Buffett backing Gilbert bid for Yahoo

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Legendary investor Warren Buffett is backing a bid by Quicken Loans Inc. founder Dan Gilbert to buy Yahoo’s core internet business.

Buffett, the second-richest person in America, confirmed the bid for Yahoo in a statement to CNBC on Monday. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has offered to be a potential finance partner, while Gilbert leads negotiations, Buffett said. Gilbert could not be reached for comment Monday.

It’s too soon tell if the effort will succeed, and what it would mean for Detroit is anyone’s guess. But it highlights the friendship and respect the two billionaires have publicly displayed for one another over the past several years. Gilbert has invested billions in Detroit, particularly downtown, and Buffett has said the post-bankrupt Detroit is a good business opportunity.

Howes: Could Gilbert’s Yahoo play be boon for Detroit?

“I’m an enormous admirer of Dan and what he has accomplished in Quicken Loans,” Buffett said in the statement released to CNBC. “Yahoo is not the type of thing I’d ever be an equity partner in. I don’t know the business and wouldn’t know how to evaluate it, but if Dan needed financing, with proper terms and protections, we would be a possible financing help.”

Buffett is chairman of the board and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha conglomerate with major investments in Goldman Sachs, General Motors Co., Coca-Cola, American Express and Wells Fargo. Lately he’s teamed up in various deals for Kraft Foods, Heinz, Burger King and Tim Hortons. His worth is $62 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which ranked him as the second-wealthiest American.

Detroit-born Gilbert is worth $5 billion, according to Forbes, which ranked him as the 286th wealthiest American. Gilbert is founder of Quicken — the nation’s largest online mortgage lender — and owns other ventures from casinos to media publications to the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

Buffett and Gilbert have known each other for at least three years. Buffett came to the Motor City in November 2013 to kick off the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. It’s a $20 million program geared at entrepreneurs.

Buffett, the program’s co-chair, said at the event that he was “a huge fan of Detroit.” He also praised Gilbert: “When I talk to Dan Gilbert, you can’t stop someone like that.”

In September 2014, Gilbert and Buffett shared a stage in Detroit at an event called Detroit Homecoming, and heaped praise on one another, as well as the Motor City. Buffett said then that a post-bankrupt Detroit fit into his belief that great business opportunities can be found in situations where most investors are afraid to venture.

“We would buy a company in Detroit,” said Buffett, as he and Gilbert held a wide-ranging conversation on the stage at the College for Creative Studies.

Buffett and Gilbert also were involved in a high-stakes venture before: Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway insured a challenge pitched by Gilbert that would pay $1 billion to anyone who could pick correctly the winner of every bracket of the 2014 NCAA March Madness tournament.

“I should be institutionalized,” joked Buffett at the time. But in the end, his money was safe. No one won.

Gilbert, a major force in Detroit, has invested $2.2 billion since 2010 in buying and renovating property mainly in the city’s downtown, ranging from skyscrapers to parking garages and smaller buildings. He has long talked of creating a tech and entertainment hub in the Motor City.

“When I listen to Dan Gilbert, he always talks of building a high-knowledge, high-wage core” in Detroit, said Lou Glazer, president and co-founder of Michigan Future Inc., a nonprofit that promotes Michigan’s role in the knowledge economy.

Gilbert is banking on technology, millennials and walkability to revive the downtown. He’s counting on his wealth and connections to create a cluster of entrepreneurial companies that will lure other startups away from Chicago, New York and Silicon Valley.

From early on, he called his vision “Detroit 2.0.” “By being downtown, in one place, other businesses will emerge,” Gilbert said during a 2011 presentation.

Maureen Krauss, senior adviser for economic development for the Detroit Regional Chamber, said Monday: “Dan Gilbert is one of our star business leaders who continue to diversify the economy. All any of us can do is guess what is going to happen. But I don’t think it means Yahoo moves here. I do think it means we get some piece.”

Yahoo is in its second round of potential offers. Verizon Communications, which bought AOL last year for $4.4 billion, is among the other bidders, according to reports. Other unknown private equity forms are also in the running.

At its peak in early 2000, Yahoo was worth $255 billion. The Silicon Valley company is now valued at $35 billion. It’s had six CEOs over the past nine years. Yahoo’s internet business, including search, mail and news, attracts an international audience, but the company is hemorrhaging money.


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