By Josh P. Hamilton
April 23 (Bloomberg) -- Billionaire Warren Buffett, who will embark on a four-city European trip next month to meet with owners of family businesses, has for years been laying the groundwork for an acquisition in Europe.
At the center of that effort is Angelo Moratti, scion of the founding family of Italian energy company Saras SpA. The third week of May, the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chairman will travel to Milan, Madrid and cities in Germany and Switzerland, Moratti said. Buffett's assistant, Debbie Bosanek, confirmed the trip.
``The purpose of the trip is to meet family-owned companies, owners of family companies, the typical European dynasties,'' said Moratti, vice president of Milan-based Saras, in a telephone interview. ``His idea is that sooner or later one of these great businesses will fall into his hands.''
Buffett, 77, has been looking outside the U.S. to put his company's more than $40 billion in cash to work. Moratti said he is organizing the tour along with Eitan Wertheimer, president of Israel-based Iscar Metalworking Cos., acquired by Berkshire in 2006 in Buffett's first non-U.S. acquisition.
Moratti is a ``bird dog'' who may be able to point Buffett to profitable ventures in Europe, said Tom Russo, who helps manage more than $3 billion, including Berkshire shares.
``Buffett was underrepresented in Europe because he doesn't use the investment bankers, so he needed to develop his own profile,'' Russo, a partner in Gardner Russo & Gardner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said in an interview.
Buffett declined to comment yesterday. Moratti wouldn't name any business owners who would be sitting down with the American investor.
``We're carefully choosing who he's going to meet with,'' Moratti said. ``They may not be ready to sell now, but they may be ready in five years.''
Buffett built Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire over four decades from a failing textile maker into a $200 billion holding company with businesses ranging from candy making to insurance. He is the world's richest person, according to Forbes magazine.
The European story began seven years ago.
About 50 people came to Moratti's house in Milan in early 2001 to meet the man who at the time was little known in Europe outside of financial circles, Moratti said. Attendees included members of the Barilla family, owners of the Italian pasta company of the same name, Spain's Arango family, the head of Telecom Italia, and heads of Italian banks.
Buffett Answers Questions
Buffett sat on Moratti's couch for an hour and a half fielding questions ranging from why he counts Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates a close friend to what he thought of the U.S. dollar. The guests' reaction was ``fantastic,'' Moratti said.
With the euro fetching less than a dollar at the time, Buffett predicted the currency would get ``a lot stronger in the next few years,'' Moratti said. ``I should be interested a lot more in investing in Europe in the future'' Buffett said, according to Moratti.
The euro yesterday traded at $1.59.
Buffett began betting against the dollar with forward currency contracts in 2002, and held as much as $21.8 billion of them in 2005. The following year, he said he would prefer to buy interests in companies outside the U.S.
Pressure on the Dollar
``Americans like buying products made elsewhere more than the rest of the world likes buying products made in the U.S.,'' Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire shareholders last February. ``Inevitably, that causes America to ship about $2 billion of IOUs and assets daily to the rest of the world. And over time, that puts pressure on the dollar.''
One of Buffett's mantras is to invest in what he knows. After the 2001 dinner in Milan, Buffett asked Moratti to be his eyes and ears in Europe.
``He realized European culture was very different from what he was used to,'' Moratti said.
Since then, Moratti says he's been trekking to Omaha at least four times a year to brief Buffett on companies and issues in Europe. ``I do it as a friend,'' says Moratti, who, in addition to helping run Saras, describes himself as an investor who had studied Buffett before meeting him.
In exchange, Moratti says he gets frequent access to the man he calls the wisest and happiest person he's ever met. Buffett counseled Moratti when his family was considering whether to go public in 2005. The Saras IPO raised more than 2 billion euros.
The trip will help educate Europeans about Buffett and his methods, Moratti said. Buffett has a history of leaving entrepreneurs -- like Santulli at NetJets -- in control of their companies after making acquisitions.
Buffett offers access to capital and financial expertise, and the promise that business owners won't have to give up the helm. That may appeal to Europe's family dynasties, Moratti said.
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