NEW YORK -- Billionaire investor Warren Buffett is dipping into the ketchup business as part of $23.3 billion deal to buy the Heinz ketchup company.
H.J. Heinz Co. says it's the largest deal ever in the food industry. The company, based in Pittsburgh, also makes Classico spaghetti sauces, Ore-Ida potatoes and Smart Ones frozen meals.
Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and its partner on the deal -- 3G Capital, the investment firm that bought Burger King in 2010 -- say Heinz will remain headquartered in Pittsburgh. Heinz CEO William Johnson said in a statement that the company "will have an opportunity to drive further growth" as a private enterprise.
"It's our kind of company," Buffett said in an interview on CNBC, noting its signature ketchup has been around for more than a century. "I've sampled it many times."
The company was founded by Henry John Heinz and his neighbor L. Clarence Noble in 1869. Their first product was grated horseradish, bottled in a clear glass to showcase its purity. The first ketchup was introduced in 1876; the company says it was the country's first commercial grade ketchup.
Last year, Heinz says it had sales of $11.6 billion, with ketchup and sauces accounting for just under half of that. Given the saturated North American market, the company has increasingly looked overseas for growth. In 2010, for example, the company bought Foodstar, which makes Master brand soy sauce and fermented bean curd in China. Heinz expects emerging markets to account for a quarter of the company's sales.
Representatives for Heinz and the investment group weren't able to immediately provide any further details on the deal, including whether there would be any management changes or layoffs.
Buffett did not immediately respond to a message from The Associated Press on Thursday. But he has recently said that he's been hunting for elephant-sized deals and at the end of September he had $47.8 billion cash on hand to finance any investments.
Heinz has the type of brand equity that takes years to create and it has been able to raise prices even in the highly competitive grocery business, said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst for NBG Productions.
"There isn't going to be another Heinz brand," he said. "It has a durable competitive advantage."
Generally, Buffett prefers to buy entire companies for his Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate and then allow the businesses to continue operating much the way they were before. Berkshire has also helped finance deals before -- most recently during the financial crisis of 2008, when he made lucrative deals for Berkshire when few other companies had cash.
Berkshire's biggest acquisition ever was its $26.3 billion purchase of BNSF railroad in 2010. Before that, it was the $16 billion stock purchase of reinsurance giant General Re in 1998.
Heinz shareholders will receive $72.50 in cash for each share of common stock they own. The transaction value includes the assumption of Heinz's debt. Based on Heinz's number of shares outstanding, the deal is worth $23.3 billion excluding debt.
The per-share price for the deal represents a 20 percent premium to Heinz's closing price of $60.48 on Wednesday. Heinz said the deal was unanimously approved by its board. Buffett said on CNBC that Berkshire is putting $12 billion to $13 billion into the deal. But he noted that Berkshire will still have room to make more acquisitions because its businesses continually replenish its cash supply.
"Anytime we see a deal is attractive and it's our kind of business and we've got the money, I'm ready to go," Buffett said.
The deal is expected to close in the third quarter.
Shares of Heinz were up nearly 20 percent at $72.45.