Billionaire investor Warren Buffett struck a deal to eventually acquire control of truck-stop chain Pilot Flying J in a move that will preserve the company's Tennessee headquarters and leadership.
The deal will mark the end of the Haslam family's control of Pilot Flying J, which has more than 27,000 employees, 750 locations and $20 billion in revenue.
Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam owns the Cleveland Browns, and his brother, Bill, is the governor of Tennessee and is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate. Their father, Jim, started the company in 1958.
The founding family's shares in the Knoxville-based chain will immediately drop from 77% to 50.1%, with Berkshire Hathaway acquiring 38.6%. Minority stakeholder FJ Management Inc. will retain an 11.3% stake.
By 2023, Berkshire will become Pilot Flying J's majority shareholder by acquiring another 41.4%, with the Haslam family keeping 20%.
Jimmy Haslam will stay on as CEO through 2023, and the company's headquarters will stay in place in keeping with Buffett's strategy of preserving independent operations of his acquisition targets.
The family will continue to be involved in leading the company after 2023, Haslam said. Pilot President Ken Parent and the current management team will stay on as well.
"We've never made a move of the home office of any company we've bought," Buffett told the USA TODAY Network - Tennessee in an interview. "We don't buy companies to change them."
The companies declined to detail the financial elements of the transaction.
"Obviously to have a partner like Warren and Berkshire Hathaway, I think, is a tremendous honor for our team members," Jimmy Haslam said in an interview. "Pilot Flying J has always been a growth company, and obviously partnering with Warren is an opportunity to grow even more."
Buffett hailed the Haslam family's leadership.
"They've had 60 years of building this company. It's always been their company. We jump at the chance to work alongside companies like that," he said.
It's not Buffett's first deal in Tennessee. He bought Maryville-based Clayton Homes, the country's biggest producer of manufactured housing, for $1.7 billion in 2003. Since then, CEO Kevin Clayton has continued to head the company, which has maintained its offices at its home base in Blount County.
Buffett's reputation and Clayton's praise for working with Berkshire Hathaway helped prove deciding factors in the sale, Haslam said. Byron Trott, CEO of BDT Capital Partners and a mutual friend of Buffett and Haslam, also played a role.
"Kevin Clayton could not have been more complimentary," Jimmy Haslam said.
Talks began in early May, and negotiations picked up steam by July.
"It came together pretty fast," Buffett said. "We like the business and we like the people, so it worked."
The deal comes amid an ongoing legal episode involving a scheme in which Pilot Flying J allegedly shortchanged some customers on diesel rebates.
The company paid a $92 million settlement to trucking customers after a 2013 raid by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. Fourteen former Pilot employees have pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in that scheme, with four more set for trial later this month, including former company president Mark Hazelwood. Jimmy Haslam has denied knowing about the scheme and hasn't been charged.
He and Buffett said that case cast no shadow on the deal.
"I knew about it, but it will not affect the future of the company," Buffett said.
Matt Lakin and Nate Rau report for the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel; Nathan Bomey reports for USA TODAY. Follow Lakin, Rau and Bomey on Twitter: @mlakin, @tnnaterau and @NathanBomey
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