What Could Make Sammy Run? Maybe Buffett

Keter Plastic has the qualities that the billionaire professes to like

Could Keter Plastic be Warren Buffett's next purchase? It might be, if its owner Sammy Sagol was prepared to sell it, but he isn't. At least he says he isn't.

This week Israelis were pleased, if surprised, to hear that Buffett - who until buying 80% of Israel's Iscar, had invested only in the U.S. - was in the market for other outstanding Israeli companies. Buffett also said that he hadn't received any suggestions from any other Israeli companies after the Iscar deal.

Given that he agreed to pay $4 billion for 80% of the privately held blades maker, most people had assumed that Israelis would be lining up wearing T-shirts saying "Buy me". It didn't happen.

If any are considering it, though, Buffett and his partner in Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger, spelled out the kind of companies they like. Family firm; big; whose owners and people like what they do, not the money they make. And if he finds a good company like that, he promises that Berkshire will be a happy home.

And all that makes Keter Plastic look like a really good candidate.

The company is Israel's leading plastics maker for the home and garden. It grew out of a tiny family endeavor founded in Jaffa by Joseph Sagol, into a global company under the stewardship of son Sammy Sagol.

But Sammy S. has no obvious heir, and in recent years has been mulling the addition of a partner. Buffett would be quite the prestigious one.

This week, Sagol had an opportunity to meet with the great man, who came to Israel for a 3-day visit and spoke at a conference at the King David Hotel in  Jerusalem, which the plastics king attended. But Sagol decided at this stage not to introduce himself; he evidently is not prepared to exit his family holdings as the Wertheimers did in Iscar. "I have a lot more to do at Keter before I make any moves," he explains.

Sagol is close to the Wertheimer family, more to father Stef than to son Eitan. His other role model is Eli Hurvitz, the legendary chairman that grew Teva Pharmaceuticals (TASE, Nasdaq: TEVA) from a local drug importer to the world's biggest generic drugs company. But Sagol has zero intention of using his relations with the Wertheimers to establish a relationship with the billionaire investor. "I can always write Buffett directly," he shrugs.

Anti-hack filter

Keter Plastic is a lot smaller than Iscar. Two years ago the company was appraised at about $350 million.  Its 2004 sales were $700 million. In 2005, Keter bought the European division of the American home-storage staple Rubbermaid for $35 million. The company has 34 plants, half of which are in Israel, and 3,000 employees.

Buffett and Munger choose their companies themselves, and filter out minnow shareholders by the simple expedient of refusing to split their shares, which are trading not far from $100,000 apiece. If anything, Buffett professes to hope the share price passes $100,000: since he can't control who buys Berkshire Hathaway stock, at least he can filter out cranks through its high price. "I want to attract investors, not speculators," he says.

He wants people who relate to his shares like they would relate to their homes: as a long-term investment. And meanwhile, he's just doing his job: to find terrific businesses run by fantastic people. Is Keter like that? Time will tell.