The ever-expanding business reaches back to 1869, when Henry John Heinz and neighbor L. Clarence Noble began selling grated horseradish, bottled in a clear glass to showcase its purity. It wasn't until 1876 that the company introduced its flagship product, marking the country's first commercial ketchup.
Heinz is a prize because it has the type of name recognition that takes years to build, said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst for NBG Productions. One testament to the strength of the brand has been the company's ability to raise prices even in the competitive market, he said.
"There isn't going to be another Heinz brand," Sozzi said.
Johnson stressed that Heinz would remain in its native Pittsburgh as a condition of the agreement with 3G and Berkshire Hathaway. The only change will be when Heinz no longer appears in stock listings.
Although 3G Capital has a record of aggressively cutting costs at businesses it acquires, managing partner Alex Behring said Heinz is different because the business is healthy and sales are rising. But it wasn't a guarantee that jobs won't be cut.
The more Heinz is able to grow, the "safer people will be," said Johnson, who has been CEO for 15 years.
As for management changes, including his own tenure, Johnson said there have not yet been any discussions.
Buffett did not immediately respond to a message Thursday from The Associated Press. But he has recently said that he's been hunting for elephant-sized deals. At the end of last year, he said on CNBC that he had about $47 billion in cash available.
Berkshire's biggest acquisition ever was its $26.3 billion purchase of BNSF railroad in 2010.
Last year, Buffett also starting building a newspaper company with the $149 million acquisition of 63 Media General newspapers and several other small or mid-sized newspapers. Berkshire now owns 28 dailies and a number of other publications.
The Heinz deal is a departure for Berkshire Hathaway. Generally, Buffett prefers to buy entire companies 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.
Heinz shareholders will receive $72.50 in cash for each share of common stock they own. Based on Heinz's number of shares outstanding, the deal is worth $23.3 billion excluding debt. Including debt, it's worth about $28 billion.
The 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.
"It's our kind of company," Buffett said in the CNBC interview, noting Heinz's signature ketchup has been around for more than a century. "I've sampled it many times."
Funk reported from Omaha, Neb. AP Business Writer Steve Rothwell contributed to this report from New York.
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