Weekenders

Well, I haven’t done this for a while, but I have a few things on my mind, and it is a weekend, so I thought I’d just share them with you today.

NOBODY LOSES

Okay, so the paper says today that Warren Buffett’s BNSF Railway is going to upgrade its oil tanker fleet to make it safer. 5,000 new, safer tank cars. Now here’s a deal in which there are no losers.

First of all, the public wins because there are going to be safer cars on the railroad tracks.

Second, Buffett wins, because this is an all-Buffett deal. Here’s how it will work.

Berkshire Hathaway, which owns BNSF, is Buffett’s company. At first blush, this might not look like such a good deal for BNSF or Buffett, because building those new tank cars is going to be expensive. BNSF says it is going to call for bids on the new cars. They’re going to cost a lot of money.

Well, maybe, but I bet you I can tell you who is going to get the bid: a company called the Union Tank Car Company. See, the Union Tank Car Company builds tank cars—it’s their specialty—and it’s a subsidiary of another company called The Marmon Group. And—surprise—Berkshire Hathaway owns a controlling interest in The Marmon Group. So Buffett is going to be buying cars from himself—just moving BNSF money through Marmon to Union Tank Car.

But BNSF is not really in the business of managing a fleet of tank cars. Their specialty is locomotives and tracks. So they’re going to need someone to manage that fleet of 5,000 tankers, and keep them in good repair. Wanta bet that a company called Procor gets that work? Because Procor is North America’s largest tank car leasing and maintenance company. The oil companies who lease tanker cars now, those tankers that are pulled across the country by BNSF trains, are, for the most part, leasing them from Procor. And who do you suppose owns Procor? Well—surprise—Union Tank Car Company, which is owned by The Marmon Group, whch is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which is owned by Warren Buffett.

So once the Union Tank Car Company builds those cars, Buffett is going to use some more BNSF money to lease them and have them managed by Procor.

See what I mean about no losers? In the end, Warren Buffet gets all the money. Except for the oil companies, of course, who, while paying Buffett to haul their product, get to sell it at the other end of the line. Oil companies like Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips. Whoops, wait a minute. Warren is going to get a chunk of that too. Because last November, Buffett bought 40 million shares of Exxon Mobil stock for three and a half billion dollars, making him the sixth largest shareholder in the world’s largest publicly traded oil company.

And, Buffett also owns 13.5 million shares of stock in Conoco Phillips, another one of the world’s largest oil companies. Conoco Phillips and Exxon Mobil are two of the big players in the Bakken. And in the Alberta tar sands oil field. So every time a barrel of oil comes out of the ground in North Dakota or Alberta, old Warren grins a little wider.

Well, that’s where the money trail ends. The oil companies sell the oil to a refiner, take the money and run. Warren takes his share of the oil company profits. And that’s that. Well, not quite. Because, you see, Warren not only owns a bunch of Conoco Phillips stock, but he also owns 27 million shares of Phillips 66, which just happens to be the nation’s largest independent gasoline refiner. I suppose a penny or two of that $3.30 a gallon gas you’re buying today goes to Warren.

Bottom line: Next time you fill up your car with gas, you know who wins—the man who has his fingers on that gasoline every step of the way, all the way back to sucking his oil from the ground, building his tanker, which is pulled by his locomotive on his tracks that’s hauling his oil from the Alberta Tar Sands or the Bakken to his east coast refineries, where they make his gas. Warren Buffett gets a piece of the action every step of the way. Wow.

If anyone wonders why Warren Buffett is the third richest man in the world, now you know. Because it looks to me like he’s the first smartest.

GOOD-BYE TO A FRIEND

Speaking of smart businessmen, I am sad this weekend about the passing of one of North Dakota’s great entrepreneurs, Harold Newman. I’ve been a fan of Harold’s for 30 years or so, because I am always in awe of people who are really good at what they do. And Harold was really good at what he did. He paid attention to the smallest details that could possibly affect his business, especially government, because when you’re in the sign business you deal with government at every level, every day.

I used to love it at the beginning of every legislative session when Harold would send Dean Anderson, his general manager and “chief lobbyist,” and a few of his salesmen over to the Capitol to check out the territory, to see if there were any bills around which might threaten his company’s ability to do business. Ever since the days of Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act, which put real brakes on the billboard industry, Harold paid attention to the Legislature, and stayed in touch with the Congressional delegation over possible new federal regulations on his industry. And then, if things got touchy in Bismarck, like they did during the Logo Signs debate in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Harold himself would show up and call his loyal Jamestown legislators together, Republican and Democrats alike, because Newman Signs was a big employer in Jamestown, and they’d plot strategy, and by the end of the session, things would turn out all right.

