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Betting Big on the Best CEO in Investment Banking

By Buck Hartzell - Sep 12, 2015 at 7:02AM

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Rich Handler is transforming Leucadia National Corporation into a collection of compelling growth businesses.

Source: Katrina Tuliao via Wikimedia Commons.

So, who's the best CEO in investment banking? Is it Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase? Or perhaps Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs?

I believe Rich Handler from the conglomerate Leucadia National Corporation (JEF -3.82%) is actually the finest CEO in this industry right now. He's done an amazing job of managing his company, which primarily operates in the investment banking sector, and he exhibits all of the characteristics of an outstanding business leader. To add icing on the cake, Leucadia is an extremely attractive investment idea at the moment.

Great jockey, great horse
Leucadia, which Handler runs with the assistance of his first lieutenant, CFO Brian Friedman, has not participated in the stock market recovery over the past few years, unlike many of its peers. There's a good reason for that, of course: The company's book value per share just hasn't grown in four years.

Despite that fact, I feel the company has been dramatically transformed over the past few years. It now possesses a compelling set of growth businesses that could potentially create a lot of value in the future. Forward-thinking investors can now pick up shares of Leucadia for roughly 70% of reported book value.

I love it when I come across underappreciated opportunities like this. I'm especially excited when I see an outstanding leader in charge of the company under consideration. A conglomerate like Leucadia requires a leader with considerable skill in capital allocation. So that's something I particularly like to see.

Here are six specific ways that Handler stands out from the rest of the pack.

1. He is both the chief capital-allocator and the chief risk-manager. It's clear that Handler spends an enormous amount of time thinking about, and planning for, worst-case scenarios. After all, he has experienced many market dislocations during his long tenure at Jefferies, the investment bank that merged with Leucadia in 2013.

2. Handler is heavily invested in his company and has only sold stock to pay taxes or make charitable donations. He's truly "eating his own cooking" -- far more than most executives in this lucrative industry.

3. Regardless of the outcome, Handler holds himself accountable for both the upside and the downside. For example, he and his CFO Brian Friedman turned down million-dollar bonuses last year due to the poor performance of the business. And when allegations of widespread drug use at the firm were made public during the divorce proceedings of one of Jefferies' bankers, Handler and Friedman took drug tests immediately in response to the charges.

4. Handler has transformed Leucadia into a collection of solid businesses with strong growth prospects, like the commercial real-estate firm Berkadia and the Italian broadband services provider Linkem. Not every business is thriving -- National Beef is one example of an underperforming business -- but the company has a lot of attractive options for investing their healthy cash flows.

5. While most CEOs will take any opportunity to get on TV and blab about everything under the sun, Handler prefers to concentrate on his business and avoid the limelight. He's very comfortable operating under the radar.

6. Finally, Handler is nimble enough to act quickly when attractive opportunities arise. For example, he rapidly structured a deal to bail out FXCM, a leading online provider of foreign exchange, at precisely the right time.

A formula for success
All things considered, it seems clear to me that Rich Handler is a jockey worth betting on. Indeed, he exhibits many of the traits of the unconventional CEOs discussed in The Outsiders, the outstanding business book by William Thorndike.

The current share price of Handler's company appears to suggest there's not a lot of value being created at the moment. I think the market is wrong, however. The attentive and patient investor will have noticed that the underlying business has improved considerably, while the stock price has declined.

Of course, we shouldn't invest by looking in the rearview mirror. I'm very excited about the future of Leucadia under Rich Handler's stewardship, and I'm convinced that patient, long-term investors in the company will profit tremendously.

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Stocks Mentioned

Jefferies Financial Group Inc. Stock Quote
Jefferies Financial Group Inc.
JEF
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