Akre Focus Joins the Kiplinger 25

Chuck Akre’s experience is the key factor in our decision to replace FBR Focus.

It’s hard to find fault with FBR Focus (symbol FBRVX). From its inception in December 1996 through October 8, the fund, which invests in small and midsize companies, returned an annualized 12.5%. That trounced the Russell 2000 Growth index, a measure of small, fast-growing companies, by ten percentage points per year, on average, and Standard & Poor’s MidCap 400/ Citi Growth index, a similar barometer of medium-size firms, by about one point per year.

Moreover, despite allocating nearly two-thirds of its assets to its ten biggest positions, the fund achieved those outsize returns with less volatility than the indexes. In other words, Focus plays both strong offense and defense. You can’t ask for much more in a mutual fund.

The fund is the brainchild of Chuck Akre, whose firm, Akre Capital, ran FBR Focus from its launch until last August. At that point, Akre quit and started his own fund, Akre Focus (AKREX). The three new co-managers of FBR Focus -- David Rainey, Brian Macauley and Ira Rothberg -- all served as analysts at Akre Capital before switching allegiance to join FBR.

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Not surprisingly, Akre and his three protégés go about their stock-picking chores in similar fashion. They seek small and midsize businesses that produce high and sustainable returns on equity (a measure of profitability) and have the ability to generate earnings growth of at least 15% annually over the long haul. The aim is to purchase stocks of these "compounding machines," as Akre calls them, at attractive prices and hold tight for many years.

Akre and his students describe the process as a three-legged stool that includes business model, management and reinvestment opportunity. First, they identify businesses with strong competitive advantages and the ability to produce copious amounts of free cash flow. Next, says Akre, they ascertain if these businesses are run by managers who "conduct business with integrity and act in the interests of all the shareholders." The final leg is to determine if those managers, who must be skilled allocators of capital, have abundant opportunities to plow excess cash flow back into expanding the business. Says Rainey: "We hunt for elephants, not rabbits."

Competitive advantages often derive from valuable licenses or patents, or a superior distribution network. For instance, FBR Focus’s largest holding, American Tower, is the leading operator of cell towers for the wireless-phone industry. Rainey calls these towers "vertical real estate" that benefit from long-term contracts with built-in price escalators and are shielded from predators by zoning barriers.

Another large holding is O’Reilly Automotive, the biggest independent retailer of car parts for the aftermarket. O’Reilly boasts an economy of scale in parts purchasing and the enormous advantage of operating the best and densest distribution network, which enables it to get parts to auto mechanics faster than its rivals.

So now we’re faced with the dilemma of picking between two fine funds, FBR Focus and Akre Focus, that are run on identical principles. Akre’s three successors at FBR Focus are no doubt talented analysts with much potential as fund managers. They have, after all, been mentored by the master.

But fund management is all about instincts, traits and skills that have been honed by years of experience. Unlike a chess grandmaster or professional running back who peaks in his twenties, fund managers tend to improve with age (unless they burn out, get too greedy or lose their wits).

So, we’ve decided to replace FBR Focus in the Kiplinger 25 with Akre Focus. Annual expenses for both funds’ low-minimum share classes are so close -- 1.43% for FBR, 1.49% for Akre -- as to be a nonissue. But longtime shareholders of FBR Focus who are sitting on large capital gains in taxable accounts should consider holding on to their shares.

Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Andrew Tanzer is an editorial consultant and investment writer. After working as a journalist for 25 years at magazines that included Forbes and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, he served as a senior research analyst and investment writer at a leading New York-based financial advisor. Andrew currently writes for several large hedge and mutual funds, private wealth advisors, and a major bank. He earned a BA in East Asian Studies from Wesleyan University, an MS in Journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and holds both CFA and CFP® designations.