Interview by Ankit Gupta of  http://www.selectedfinancials.com

Seth Hamot, 48, is the founder and managing partner of Roark, Rearden, & Hamot Capital Management. His fund has over $150 Million under management, has performed well through 2-3 recessions, and returned an annualized 17% to investors net of fees.

The following is an interview to try and learn a little bit about his experience. As you read this, do remember that he has spent 15+ years building this investment fund and this interview cannot capture that, but hopes to bring a small portion to the public surface.

Dr. Sergio Magistri, who led a company through the dot-com bubble and exited with a large acquisition by GE also shares this thoughts on what happened. He led InVision Technologies, which turned out to be an amazing investment for Seth’s fund, and today, InVision’s products can be found in airports helping to prevent terrorism. With his input, we can analyze this amazing investment from the side of Seth and Sergio, both.

Seth Hamot – “…really great companies make errors, but they can move on. “

When did you launch your investment fund and what were you doing leading up to that?

RRH launched in the mid to late 90’s and prior to that, I was working with partners buying distressed and defaulted debt backed by real estate. I started doing that in 1989 and 1990. Prior to that, I was the President of College Pro Painters, a painting contracting company with a student labor force. I graduated college and since CPP was owned by a foreigner, and needed a local president and leadership, I was brought on board. It was going through financial distress, had no local leadership, and so I was brought in to turn it around. We went from $3 Million/year in revenue to $11 Million when I left. Shortly after, a real estate recession kicked and, and so I began looking for turnaround situations with distressed debt that could be bought. My partners from those ventures eventually retired and so I continued what I was doing into the public markets. We found poorly performing assets that were either too encumbered with too much debt or too little leadership, focusing on hard assets like real estate and mining assets.

What is your fund’s underlying approach? What wrong do you right in the markets?

I want to find companies going through a transition. Eventually, that transition will translate into others seeing that the company will be worth more than they originally thought. It might be divesting a cash burning division, or new credit facility, or maybe the company just did a merger or acquisition allowing the business model to be leveraged, etc. The objective is to NOT be an activist in these situations. There are a lot of great opportunities because really great companies make errors, but they can move on. We enjoy dealing with smart businessmen on a daily basis. Often times though, managers slowly become content to have a larger span of control and more remuneration. They change by rationalizing their business to make themselves better focused and more efficient and effective.

Where did you get your first 5 investors for your fund and how many are still with you today?

College roommates, families of college roommates, friends, my own money, etc.

What were the first 5 years of your fund like? How many employees did you have and what were some of the larger challenges?

It was a small fund and so picking investments was the main challenge. It was just myself initially. We took a very large position in a liquidating insurance company that lasted 2-3 years, but was very profitable because the markets misunderstood it entirely. It took a little bit of activism and at the end of it, I met someone, who introduced me to his own limited partners, and that’s where I brought in some fresh capital.  One of the joys there was that I met some great people who were also doing small cap value investing. Eventually I was introduced to a well-run fund of funds on the west coast. I was told that we made some great investments, but our documentation was on napkins and we used grid pads for calculations. We got a real lawyer, real documentation, put together information for investors, and then began to grow. From the original $2 Million that we started with, we had grown to somewhere around $15-20 Million, and then these guys came in. We’ve been successful in our performance with investors: Over the last decade, ended December 2009, we’ve returned 17% annualized, net of all fees.

The name of your fund has a very unique name – it has names of characters from the books of Ayn Rand. Can you tell us why you did this?

In general, we take a contrarian view. Doing it all the time is not contrarian and so this allows us to take investments from a unique vantage point.

What do you look for in an investment?

A perfect investment would be in a business that was once well covered by investors, analysts, raised a lot of money, etc. and then the company and industry went through a transformation and the stock trades very cheaply. Even after that, the underlying business itself makes sense and with some tough decisions, it can regain its value and it will right itself.

A simplistic example is a REIT that for some reason no longer pays its dividend, driving the stock price very low. It’s a hard asset business that won’t just disappear. If you can foresee the dividend coming back, it will get bought again for its yield eventually.

So if someone calls in and says, “I’ve got this REIT I want you to look at,” I’ll respond by asking, “Is it paying a dividend?” If the answer is yes, then I don’t care, but if the answer is no, then let’s talk!

How do you find your investments? Are they brought to you or do you screen for them?

We don’t use as many screens as our competitors – we look for situations of transition. We monitor a lot of announcements for spinoffs, acquisitions, divestitures, distributions and one-time dividends, etc. A good 1/3rd of our investments come from people who call about how they’ve lost a lot of money and they don’t understand why the equity is performing so poorly. They

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