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In Search of the Next Berkshire Hathaway

Stocks in this article: PICO BH

From an asset perspective, the company is fairly compelling. However, that has not translated into much success in recent years. With management's focus on increasing book value per share, earnings have not been consistent, and it's been a difficult company for investors to understand. Complicating matters, book value has actually fallen in recent years. I still believe that the sum of the parts is still worth more than the whole, but PICO has a long way to go, even to live up to my "poor man's Berkshire Hathaway" description.

Biglari Holdings

My latest quest to find Berkshire Hathaway-like potential resulted in a position in another smaller name, Biglari Holdings (BH) of San Antonio. Formerly Steak 'n Shake, the company is the capital allocation vehicle of hedge fund manager Sardar Biglari, the company's CEO.

Just 34 years old, Biglari has already made quite a splash in the investment world. If you have not yet heard of him, I suspect that you will. Biglari is a larger-than-life manager with some early successes, such as turning around fast food chain Steak 'n Shake. He has also drawn criticism from people who view him as a Warren Buffett wannabe who's trying to get there using some non-Buffett moves.

Biglari drew heat a couple of years ago when he proposed changing the name of the company from Steak 'n Shake, to one that bears his name -- a move that shareholders approved. He was also under fire for proposing a pay package for himself that some people considered excessive. Ultimately, a slightly watered-down version of that package was also approved.

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Biglari also lacks Buffett's Midwest folksy charm. He's much more of an activist than Buffett ever was, taking aim at companies, building stakes and attempting to get seats on their boards. That's what is currently unfolding with restaurant chain Cracker Barrel (CBRL), in which Biglari Holdings has built a 17% position. Biglari has criticized Cracker Barrel's management and demanded changes. Contrast that to Buffett, who typically buys businesses whose management teams he likes and stays out of day-to-day operations.

Suffice it to say that it's way too early to make comparisons between Biglari and Buffett, between Biglari Holdings and Berkshire Hathaway. I'm encouraged by some of Sardar Biglari's successes. He has shown early promise as a capital allocator. He may improve with more seasoning. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the quest continues.

-- Written by Jonathan Heller, president of KEJ Financial Advisors and a contributor to TheStreet and Real Money. As of publication, he was long PICO and BH.

At the time of publication, Heller was long PICO and BH.

Jonathan Heller, CFA, is president of KEJ Financial Advisors, his fee-only financial planning company. Jon spent 17 years at Bloomberg Financial Markets in various roles, from 1989 until 2005. He ran Bloomberg's Equity Fundamental Research Department from 1994 until 1998, when he assumed responsibility for Bloomberg's Equity Data Research Department. In 2001, he joined Bloomberg's Publishing group as senior markets editor and writer for Bloomberg Personal Finance Magazine, and an associate editor and contributor for Bloomberg Markets Magazine. In 2005, he joined SEI Investments as director of investment communications within SEI's Investment Management Unit.

Jon is also the founder of the Cheap Stocks Web site, a site dedicated to deep-value investing. He has an undergraduate degree from Grove City College and an MBA from Rider University, where he has also served on the adjunct faculty; he is also a CFA charter holder.

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