Jul 21, 2010
Joanna Pachner at Business Without Borders has a fantastic article profiling Bruce Flatt and his company Brookfield Asset Management:
As a rule, the CEO of Brookfield Asset Management is studiously non-controversial. He rarely appears in public and has little to say to the media. Put-downs? Bravado? “We don’t brag,” he says earnestly. “It always bites you afterwards.”
Instead, Flatt seems to go out of his way to paint Brookfield as boring. “We own 129 office buildings. Some are a little taller, some are a bit shorter,” he says laconically. The strategy? “We’re in the business of buying assets of great quality at less than replacement cost.” The company’s remarkably consistent objective over the years simply has been to earn a 12% to 15% compound annual return per share. “We have no goal to be large or significant,” says Flatt. “If [reaching our objective] meant we should shrink in size, we’d do that.” Even Brookfield’s logo is understated, and its 2009 annual report looks like something thrown together at Kinko’s. Move along, everyone, nothing to see here.
The reality is that this slender 45-year-old executive runs a conglomerate that manages $108-billion worth of real estate, utilities and infrastructure across the planet. In the eight years Flatt has been in charge, Brookfield has emerged as the world’s biggest owner of prime office space—including some of the most prestigious towers on the Manhattan skyline—and its 165 power plants constitute one of the largest hydroelectric portfolios. But what has really impressed observers is how Brookfield weathered the crushing downturn that crippled many of its rivals. Over two years, as its stock plunged by two-thirds along with the markets, the company didn’t panic or go into hype mode. Instead, it quietly added to an already thick cushion of capital. And waited.
…The business landscape is littered with companies that gambled with cheap money and got caught with their shares down and their loans called. Brookfield, meanwhile, has amassed a nearly $10-billion war chest of its own and institutional investors’ cash and has gone hunting. After devouring an Australian port and railway giant and a few real estate portfolios, it’s now tracking perhaps its most succulent prey: General Growth Properties, the second-largest mall operator in the U.S., which adopted the spendthrift ways of its customers, stockpiled a glittering array of trophy properties on credit, and when the markets seized, toppled into bankruptcy. Enter Brookfield, offering up its capital and restructuring expertise in exchange for control of the company.
Whether or not Brookfield secures the deal—the outcome may not be known until this fall —it’s an important chapter for the company, says a close long-time observer who requested anonymity. “This could be a huge new platform for them. Or it could be a huge profit.” Some see it as an unusually risky play for careful Brookfield. But they don’t appreciate its predatory ways.
Be sure to read the entire article. It’s wonderful and details how Flatt has reoriented Brookfield since taking over as CEO.
Brookfield is an interesting business in that much of its revenue stream in that its properties throw off a substantial amount of free cash flow (about $1.5B annually). Some of their properties are more economic sensitive than others – particularly the office buildings and potentially the malls that they would acquire from General Growth Properties. But that would be offset by their infrastructure investments.
For investors hoping to find a savvy team of deal makers who will invest opportunistically in real estate, Brookfield is a good place to start. There aren’t a whole lot of value oriented real estate groups like Brookfield. A lot of the players simply try to buy and sell into bubbles.
Pachner compares Flatt and Brookfield’s approach to investing as similar to the entrepreneurs cited in Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot book From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero. This is a good comparison. For the most part, Flatt has been able to steer Brookfield into investing conservatively during bubbles which enables them to build up cash hordes and purchase distressed properties at a discount to their margin of safety when there are few other real competitors.
The most difficult thing about analyzing Brookfield is probably their size. While it helps when they are getting involved in special situations and deals, but it creates difficulty for an analyst attempting to value the company with precision. I think that if you use the intrinsic value estimates that Brookfield provides, along with that average free cash flow figure of $1.5B. You can then get an approximation of what Brookfield is really worth and compare it to its trading price. Ideally you want to obtain a margin of safety and then get the kicker of their investing prowess which should compound intrinsic value.