Mario Gabelli bullish on Legg Mason as CEO pick nears

Mon Feb 11, 2013 4:28pm EST

Feb 11 (Reuters) - Vocal Legg Mason Inc shareholder Mario Gabelli on Monday said he is bullish about the asset manager no matter who the next chief executive turns out to be when the board announces its choice as soon as this week.

In a telephone interview Gabelli, pronounced himself agnostic about whether the next CEO should restructure Legg Mason, as some have suggested, or whether it would be best kept intact to benefit from improved fund performance lately.

Gabelli said either choice could make sense for the Baltimore firm. "I could go either way," Gabelli said. "They don't have to do anything to make the shareholders happy."

Legg Mason on Monday also reported total assets under management of $654 billion at January 31. Shares in Legg Mason were up 1 percent in afternoon trading to $27.50. Unlike shares of some competitors, they have not bounced back after the financial crisis and have been stuck below $30 since 2011.

The company has been searching for a new CEO since Mark Fetting stepped down under pressure at the start of October. Interim CEO Joseph Sullivan is seen as the favorite among some employees, but the board at least has considered several outside candidates as well.

Last week Brian Murdock, outgoing CEO of Toronto-Dominion Bank's asset management unit, told Reuters he had been approached about the Legg Mason job but will not be joining the firm.

Legg Mason could make its choice public as soon as Wednesday, said a person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity because the comments were not authorized.

Sullivan said on the company's earning call on Feb. 1 that investors could expect it to name a new CEO "in the not too distant future."

ADDING SHARES

Gabelli spoke after a securities filing on Monday showed his Gamco Investors Inc and affiliates now own just over 5 percent of Legg Mason, with a total of 6.6 million shares. Together that would make them the fifth-largest shareholder of Legg Mason according to filings tracked by Thomson Reuters' Thomson One product.

Gabelli said the filing was made to reflect just incremental purchases of Legg Mason shares. But he said he began "nibbling again" at the shares because of progress like improved fund performance at its Western Asset Management bond unit and because rising stock markets should benefit the company.

Gabelli said he did not know details of who Legg Mason might pick as its next CEO. One option, he said would be to pick an executive to tackle management challenges such as the different financial arrangements that exist between Legg Mason's eight main investment affiliates.

Such a leader "would come in and talk to the troops and work on all the fragmented ownership, figure out how to sell (funds) better and use the cash flow to keep strengthening the stock," Gabelli said.

Alternatively, Gabelli said, Legg Mason could bring in someone to do a strategic transaction such as breaking up the company or selling it.

Gabelli added he does not know the agenda of activist investor Nelson Peltz, who sits on Legg Mason's board and owns about 10 percent of its stock. "He's a good guy to stir the pot and make some money," Gabelli said of Peltz.