More than that, though, he was fun to be around. He and I did a piece of business once, having to do with some goofy billboards around the state (Mountain Removal Project Complete) and it was about the most fun I ever had during my nearly 8 years in government. He once introduced me to some friends of his as “the most creative man in North Dakota,” and that was high praise, because Harold pretty much defined creativity in the North Dakota business world.

I’ve got a brother-in-law who worked for Harold for more than 20 years, who called Harold “the best employer I ever had.” Now retired, my brother-in-law said “The pay was average—about the same as other places—but we had more fun. It was a great place to work.”

He’s pretty much singlehandedly responsible for our state’s first roadside icon, the giant buffalo beside I-94 in Jamestown, and was the biggest supporter of our state’s tourism industry I can think of. I’m gonna honk my horn and give Harold a shout out every time I pass that buffalo from now on.

He reminded me often of the other great, creative, North Dakota entrepreneur and businessman named Harold, and I’ll bet that Harold cracked open a new bottle of Scotch the other night when this Harold, his old friend, arrived, and I bet they’re having a jolly old time.

ALTERNATIVES TO INCARCERATION

The story on the front page of the Bismarck Tribune Wednesday said the state Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration, made up of legislators, judges, lawyers and policemen, is looking for ways to free up limited  space in the state’s pokies without compromising public safety. Well, here’s one suggestion for the commission: Quit locking up people for possession of firecrackers!

Did you see either one of the stories? Never mind the first one. It’s the second one that’s just plain goofy. A couple of local rowdies got pulled over for speeding in Bismarck the other night. Dude driving was drunk. He got hauled away to the pokey to sober up. Next day was Sunday, so they just kept him there over the weekend, and on Tuesday he went to court and pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of drunk driving and got a $500 fine and 10 days suspended jail time.

But the policeman spotted some Black Cat firecrackers (man, I’ve fired off a few thousand of those over the years) in the car, which belonged to his girlfriend, who owned the car and was a passenger, and they hauled her in to jail on a misdemeanor charge of “possession of fireworks.” She spent three nights there, and in court on Tuesday she was sentenced to three days in jail with credit for time served, and released.

Huh? You serious? You can go to jail for possessing firecrackers in Bismarck? Well, I looked it up. Chapter 4-07-06 of the Bismarck City Code, Section 3301.1.3, reads

Fireworks. The possession, manufacture, storage, sale, handling, and use of fireworks are prohibited.

Um, okay. But has anyone ever gone to jail for that before? The police department spokesman said it is “very unusual” for someone to be jailed on a fireworks charge. Well, I should hope so.

Because for the last few days of June and the first few days of July every year, the city is ringed with fireworks stands. Because of our ordinance, they’re not allowed to be sold in town, but you can usually buy them on every major road leading into town, right on the fringe of the city limits. And thousands of Bismarckers stock up and then take them home, and then take them to the lake or down to the river on Independence Day and shoot them.

But now we know that the moment they cross the line back into the city limits from that fireworks stand, they’re looking at three days hard time. I’d say our jail is going to get pretty crowded the first week of July. And I’d say the fireworks dealers better get in and have a little talk with the City Commission about enforcement. Or it could be a pretty dreary Fourth of July around here.

Oh, and I came across another goofy ordinance while I was looking up this one. Section 6-05-05 of the Bismarck City Code:

Throwing of Missiles. It is unlawful for any person to throw or discharge any stone, snowball or any similar object or other missile, including fireworks, upon, in or at any vehicle, building or upon or at any person

“Okay, you kids over there, yeah, you, having the snowball fight: Up against the Wall! Now!”

MADE ME THINK OF EARL

In the 1981 Legislature, Republicans controlled the North Dakota House 73-27, and the Senate 40-10–supermajorities in both houses. In a real show of arrogance one day midway through the session, House Majority Leader Earl Strinden told a newspaper reporter “The bills I want to pass will pass.” Democrats used that arrogance against him in the 1982 campaign, and amazingly captured a majority in the House.

