Roller-coaster ride for financial firm

Walter Buckley, chief executive and cofounder of ICG.
Walter Buckley, chief executive and cofounder of ICG.
Posted: February 09, 2013

At the time, it seemed like a crazy thing to say.

In the space of just over a year, Internet Capital Group chief executive Walter Buckley had watched his company become a spectacular success - at its peak in 2000, it was worth more than $50 billion - only to fall as quickly as it had risen, the embodiment of the dot-com boom and bust.

But there was Buckley in November 2000, his innate optimism thriving despite his company's decline.

"We have never been more confident of what we're building," Buckley told The Inquirer. "The market doesn't know that, but it will."

Privately, some of his associates worried that the positive attitude they so admired had blinded him to the Radnor company's problems.

But on Wednesday, when Internet Capital announced that it was selling one of the companies it had invested in, Channel Intelligence Inc., to Google for $125 million, it appeared that Buckley was seeing clearly after all. ICG had identified a firm with valuable technology - Channel Intelligence helps companies such as Target and Neiman Marcus reach online customers - and bought a large stake in it in 2006.

Buckley and other executives declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a "quiet period" before their Feb. 21 earnings release. ICG's shares closed at $12.47 Friday, up about 9.1 percent for the year, but well off the all-time low closing price of $3.27 per share in late 2008.

Today, Internet Capital may not be the next General Electric, as executives hoped in the early days, even choosing ICGE ("I see GE") as their ticker symbol. But for a company that appeared in danger of collapse during the dot-com meltdown, $12.47 a share is a pretty good place to be.

"Like many people, they [ICG executives] got caught up in the implosion of the bubble, but boy, that trial by fire has really honed their abilities here," said Jeff Van Rhee of Craig-Hallum Capital Group. He recommends buying the stock, saying ICG has a solid portfolio of tech companies positioned to capitalize on the growing market for web-based business services.

In some ways, ICG's model is the same as when Buckley founded the company in 1996 with Ken Fox, who now runs his own investment firm. ICG buys stakes in tech companies, nurtures them with capital and legal, financial, marketing, and strategy assistance, and hopes they catch the eye of an acquirer. With the Channel Intelligence sale, ICG got not only cash, but the cachet of partnering with Google.

Today's ICG, however, is dramatically different from the original. In the old days, ICG invested in dozens of companies, usually as a minority owner. That gave ICG executives little control over the management of what they bought. It also made it hard for Wall Street to value ICG, Van Rhee said. What exactly did a bunch of small stakes in tiny tech companies add up to?

Over the years, ICG shifted to its current model. It owns just seven companies and has majority stakes in most of them, giving ICG a powerful say in how the firms it invests in operate.

Richard Fetyko, who follows ICG for Janney Montgomery Scott, has a buy rating on the stock. Among his reasons is Procurian, a company in which ICG has a majority stake. As the name suggests, Procurian helps other businesses procure products and services that are not central to their work, such as information technology or human resources. Clients include Hertz and Goodyear.

The work is not as sexy as it was back when "Buck," as everyone calls Buckley, and Fox were on a global barnstorming tour, telling standing-room-only crowds about their soon-to-be-public company, having breakfast in Amsterdam, lunch in Paris, dinner in London. But it's also nowhere near as dark as when it and other Internet stocks tanked, taking ICG's celebrity analyst Henry Blodget down with them.

Turns out ICG wasn't so crazy after all.


Contact Staff Writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @miriamhill.

Inquirer staff writers Linda Loyd and Mike Armstrong contributed to this article.

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