By the book

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Articles - Jan/Feb 2012
Thursday, January 19, 2012
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By the book
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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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