My Company Does What?! How Conglomerates Make Strange Bedfellows

Brand-savvy parents with an anti-smoking agenda spent most of the past decade in a supermarket quandary.

Buying Oreo cookies, Teddy Graham crackers, or Trident chewing gum for their kids also meant sending money to the Marlboro Man. Tobacco giant Philip Morris -- now known as Altria (MO) -- was the company behind Nabisco and Kraft. Nabisco itself was once owned by Philip Morris rival R.J. Reynolds, which in a nutshell means that it was Joe the Camel handing over the bag of Oreos to the Marlboro Man.

The dilemma is easier these days. Kraft Foods (KFT) is a stand-alone company, leaving Altria to stick solely to smokes.

Welcome to the wild world of conglomerates, where parent companies own siblings that don't really look like one another.

Some companies embrace the difference. General Electric's (GE) "we bring good things to life" commercials boasted its diversity, showcasing its kitchen appliances, light bulbs, and jet engines. For the most part, though, brand-conscious companies prefer that you forget their family trees. Nestle may not want you to know that it's the same company behind Purina Puppy Chow and Friskies cat food as you bite into your Crunch chocolate bar.

Let's check out a few conglomerates with some surprising businesses.

PepsiCo (PEP)

Most consumers know that the company behind Pepsi's carbonated pop is a major player in salty snacks through Frito-Lay. There's no major shock there, since a bag of Doritos and a can of Wild Cherry Pepsi do go well together.

PepsiCo has acquired other beverage brands along the way. It's the company behind Gatorade thirst quenchers and Tropicana juices. A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a bottle of Mountain Dew may lead to some chin scratching, but they are ultimately popular beverages. However, PepsiCo is also the company behind Quaker oatmeal. Oatmeal? Yes, oatmeal.

Jarden (JAH)

It may not be a household name, but Jarden's the company behind a surprisingly broad array of products. The company produces kitchen staples including Mr. Coffee brewers and Crock-Pot slow cookers.

Jarden also makes fire logs (including coffee-based Java-Log) and First Alert carbon monoxide alarms. This all makes some sense, but how did Jarden get dealt its playing card business? Yes, Jarden is the company behind the popular Bee cards for casino games and Bicycle cards for magicians and game-shuffling consumers.

iRobot (IRBT)

Your cousin swears by her iRobot Roomba, the robotic vacuuming orbs that are programmed to suck up dirt from floors. However, did you know that your other cousin -- the one deployed in military action overseas -- also counts on the iRobot to clean things up?

A big part of iRobot's business is defense robotics. There are countless iRobot PackBot automatons overseas, keeping troops safe from roadside bombs. iRobot also makes maritime military robots that perform underwater surveillance.

Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) (BRK.B)

Nobody questions Warren Buffett, arguably the world's greatest investor. However, his penchant for value finds him scooping up completely unrelated companies.
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Apart from Berkshire Hathaway's stakes in some of the country's largest public companies, Buffett has no problem buying a company whole if it's fetching a discount to its money-making potential. Some of Berkshire Hathaway's outright holdings include GEICO in insurance, See's Candies in confections, Clayton Homes in manufactured housing, and Dairy Queen in ice cream shops.

Brunswick (BC)

Head off to a boat show and Brunswick will be well represented with its more than two dozen lines of seaworthy vessels and marine engines. However, Brunswick also keeps landlubbers moving. Brunswick makes commercial fitness equipment, billiard tables, and even bowling balls.

Making sure that its diversions are put to good use, Brunswick even watched over a chain of entertainment centers that showcase its bowling alley gear and billiard equipment. No, none of its entertainment centers can be found at sea.

Loews (L)

The company behind the snazzy Loews Hotels chain won't get angry if you ask for a non-smoking room. It spun off Lorillard (LO) -- the company behind cartons of Newport and True cigarettes -- a few years ago.

However, the Tisch family's Loews has majority stakes in several endeavors that have little to do with the hospitality industry. From insurer CNA Financial to offshore oil and gas drilling rigs, Loews gets around.

Longtime Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz does not own shares in any of the stocks discussed in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of PepsiCo, Berkshire Hathaway, and Altria Group. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of PepsiCo, Berkshire Hathaway, and iRobot. Motley Fool newsletter services have also recommended creating a diagonal call position in PepsiCo and a bear put ladder position in Lorillard.

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