Hedge Funds

Ubben steps down as investment head at ValueAct

Lindsay Fortado
Jeffrey Ubben, CEO of ValueAct Capital Partners
Ann Johansson | Corbis | Getty Images

Jeff Ubben, the activist investor who built ValueAct into a $16bn hedge fund, is standing down from daily oversight of its portfolio and handing the reins to his protégé, Mason Morfit.

Mr Ubben will remain as chief executive but focus on finding new investments and serving on boards, according to a letter that ValueAct sent to its investors on Monday. Mr Morfit, a partner since he was 27 and currently president of the firm, will become chief investment officer in July.

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ValueAct pioneered a friendlier activist investing style that stands in contrast to industry heavyweights such as Carl Icahn or Bill Ackman. It typically shuns public battles in favour of gaining board seats and pushing internally for a turnround, as it has at current investee companies that include Microsoft and Rolls-Royce.

Mr Ubben told the Financial Times that he had handpicked Mr Morfit as his replacement a decade ago.

"Why is it happening now? It's because 10 years ago I told Mason, you're going to be the portfolio manager, and when the clock struck midnight, he looked at me and pointed to his watch," he said.

"If you keep a jump ball in place on succession, it's not a very fun environment. It was better for investment performance because you don't have politics."

ValueAct's Ubben focuses on the risk of inflation

As the hedge fund industry and its founders age, many are grappling with the question of who will succeed them. Only a handful of funds, such as Farallon Capital and Renaissance Technologies, have managed the transition successfully.

Some have shut their funds to outside money and converted to a family office, while others have begun to plan for the next generation.

Ray Dalio, at Bridgewater, announced in March he would relinquish his co-chief executive title, while Paul Singer, of Elliott Management, promoted Jon Pollock to co-chief executive alongside him in late 2015.

San Francisco-based ValueAct, founded in 2000, holds long-term positions in large-cap companies. Those currently include Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, Rolls-Royce, KKR and — controversially — Valeant Pharmaceuticals. It was ValueAct that supported Valeant's strategy of growth through a combination of acquisitions and drug price rises, and while ValueAct has made money on the position, Valeant's share price has plunged by more than 80 per cent since the start of last year.

Mr Morfit, ValueAct's second employee, said he learnt on the fly from Mr Ubben, travelling around the country with him to meet different companies they were invested in or considering investing in, the two recalled.

"It was this incredible apprenticeship," Mr Morfit said. "I picked up his judgment through osmosis."

Mr Morfit served on his first corporate board for ValueAct at 29. He is currently on the board of Microsoft, where ValueAct's pressure led to the ousting of Steve Ballmer as chief executive.

Mason Morfit has Martha Stewart's bad judgment to thank for his elevation to heir apparent at ValueAct.

As Jeff Ubben recalls it, the day after the firm bought a 6 per cent stake in the Ms Stewart's eponymous home goods company, federal agents were knocking on Ms Stewart's door to question her over suspicious trading in ImClone shares. Two years later, with Ms Stewart on her way to prison for insider trading, Mr Ubben was spending all of his time working to turnround her company as its new chairman. Mr Morfit, left behind at the office, stepped up to lead the rest of ValueAct's portfolio.

That was when it became clear that Mr Morfit was "first among equals", Mr Ubben says.

Mr Morfit was 25 years old and working as a research analyst at Credit Suisse in New York but looking to move to San Francisco when a friend introduced him to Mr Ubben in 2000. Worried that no one would hire him without an MBA, he spent the first four months working for free before Mr Ubben hired him.

"It was the perfect mix of a guy with no degree and a guy with no assets," he jokes. Now, he likens their relationship to "more of a buddy movie".

Mr Morfit is a guitar player in a rock band called Birdseed and a Star Wars fan. When Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia in the movie series, died last year, he left a note by a statue of Yoda near the ValueAct office, housed in the old Lucasfilm building, helping spark an outpouring of other tributes from fans.

As for the Martha Stewart investment, that was a success in the end. The shares rallied after it was announced that Ms Stewart would replace Donald Trump as the host of The Apprentice, and ValueAct sold their stake at a profit.