Bear Stearns' Wild-Card Shareholder


How did Joe Lewis wind up with an outsize share of Wall Street's problem child, and what will his next move be?

Joseph Lewis' big bet on Bear Stearns (BSC) is looking like a big mistake. Since the billionaire investor came on board last September, upping his stake three months later, the stock has been in a death spiral. The latest hit: a nearly 7% plunge following the expected news on Jan. 8 that James Cayne would step down as chief executive of the beleaguered investment bank. In all, Lewis, the single largest shareholder in Bear, has watched the value of his 10% stake erode from $1.2 billion to $840 million.

The 70-year-old Lewis has endured such losses before in his far-reaching and eclectic portfolio. The Tavistock Group, which he founded in 1978, has stakes in 170 companies that span the real estate, financial-services, manufacturing, entertainment, and restaurant industries. He uses at least five fast-moving investment funds—Aquarian Investments, Nivon, Mandarin, Darcin, and Cambria—to trade currencies and make more opportunistic moves like his Bear bet. And one of Lewis' hallmark strategies is to troll for cheap plays, then patiently wait years for the payoff. After buying Tottenham Hotspur, the English soccer team, at 80 pence in 2000, the club's stock dropped to 17 pence. Today, it trades at 138 pence.

Lewis may need to be long in patience with Bear, which took a $1.9 billion writedown from subprime-linked securities in the latest quarter. Bear's newly anointed chief, Alan Schwartz, has to figure out a way to revive the firm's core fixed-income business now that its bread-and-butter trading in mortgage-related investments is dead. Meanwhile, Bear faces scrutiny from securities regulators and federal investigators, after the implosion of two of its hedge funds last summer. "Bear became a one-trick pony, and now its business model is broken," says Dick Bove, analyst with research firm Punk Ziegel. "It's one of the worst investments of all time."

Takeover Bid?

There's plenty of speculation that a U.S. rival or overseas competitor will swoop in to buy Bear at its current beaten-down price. The stock sells at a 15% discount to the value of the assets on its books—unprecedented for an investment bank. But Bear may be too much, or too unappetizing, to swallow whole, increasing the odds that a few players will bite off pieces such as the smaller prime brokerage or clearinghouse businesses that are still in decent financial shape.

So that leaves plenty to ponder about exactly how Lewis will play his hand at Bear. The secretive Lewis has a history of hostile takeover bids. An art collector who owns paintings by Chagall and Picasso, Lewis made an aggressive move on auction house Christie's back in 1995. He gradually built a 29% stake in the company, taking advantage of the cheap stock prices that resulted when the art market softened. Ultimately, Lewis couldn't pull off a takeover and in 1998 sold his shares to French media tycoon Francois Pinault for nearly £300 million at a 50% gain.

A Bear takeover would be tricky. Even at a recent share price of $70, Lewis would need to pony up at least another $4 billion to buy Bear outright. So it's more likely that Lewis will take a more passive stance, at least at the outset, allowing Schwartz time to prove he can restore the bank as a Wall Street competitor.

Profitable Career

Lewis made his early millions rehabbing a business in much the same way. Born in London, Lewis lived above the family's pub, the Roman Arms, until the Germans destroyed it during the Blitz in World War II. At 15, he left school to work at the family's café. Eager to tap into the tourist market, he supposedly dragged a concrete bus stop sign in front of the restaurant. From that rough beginning the family business took off, with Lewis expanding it into a chain of themed restaurants.

In 1979, Lewis sold the restaurant empire for £30 million, using the proceeds to fund his next moves, this time in financial markets. To avoid England's capital-gains tax, he moved to the Bahamas and began speculating in foreign currencies. His first big score came in 1992 after he bet on a falling British pound, the same trade that famously made George Soros billions "breaking the Bank of England." Lewis went on to short the Mexican peso in 1995, profiting from that country's economic crisis. Those bets turned millions into billions for Lewis, whose personal wealth now stands at more than $2 billion.

Today, Lewis puts most of his fortune to work through Tavistock. He's largely a hands-off manager. Although he occasionally meets with his various boards of directors to discuss macroeconomic trends in countries and industries that will affect his business or investments, Lewis is just as likely to call up a portfolio manager to chat informally about an idea or host a dinner simply for a brainstorming session. "He probably fears for the organization the larger it gets," says Rasesh Thakkar, a senior managing director at Tavistock. "He doesn't want it to get bureaucratic and lose its nimbleness."

Investing in Isleworth

Lewis' base of operation now centers around his Windermere (Fla.) home, which doubles as Tavistock headquarters. He stumbled upon the Orlando area accidentally, while negotiating in the 1980s with Disney World to manage an English-themed restaurant on the park's grounds. The deal never panned out, but Lewis thought the region had untapped potential.

So he purchased the gated community and golf club Isleworth out of bankruptcy from Mellon Bank for $21 million. He transformed the struggling community into a thriving one, wooing actors and professional athletes, including golfers Tiger Woods and Ernie Els. Today, Isleworth is one of the most sought-after addresses in Florida, where a three-bedroom, three-bath, 2,800-square-foot golf villa sells for $1.5 million.

As with Isleworth, Lewis bought the Lake Nona property at cut-rate prices and turned it into a high-end, 7,000-acre planned community in Orlando. He went a step further with Lake Nona, creating a hub for biotechnology in the region by pushing the University of Central Florida to open a medical school there. In a $350 million deal, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research put down roots in Lake Nona. A new, ultra-modern veterans hospital plans to do so as well. It's been a big boost to the biotech industry in Orlando. "Lewis and his team had a vision for life sciences in Orlando," says Ray Gilley, head of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission.

Of course, the benefit to Lewis is twofold. For one, given his biotech interest, which includes stakes in several small pharmaceutical companies, he can take advantage of the relationships with the academics and researchers at Lake Nona. Meanwhile, with the medical complex anchoring the development, Lewis hopes to distinguish Lake Nona from the usual suburban sprawl and perhaps insulate it from the whims of the real estate market. "He created a lot for us and for himself," says University of Central Florida President John Hitt.

Lewis is certainly hoping to do the same with Bear Stearns. And although doubters could make the case that it's an ill-fated investment, it's not one Lewis is likely to dwell on if his interests change. "For Lewis, decisions literally take seconds," says Tavistock's Thakkar. "If he loves [an idea], he loves it and moves on."


The Good Business Issue
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus