Warren Buffett made an inappropriate remark about women while attempting to describe the logic behind Kraft Heinz’ recent takeover bid for Unilever.
Kraft Heinz, which is backed by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and the private equity firm 3G Capital, offered $143 billion for the maker of Hellman’s mayonnaise and Dove toilettries.
Unilever formally rejected the offer and, two days later, the consumer goods giant withdrew its bid.
In an interview Monday, CNBC’s Becky Quick asked Buffett about the failed takeover attempt. In response, he likened Unilever to a woman, saying, “If a lady says no, she means maybe.”
Here’s the excerpt via CNBC (emphasis ours):
WARREN BUFFETT: What happened? I can tell you what happened. Most of what I can tell you, I can tell you for sure. And then the other side couple things I have to draw inferences on. But Alex Behring, who’s chairman of Kraft Heinz, and part of the 3G operation with Jorge Paulo … they and I agreed on making a friendly offer for Unilever if they were open to it. And Alex Behring went over to London, I don’t know how long ago, maybe four weeks ago or whenever it would have been, and met with their CEO and had a conversation. And he brought up the idea of possibly making an offer late in the conversation. And he didn’t get a yes, he didn’t get a no, he got perfectly polite conversation. And the CEO, actually Greg Abel of Berkshire, knowing him 20 years ago I mean, we had nothing but good reports about him. We felt fine about it. So Alex came back and said that he hadn’t been thrown out. And so would we want to go ahead? So we went to see him again maybe two weeks later. And he had a letter that was an outline of a deal, which he thought if he got a neutral response, he would give. But if he got a negative feeling, he would not. And he went over and felt he got a neutral response. And therefore, gave the letter. Now, I might mention you know, it reminds me of that old story about the difference between a diplomat and a lady. I don’t know whether you’ve ever heard that or not.
BECKY QUICK: No.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, if a diplomat says yes, he means maybe. If he says maybe, he means no. And if he says no, he’s no diplomat. And if a lady says no, she means maybe. And if she says maybe, she means yes. And if she says yes, she’s no lady. So he probably got a maybe and didn’t know whether it was coming from a diplomat or a lady, essentially. I mean, that’s what frequently people get. I don’t work on acquisitions that way myself, I just go in and say, “If you want me to make an offer, I’ll make one. If you don’t want me to make an offer, I won’t make one. And I’ll tell you a price if I do it.” But there’s usually much more of a mating dance than that. And so you get this, “I’ll take it to the board,” and all that. And you’re dealing with different kinds of people. Some people are different cultures, they’re more polite than others, and so on. So Alex took it as being a maybe. And gave this letter outlining a deal to Unilever. And it was said it would go to the board. Well, it became very apparent that Unilever did not want this offer based on – within a few days, press reports. For one thing, it leaked somehow on a Wednesday prior to the Friday one. And so on Saturday, I got – after that Friday – I got calls indicating that the offer was unwelcome. And I was said, “It’s unwelcome?” And Jorge Paulo said the same thing, I mean, if it’s unwelcome, there is no offer. I mean, it was only intended to be presented if there was a possibility.
BECKY QUICK: It was never intended as a hostile offer?
WARREN BUFFETT: No. Zero. And on the other hand, it may have been interpreted that way. And, you know, I can’t argue about that. If people say, “We don’t like the price,” that’s usually a maybe.
Buffett has been known to make sexual jokes in the past. In his 2005 shareholder letter, he described growing both Berkshire Hathaway’s investments and its earnings with the following:
“In this ambition, we hope — metaphorically — to avoid the fate of the elderly couple who had been romantically challenged for some time. As they finished dinner on their 50th anniversary, however, the wife — stimulated by soft music, wine and candlelight — felt a long-absent tickle and demurely suggested to her husband that they go upstairs and make love. He agonized for a moment and then replied, ‘I can do one or the other, but not both.'”