroleum.

- Four dozen different companies -

Always on the lookout for a good deal, Buffett over the years has scooped up a diverse array of companies like the metal components maker Precision Castparts; wholesale supply chain firm McLane Company; underwear maker Fruit of the Loom; carpet manufacturer Shaw Industries; Duracell batteries and the Dairy Queen chain of fast food restaurants.

Berkshire Hathaway also has significant stakes in companies like the food conglomerate Kraft-Heinz.

But the billionaire does not choose his targets at random, according to Lawrence Cunningham, professor of law at George Washington University. Behind their apparent diversity, they share common traits, like an aversion to waste and a concern for their reputations.

- A well-stocked portfolio -

Berkshire's Wall Street holdings amount to $173 billion in stock.

A battle-hardened investor, Buffett prefers the financial sector: The company owns 18 percent of American Express as well as large parts of Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, in addition to iconic consumer brands like Coca-Cola.

While he most often steers clear of the latest hot technology, he has since 2016 been investing heavily in iPhone maker Apple, and is now the second-largest shareholder.

The company also has taken large positions on the bond market and, as of the end of last year, held $112 billion in US debt.