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Warren Buffett, in a return to basics, nears one of Berkshire Hathaway’s biggest deals ever

Warren Buffett is going back to his basics.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is reportedly nearing a deal to buy Precision Castparts, a maker of aircraft components, like blades in jet engines, and energy production equipment as well as other industrial components. The Wall Street Journal first reported the deal and its potential $30 billion price tag, which would make it the most Berkshire’s has ever spent on a deal. (Although in terms of overall cost, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, of which Berkshire already owned 23% when it was acquired, at $44 billion still ranks as Buffett’s biggest deal.)

[Update: The deal was announced Monday morning. The deal is valued at around $37 billion, or $235 per share.]

It’s also a break from the food business, where Berkshire (BRKA) has done a string of big deals recently, including Heinz and Kraft, as well as providing financing for Burger King’s acquisition of Canadian doughnut chain Tim Horton’s. Kraft was trading for $36 billion before it was acquired. But all of those deals have been done along with Brazilian investment firm 3G, and the Heinz deal, at least initially, came with a good deal of leverage.

Berkshire is likely to be pursuing Precision Castparts (PCP) on its own and will use a good portion of its nearly $70 billion in cash to acquire the company. As a stock market investor, Buffett has been known to favor companies with strong consumer brands. He has long held stakes in Coca-Cola (KO) and America Express (AXP). But when it comes to acquisitions, Berkshire has focused on less sexy industrial companies. His largest acquisition to date was for the 77% of railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe he didn’t already own, for $26 billion. Berkshire also owns parts maker Marmon, Israeli tool company Iscar, and specialty chemical company Lubrizol.

 

Berkshire, which has long been known as Buffett’s insurance and investment vehicle, generated $6 billion from its non-insurance and non-investing activities in the first half of 2015. In the past decade, Buffett has transformed the company into a collection of other operating businesses. Berkshire reported its second quarter earnings on Friday, which dropped 37% from a year ago. Precision, which had income just over $1.5 billion in its most recent fiscal year ending in March, would boost those earnings by more than 10%.

Precision’s highly specialized parts for airplane makers gives the company a “business moat,” a protection from competitors, that Buffett has said he looks for. The company gets 70% of its $10 billion in revenue from the aerospace industry, as airlines have ramped up demand for fuel-efficient jets. The acquisition is also a bet on the improving finances of the newly consolidated airline industry and the economy in general, which Buffett has long been positive on. For Precision, which has recently done a number of small acquisitions and plans to continue, the Berkshire acquisition will give it access to Buffett’s large checkbook.

Precision is also a company that Berkshire knows well. Fortune reported last year that Berkshire’s Todd Combs, one half of the investment duo that is likely to take over from Buffett when he leaves the company, began buying shares of Precision in 2012. Combs has built his stake in the company over time to about 3%, which is now worth nearly $900 million.

 

Unlike some of its recent acquisitions, Berkshire may be getting a deal with Precision. Heinz shares, for instance, were up 27% in the year before Berkshire and 3G bought the company, near their recent high. Precision shares, though, are off nearly 30% from their all-time high, as the company’s earnings have been hit by weakness in the oil and gas sector, where the majority of the company’s non-aerospace sales come from.

At the same time, the $30 billion deal would value Precision at 20 times earnings, based on last year’s $1.5 billion figure. That’s not much less than what the shares of the average company in the S&P 500 are currently trading at. Berkshire paid 18 times earnings for BNSF back in 2010. Even for Buffett, the basics cost more than they used to.

Update: An earlier version of this story said that at $30 billion Precision Castparts would be Buffett’s largest acquisition ever. That is not the case. The acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad remains Buffett’s largest deal. But the Precision Castparts deal would be Buffett’s largest cash outlay for an acquisition. When Berkshire bought BNSF in 2010, the deal valued the company at $44 billion, including $10 billion in debt. But because Berkshire already owned 23% of the company, Berkshire only had to put up an additional $26.6 billion to buy that company.