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0112_Tactics_01Patrick Becker Sr. is 70 years old now and slowed significantly by a stroke he suffered five years ago. But all one has to do is mention “The Letter” and his eyes light up and a wave of energy pulses across his elfin face. He is back in the fourth quarter of 1999.

 

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By Oakley Brooks

 

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Photo by Michael G. Hale

Patrick Becker Sr. is 70 years old now and slowed significantly by a stroke he suffered five years ago. But all one has to do is mention “The Letter” and his eyes light up and a wave of energy pulses across his elfin face. He is back in the fourth quarter of 1999.

“That was a tough time,” he says, softly. “The growth guys were shooting the lights out.” Everybody was winning big except Becker’s investment clients. That’s because Becker smelled a rat in most tech stocks, and he wouldn’t have any part of them. He’s a value investor, sticking to companies with strong balance sheets, long-term fundamentals and cheap share prices: paper companies, gas conglomerates and machine-works outfits that were, in the late 1990s, so 1980s.

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Becker Capital Management

Chairman: Pat Becker Sr.

President: Pat Becker Jr.

Incorporated: 1976

Employees: 28

Under management: $2.1 billion

Fun fact: Pat Becker Sr. once finished in the top five in the Portland Marathon and counts runners Alberto Salazar and Joan Benoit Samuelson as friends.

But meanwhile, his clients were going crazy on the sidelines of the boom, calling him old-fashioned on the phone and leaving Portland-based Becker Capital for the first time in the firm’s 24 years. The staff gave a unanimous vote of confidence to Becker’s approach during a soul-searching meeting that year, but Becker was losing sleep as he sat at his keyboard to tap out his final quarterly letter of 1999 to clients. What was keeping him up at night, he wrote, was the “fear that our clientele, one by one, will be drawn into the ever-growing feeding frenzy of market hype and speculation. In my judgment, a growing portion of the current market action is nothing more than a giant casino.” Whatever the pressure to roll the dice, Becker would not break. “In a period of euphoric speculation, we must stay true to our disciplines and use plain common sense,” he wrote.

Over the next 12 months, the Internet balloon hemorrhaged air and smashed to Earth, ruining legions of dotcoms and erasing an estimated $800 billion in value in the tech space. But Becker’s portfolio chugged along in the black in 2000 and 2001.

“We’re more proud of that moment than any other,” says 46-year-old Patrick Becker Jr., the company’s president.

Through the lost decade that followed, Becker has remained strong and steady, like the marathoner Pat Sr. once was. And its portfolio — now at $2.1 billion — has paid dividends for the individuals and institutional investors who stood by the company: Its investments earned 6.1% annually over the last 10 years, compared to 2.8% for the S&P 500.

The company’s approach plays out in deep and relentless research by Becker staff, which includes Ph.D.s and some of the more seasoned analysts picked up as banks and investment houses in Portland have downsized, merged and consolidated in recent years. Becker hosts each year 400 to 500 company managers and outside analysts at the firm’s Key Bank tower offices for briefings. Staff members pore over quantitative data looking for bargains in stock price multiples.

 


 

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Photos by Michael G. Hale
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The latest twist has Becker buying into more technology stocks such as Microsoft and Intel. On paper, the companies are trading at more modest prices, compared to their earnings, and they’re winning favor among traditionalists by paying quarterly dividends. But Pat Becker Jr. says less exacting metrics have also made him bullish: He’s noticed, for instance, that analysts are warming to the idea that Intel can compete in the smartphone market.

“If you’re talking to people on a regular basis, you can see when opinions change,” he says.

Becker remains a curious mix of a company at once entrepreneurial and old-fashioned. Within its conservative investment philosophy, it encourages staff to take risks that produce big returns for the company. But character also counts; bonuses are a mix of performance and “nebulous” things like teamwork and amiability around the office.

The family atmosphere extends from the literal to the figurative. While Pat Sr. still clocks in at 6:15 every morning and advises, Pat Jr. helps lead the company (Janeen McAninch is the CEO), his brother, John, runs the IT department and brother-in-law Blake Howells manages portfolios. The rest of the staff has been loyal to a person: Becker hasn’t lost an investment staff member since it started in 1976, though they have had some support staff turnover.)

It could be the old-school benefits that keep them close: The company shares profits up to 20% of an employee’s earnings in good years, and 15 of the 28 staff members own shares in the company. It also pays for things such as a dental  plan for dependents, and parking passes.

But Pat Jr. argues there’s a unique temperament he searches out in new hires, which matches Becker’s approach to the market. “The wiring is so important,” he says. In a recent talk put on by Becker in Portland, renowned Wall Street strategist Jason Trennert named the ethos succinctly, saying, “When I think of Becker, I think of the F-word: fiduciary.”

The corporate world is now bending the elder Becker’s way, says Pat Jr. He sees boards behaving ethically and making fiscally sound moves in paying dividends and buying back stock. Still, there’s more to be done to restrain Wall Street from blowing more bubbles and to insulate against risks like flash crashes driven by computer-managed trading. He acknowledges that after this decade, the Occupy Portland protesters that camped out just a block from his office late last year had legitimate grievances.

“They’re right about a lot of stuff,” he says.

Rare honesty from a wealth manager, but then Becker is a rare breed.




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