3 CEOs We Like -- Here's Why

The Million Dollar Portfolio team uses a straightforward, four-point framework in assessing the quality of any company's executive management: OATS (ownership, allocation of capital, tenure, and stewardship). I described the framework at some length here; today, I'm going to illustrate how to apply that framework with three CEOs who made the grade:

  • Robert Wilmers, M&T Bank (NYSE: MTB  )
  • Lew Frankfort, Coach (NYSE: COH  )
  • Joseph Steinberg, Leucadia National (NYSE: LUK  )

The following table summarizes the results for our four criteria:

  • Ownership: We prefer CEOs whose interests are aligned with shareholders through a significant ownership position in the company they run.
  • Allocation of capital: We like CEOs who have a track record of smart capital allocation decisions that produce good returns.
  • Tenure: The length of time spent in the executive suite is linked to effectiveness and performance. We like CEOs who have demonstrated a long-term commitment to the company they are running.
  • Stewardship: A "soft" quality, stewardship refers to the CEO's willingness to treat shareholders as true partners.
 

Robert Wilmers

M&T Bank

Lew Frankfort, Coach

Joseph Steinberg, Leucadia National

Ownership

3.2% of shares outstanding (sixth- largest shareholder)

1% of shares outstanding

10% of shares outstanding (largest shareholder)

Allocation of Capital

See discussion below

5-year average return on capital: 37%

See discussion below

Tenure (Average, S&P 500: 6 years)

CEO since 1983

CEO since 1995

President since 1979

Stewardship

See discussion below

Annualized Stock Outperformance Over S&P 500*

6.3%

35.3% (!)

15.3%

*Measured on a total return basis (except for M&T Bank) from the date on which the executive was named CEO when possible or the earliest date for which stock data was available: M&T Bank (beginning date: July 16, 1985), Coach (Oct. 6, 2000) and Leucadia National (June 1, 1988).

Sources: Capital IQ and company websites.

Robert Wilmers, M&T Bank
Wilmers demonstrates good stewardship in the way he communicates with his shareholders. His shareholder letters are direct, and he's not afraid to admit to mistakes (this is exceedingly rare among company leaders).

Warren Buffett offered his endorsement when he said: "[M&T] has been run very well ever since Bob took over. The tone at the top is important in any business, but there is no business where it's more important than banking." Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) has owned shares of M&T Bank since 1991.

In terms of capital allocation ability, M&T Bank's recent acquisition of Wilmington Trust at a distressed price is a great example of the deal-making prowess that has propelled M&T Bank into one of the top three spots in all of its main markets. M&T Bank is a smart, focused acquirer -- this isn't empire-building of the sort that was practiced at Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) under Ken Lewis or at Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) under Sandy Weil.

Lew Frankfort, Coach
Selected by Barron's three years running as one of its 30 most respected CEOs, Frankfort is a 30-year veteran of the successful luxury goods retailer. In terms of capital allocation, the numbers speak for themselves, with a five-year average return on capital approaching 40%. Early in his career at Coach, Frankfort was instrumental in developing Coach's own stores and the push into international markets -- both of which have paid off handsomely.

Frankfort is one of the best-compensated CEOs in retail, and we'd certainly prefer it if he received a greater percentage of his compensation in restricted shares rather than stock options. Nevertheless, the company has been extremely successful under his leadership, and shareholders have been rewarded with great returns.

Joseph Steinberg, Leucadia National
Every year, Steinberg and Leucadia Chairman Ian Cumming write their letter to shareholders, which is frank and informative -- it clearly isn't the product of a PR flack. The very first page contains a long-term performance scorecard that stretches back to 1978, the year before Steinberg became president.

Smart investors value honest communication from the people who are entrusted with our capital, and Leucadia shareholders can have no regrets about having put their faith in Steinberg. The scorecard is enough to verify at a glance management's skill at capital allocation. From 1979 to 2009, Leucadia's book value per share grew at an annualized rate of 18.5% -- more than 10 percentage points ahead of the S&P 500 over a 30-year period. That's a world-class performance.

The next step
The team at The Motley Fool's Million Dollar Portfolio puts enormous effort into evaluating CEOs and executive management before adding any stock to its real-money portfolio because it's instrumental in creating (or destroying) shareholder value. This market-beating service is reopening during a short window for the first time in 12 months. If you are interested in finding out more about the service and receiving our free report Motley Fool Top Picks & Portfolio Perspectives 2011, simply add your email address in the box below.

Fool contributor Alex Dumortier has no beneficial interest in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Berkshire Hathaway, Coach, and Leucadia National are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, and Coach. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (2) | Recommend This Article (12)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2010, at 5:55 PM, abrochst wrote:

    You commented that you would prefer to see restricted stock rather than options for Mr. Frankfort? Why? Options have zero value if the executive mismanages the company, while RSUs retain a significant portion of their value even at a lower share price. It seems like options are a better tool.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2010, at 7:06 PM, TMFBreakerRob wrote:

    Excellent article, Alex! I've noticed a lot of discussion around the boards regarding Coach, but had no idea about the long history of exceptional performance. Worth looking at more closely, thanks to you!

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