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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Mellon Evans’

Following my Simoleon Sense interview with Miguel Barbosa, I’ve had a few requests for a post on Tom Evans. Here it is, hacked together like Frankenstein’s monster from all the public information I could track down:

Thomas Mellon Evans was a one of the first modern corporate raiders, taking Graham’s net current asset analysis and using it to wreak havoc on the gray flannel suits of the 40s and 50s. He’s not particularly well-known today, but he waged numerous takeover battles using tactics that are forerunners of those employed by many of the takeover artists of the 1980s and the activists of the 1990s and 2000s. Proxy battles? Check. Greenmail? Check. Liquidations? Check.

Born September 8, 1920 in Pittsburgh, and orphaned at the age of 11, Evans grew up poor. Despite his famous middle name (his grandmother’s first cousin was Andrew Mellon), he began his financial career at the bottom. After graduating from Yale University in 1931 in the teeth of the Great Depression, he landed a $100-a-month clerk’s job at Gulf Oil.

While his friends headed out in the evening, Evans would stay home reading balance sheets and looking for promising companies: those he could he could buy for less than the assets were worth in liquidation. Evans found such companies by calculating their “net quick assets,” the long forgotten name for “net current assets.” His friends teased him about his obsession and gave him a nickname: “Net Quick” Evans. From the 1944 Time Magazine article, Young Tom Evans:

With only some fatherly advice from Gulf’s Board Chairman, W. L. Mellon, Tom Evans made his way alone. For six years he saved money, like an Alger hero; and played the stockmarket, unlike an Alger hero. Thus he collected $10,000. He wanted to find and buy a family-owned business that had gone to pot. In the down-at-the-heels H. K. Porter Co., in Pittsburgh’s slummy Lawrenceville section, he found it. Once a No. 1 builder of industrial locomotives, Porter Co. was down to 40 workers.

Tom Evans bought up Porter bonds at 10 to 15 cents on the dollar, reorganized the company under 77B, and became president at 28.

From then on, Evan was the chief terror of the sleepy boardrooms of the era, much like Icahn would be 30 years later. As a connoisseur of deep value on the balance sheet, one has to admire his methods (From the New York Times obituary, Thomas Evans, 86, a Takeover Expert, Dies):

‘He was never really an operator; he was a financial guy — a balance sheet buyer,” one of his sons, Robert Sheldon Evans, told Forbes magazine in 1995. ”He would buy something for less than book value and figure the worst that could happen was he would liquidate it and come out O.K. What he didn’t want to do was lose money on the deal. If he knew his downside was covered, then he figured the upside would probably take care of itself.

”It was a very shrewd policy in the 50’s and 60’s, when there were highly inefficient markets: buying undervalued assets, running them for cash and selling off pieces. The 80’s leveraged buyout guys were just taking a lot of his deals to their logical extension.”

The book The White Sharks of Wall Street: Thomas Mellon Evans and the Original Corporate Raiders by Diana B. Henriques is an excellent biography on Evans. More than that, it describes many of the battles for corporate control in the 40s, 50s and 60s. In contradistinction to the takeover battles of the 80s, the dogfights in the 40s, 50s, and 60s were largely proxy fights, and in as much, should be familiar to today’s “activist investors.” James B. Stewart’s Let’s make a deal, his review of Henriques’ book, does it justice:

There are surely few phenomena more remarkable in American business than the periodic ability of cash-poor but swashbuckling newcomers, using little or none of their own money, to seize control of some of the country’s most valuable corporations. In its most recent, frenzied incarnation, dot-com entrepreneurs have exchanged stock in companies with few tangible assets and even fewer profits for control of established, profitable companies. Fifteen years ago, the currency was junk bonds rather than inflated stock. And before that, it was bank loans using a target’s assets as collateral.

Wall Street greets each wave of takeovers as the dawning of a new era. But the proposition that nothing has fundamentally changed is convincingly set forth in ”The White Sharks of Wall Street,” an engaging and thorough history of early corporate takeovers by Diana B. Henriques, a financial reporter for The New York Times. Her central character is Thomas Mellon Evans, who surfaces in what seems like nearly every trendsetting corporate battle from 1945 until his retirement in 1984, and whose tactics remain essential to practitioners of corporate warfare. Junk bonds? Greenmail? Scorched earth? Evans had been there long before investment bankers coined a catchy vocabulary to describe the maneuvers of people like T. Boone Pickens, Carl Icahn and Saul Steinberg.

Though Evans seems to have escaped the widespread public resentment and envy the others generated, and Henriques’s portrait is carefully nonjudgmental, it is difficult for a reader to work up much sympathy for him. He was ruthless, bad-tempered, usually indifferent to workers and communities. He repeatedly displayed what appears to be a criminal disregard for the antitrust laws (though he was never prosecuted). He divorced two wives (the second later committed suicide), and both times a replacement was conspicuously at hand long before any legal proceedings had begun. He betrayed two of his own sons in his quest for corporate dominance and wealth.

Yet as a deal maker Evans displayed a natural audacity and genius. In 1935, 24 years old and lacking any money to speak of, he decided he wanted to gain control of Pittsburgh’s struggling H. K. Porter Company, a manufacturer of steam locomotives. Inspired by a Fortune magazine account of Floyd Odlum, who became rich by using borrowed securities as collateral for loans to buy undervalued stock, Evans borrowed shares from a Mellon mentor, took out a loan and invested in Gulf Oil stock, then a Mellon enterprise. When Gulf’s stock rose handsomely as the nation emerged from the Depression, Evans used his profits to buy Porter bonds, then selling for a small fraction of their face value. When Porter finally had to declare bankruptcy and was reorganized, Evans, as the largest creditor, traded his bonds for equity and became the largest shareholder. Porter, essentially acquired for junk bonds, would be Evans’s vehicle for most of his life.

I highly recommend The White Sharks of Wall Street: Thomas Mellon Evans and the Original Corporate Raiders by Diana B. Henriques for fans of deep value and activist investment.

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