I was reminded of that the other day when I read a story about the North Dakota Farm Bureau in the paper in which Farm Bureau lobbyist Jeff Missling was talking about a bill in the 2013 Legislature dealing with animal cruelty, which passed in spite of Farm Bureau opposition. Missling denied lobbying against the bill, and said “If we wanted to kill that bill, we could have.” Gee, when did the Farm Bureau start voting on bills?

C’MON BILL, LIGHTEN UP

Okay, goldarn it, Bill Bowman is a half-assed friend of mine, and I kind of like him, and he kind of likes me. We’re from the same part of the state, and he’s been the state senator from my old home district for many years. It’s a real Republican district and often nobody even bothers to run against him, although after his tantrum the other day, I hope somebody does this year.

At a Farm  Bureau meeting out in Dickinson the other night, Bill went on a rant about Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s “Extraordinary Places” proposal:

This an insult to landowners,” Bowman said. “The biggest part of the area they are looking at is in my district. I can say this: If they ram this down our throats, we’ll shut down everything in western North Dakota. I’ll get a group of landowners together and shut down hunting on a huge area of private land. You can call me a radical, but that might be the last alternative we have.”

Okay, Bill, I’ll bite. You’re a radical. Now we’ll just wait and see if they indeed “ram it down your throat” and if you make good at shutting down hunting in western North Dakota. I’ll be checkin’ in with you to see how that’s going in a few months.

Finally, because we’re heading into a weekend, and because I’m going on a little vacation for a week or so, let me lighten up your day with a little story about Bill.

My dear departed mother was a resident of Hettinger, in Bill’s district, almost all of her life. My mother took her politics seriously, but she didn’t vote party line until late in her life, when she became a pretty tough Democrat. She mostly voted for people she liked, and people she thought would do a good job. One of those she liked was her State Senator, Rick Maixner of New England. Rick was involved in the same veterans’ organizations as my dad, and they became fast friends, and when my dad died, Rick came and spent a good bit of time with Mom. Rick gets the credit for making her a really strong Democrat. Mom even held a fundraiser for Rick at her home one year. And then, in 1990, Rick either moved away or lost the election to Bill Bowman, I don’t remember which, but Bill became Senator, and Mom was heartbroken.

Oh, Bill treated her well, was respectful, and came to the door campaigning from time to time, but Rick had been her Senator, and she just couldn’t get over that.

So, fast forward to about 2006, and Mom had moved to the nursing home in Hettinger, and was no longer ambulatory, so the nice folks at the nursing home helped her fill out an absentee ballot application, and got the ballot, and brought it to her in the nursing home. And one October morning she sat down at the table in the dining room to fill out her ballot, like she had done so many times in her 80-plus years. And it was one of those years when nobody filed to run against Bill Bowman for Senator, so when she got to that spot on the ballot, her only choice for Senator was Bill Bowman. I was working at my desk in Bismarck when my cell phone rang, and I looked down at the caller ID and saw it was my mom’s cell phone number calling me. I answered and we had some small talk, and then I said “What’s up?”

“Well,” she said “I’ve got my absentee ballot here, and the only name on the ballot for State Senator is Bill Bowman. Do I HAVE to vote for him?”

I laughed and said “No, Mom, you can just leave it blank if you don’t want to vote for him.”

“Oh, good,” she said. “I was afraid they would throw my ballot out if I didn’t vote. Thank you!”

“Bye Mom.”

I told Bill that story a few years ago, and he laughed too.

Note to Bill: My mom married a hunter, and raised a lot of sons and grandsons to be hunters, and she wouldn’t like that kind of talk from you at the Farm Bureau meeting the other night.

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3 Responses to Weekenders

  1. Greg Ness says:

    I enjoy your writing Jim. You’ve always been a great storyteller. After reading that first story, I’d say you could compete with any professional stock analyst I’ve ever heard of!

    Have a great vacation!
    gl

  2. jeffw says:

    If I were a Republican legislator from western North Dakota who was responsible for not getting the job done out there legislatively (like Bowman) regarding roads,schools, funding, whatever, I’d be trying to get some sort of diversion going, too, if I were up for reelection. And if I had voted to give the oil companies a big, wet kiss in the form of a tax cut while I ignored the financial needs of my district (like Bowman), I’d squawk like hell about this to distract the voters in my district.

  3. Michael K says:

    For some reason, probably his own very crafty persona-marketing, I can’t be upset with Mr. Buffet for all his success and inordinate wealth (in the top six worldwide? Zounds!). Your investigative skills have not diminished one iota, Jim….

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