More than anything else, managers determine returns. They set strategy, hire key team members, oversee operations, and cash paychecks. Every move they make either enhances or destroys shareholder capital.

It pays to know who these men and women are, how they're paid, whether they, too, are owners, and how they perform versus competitors in certain key metrics. In this regular column, I'll examine all that and more with the goal of enhancing our understanding of some of the top stocks in Fooldom.

Next up: BlackRock (NYSE: BLK). Is the executive team of this asset management firm doing all it can to earn you outsized returns?

Foolish facts



CAPS stars (out of 5) ***
Total ratings 397
Percent bulls 88.9%
Percent bears 11.1%
Bullish pitches 40 out of 45
Highest rated peers Main Street Capital Holdings, PennantPark Investment, Rand Capital

Data current as of March 8.

Asset management is a tough business. Just ask anyone who's been managing a portfolio of investments lately. Between Mideast turbulence and $100 oil, Mr. Market has thrown more fits than a two-year-old. Keeping cool isn't easy when the market's running hot.

But this is what clients expect from BlackRock: patient investments and steady, long-term returns. The company's funds haven't always delivered. According to Morningstar data, BlackRock's family of funds underperformed the category average in both 2009 and last year. This year's 3.5% year-to-date total return is 20 basis points better than the average. A reversal could come at any point.

So be it. You won't see the bargain-shopping Fools at Motley Fool Inside Value running for the hills. As analyst Philip Durell rightly pointed out in recommending the stock to members last summer, BlackRock has a history of successful acquisitions, a good product mix, and a healthy dividend that yields 2.8% as of this writing.

In fact, it's the boring old dividend that may be the most exciting part of this stock story. BlackRock has used a portion of its healthy cash flows to boost its dividend payout by an average of 14.3% annually over the past three years, Capital IQ reports. That's as close as you'll get to guaranteed growth in a market that guarantees nothing.

BlackRock's portfolio exposure may also provide comfort. The manager's three largest holdings as of this writing were ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) at 1.54% of the portfolio, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) at 1.18% of the portfolio, and Chevron (NYSE: CVX) at 0.80% of the portfolio. ExxonMobil and Chevron have rallied in the wake of rising oil prices, while reasonably priced Apple looks poised to profit from the new iPad, which is due in stores tomorrow.

Management overview



Cash Compensation

Shares Owned*

Laurence Fink, Executive Chairman and CEO 11 $9,550,000 1,349,419.28
Robert Kapito, President 9 $7,410,200 351,786.6
Ann Petach, Chief Financial Officer 3 $2,105,000 33,701
Susan Wagner, Vice Chairman 6 $2,912,500 529,304.8

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. (Data current as of March 8.)
*BlackRock includes restricted stock units in its Form 4 calculations of direct ownership.

Management is where the story gets interesting. CEO Laurence Fink owns a small but still impressive chunk of the company, and each of the key insiders accept restricted stock as part of their compensation.

In Fink's case, close to 113,000 shares he's deemed to own per Form 4 disclosures remain under vesting restrictions.  He'll do better if the stock rises between now and when these shares are released to him for sale.

History also speaks well for the BlackRock team. As Foolish colleague TMFMMTInvestor pointed out in a CAPS pitch from last August, BlackRock's book value per share has increased dramatically during Fink's tenure -- from $7.54 in 2001 to $136.48 by the end of last year.

Management analysis versus competitors


Insider Ownership

SG&A Margin



BlackRock 2.26% 20.7% 1.1% 8.1%
Legg Mason (NYSE: LM) 7.99% 10.6% 3% 4.3%
State Street (NYSE: STT) 0.66% 55.7% 1% 9.5%
UBS (NYSE: UBS) Not available 75.3% 0.6% 16.3%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. (Data current as of March 8.)
*Return on assets. **Return on equity.

BlackRock and its peers are about equally matched according to the data in this table. But if you filter by ownership profile, Legg Mason is the closest comparable. Insiders at the house that employs legendary value investor Bill Miller own a sizable chunk of the business.

Force me to choose between these two, and I choose BlackRock for its lower earnings multiple, richer dividend, history of dividend growth, and better margins and returns on common equity. Management is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think about BlackRock's portfolio, valuation, and the asset management industry as a whole using the comments box below. You can also rate BlackRock in Motley Fool CAPS.

Finally, don't forget to keep tabs on BlackRock by adding the stock to the My Watchlist tool, our free, personalized stock tracking service.

BlackRock is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Chevron is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended members open a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader. 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 owns shares of Apple, ExxonMobil, and Legg Mason and has written Apple puts. The Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool and its disclosure policy is managing just fine, thanks.