Let’s start at GEICO, which is known to all of you because of its $800 million annual advertising budget (close to twice that of the runner-up advertiser in the auto insurance field). GEICO is managed by Tony Nicely, who joined the company at 18. Now 66, Tony still tap-dances to the office every day, just as I do at 79. We both feel lucky to work at a business we love.
GEICO’s customers have warm feelings toward the company as well. Here’s proof: Since Berkshire acquired control of GEICO in 1996, its market share has increased from 2.5% to 8.1%, a gain reflecting the net addition of seven million policyholders. Perhaps they contacted us because they thought our gecko was cute, but they bought from us to save important money. (Maybe you can as well; call 1-800-847-7536 or go to www.GEICO.com.) And they’ve stayed with us because they like our service as well as our price.
Berkshire acquired GEICO in two stages. In 1976-80 we bought about one-third of the company’s stock for $47 million. Over the years, large repurchases by the company of its own shares caused our position to grow to about 50% without our having bought any more shares. Then, on January 2, 1996, we acquired the remaining 50% of GEICO for $2.3 billion in cash, about 50 times the cost of our original purchase.
An old Wall Street joke gets close to our experience:
Customer: Thanks for putting me in XYZ stock at 5. I hear it’s up to 18.
Broker: Yes, and that’s just the beginning. In fact, the company is doing so well now, that it’s an even better buy at 18 than it was when you made your purchase.
Customer: Damn, I knew I should have waited.
GEICO’s growth may slow in 2010. U.S. vehicle registrations are actually down because of slumping auto sales. Moreover, high unemployment is causing a growing number of drivers to go uninsured. (That’s illegal almost everywhere, but if you’ve lost your job and still want to drive . . .) Our “low-cost producer” status, however, is sure to give us significant gains in the future. In 1995, GEICO was the country’s sixth largest auto insurer; now we are number three. The company’s float has grown from $2.7 billion to $9.6 billion. Equally important, GEICO has operated at an underwriting profit in 13 of the 14 years Berkshire has owned it.
I became excited about GEICO in January 1951, when I first visited the company as a 20-year-old student. Thanks to Tony, I’m even more excited today.