Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett has confirmed that he “had discussions” with Uber, after a Bloomberg report suggested he offered the ride-hailing firm a $3 billion investment, but talks fell through.
However, the legendary investor told CNBC that some of the details in that report were “not correct.” Which details? That’s not clear, but here’s the gist of the story:
According to Bloomberg, Buffett’s $3 billion wasn’t necessarily the biggest thing that was on offer—rather, it was his credibility and the image boost it would have given to Uber, a company that has been known to have an image problem or two over recent years.
Buffett did this with Goldman Sachs during the financial crisis—Berkshire Hathaway’s $5 billion injection into the flailing outfit gave it the bump it needed to go raise more money. But in exchange for his money and cred, Buffett got a great deal: $5 billion in perpetual preferred shares (which came with a 10% dividend) and warrants for 43.5 million additional shares, which turned into a huge ownership stake several years later.
The Bloomberg piece suggests that Buffett originally wanted to throw “well above $3 billion” at Uber, but Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wasn’t even keen on the $3 billion figure, and tried to get it down to $2 billion in order to give Buffett a smaller potential share of the firm. Unable to agree on the terms, the parties walked away.
It seems Khosrowshahi’s confidence stemmed at least partly from the whopping $9.3 billion investment Uber had just received from Japan’s SoftBank, increasingly the power player in the tech sector. Uber isn’t desperate for cash right now. But that’s probably not the whole story.
The fact is, Uber’s image is lot better these days than it used to be under scandal-prone Travis Kalanick. Khosrowshahi has done his best to convey level-headedness and contrition for Uber’s past sins—an expensive endeavor, as detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal piece about big corporate apology tours.
But this tonal shift isn’t merely a PR exercise. Note, for example, Uber’s by-the-books dealings with U.S. transport regulators in self-driving-car crash investigations—a stark contrast with Tesla’s approach to the same issue, characterized by public spats with the officials. OK, so a lot of people are annoyed at the way Uber exited South East Asia, by suddenly handing a huge monopoly to rival Grab (which is also backed by SoftBank,) but—at least as far as investors are concerned—that’s a far cry from the sort of bad behavior that previously almost defined Uber.
It appears Khosrowshahi felt comfortable with turning down not only Buffett’s cash, but his cachet too. That’s a remarkable turn of events for all involved.