March 2, 2016 / 5:13 AM / a year ago

London Calling? ICE’s Sprecher eyes options

Jeffrey Sprecher, founder and chief executive officer of IntercontinentalExchange (ICE), speaks at the Sandler O'Neill + Partners, L.P. Global Exchange and Brokerage Conference in New York in this June 7, 2013 file photo.Brendan McDermid

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jeffrey Sprecher has defined his career by buying up rivals of Intercontinental Exchange Inc, the company he founded as an upstart in 2000. Now he is at it again.

This week, ICE said it was eyeing a bid for LSE-Group, potentially thwarting an offer for the London Stock Exchange owner by Germany-based Deutsche Boerse. The move would be one of a string of blockbuster deals for ICE, including a $8.2 billion acquisition of the bastion of American capitalism - the New York Stock Exchange - in 2012. ICE had gone public on the NYSE in 2005.

"He's been a visionary in the exchange world and a consummate deal maker," said Rich Repetto, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill.

Sprecher, a Wisconsin-born chemical engineer by training, founded ICE in 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, with the goal of modernizing energy trading through technology.

The former president of Atlanta's Continental Power Exchange persuaded seven big banks and energy firms including Goldman Sachs (GS.N), Morgan Stanley (MS.N), BP (BP.L) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) to back him in a challenge to energy giant Enron's stranglehold on the electricity market.

When Enron collapsed in 2001, ICE was deluged with orders. That same year, Sprecher led a takeover of London's International Petroleum Exchange, giving ICE a European foothold in the futures market where it would grow into a dominant force. Sprecher, now 61, and his small team of top managers chose technology over tradition and as they pushed onward, showed little deference to tradition as they closed down historic trading pits.

In 2007, ICE bought the New York Board of Trade and attempted to buy the No. 2 U.S. futures exchanges, CBOT Holdings, for $9.9 billion - nearly disrupting a bid by the top futures market, CME Group - which had to counter its offer. The move attracted a lot of attention, especially with ICE executives slipping copies of the offer letter under the hotel doors of Charlie Carey, CBOT's chairman, and Bernie Dan, its CEO, at an industry conference in Boca Raton. Whether Sprecher tables a bid for the LSE or not, the acknowledgement that he is considering it pushed LSE’s shares to a record high on Tuesday, potentially raising the stakes for Deutsche Boerse, which is talking to the LSE about an all-share merger.

ICE declined to comment.

POWERHOUSE

A raft of acquisitions in quick succession cemented Sprecher's deal making acumen and ICE as a global powerhouse in futures, equities, swaps, clearing houses and financial data.

When ICE bought NYSE, it was not its first attempt. After Deutsche Boerse and NYSE agreed to merge in early 2011, Sprecher teamed up with Nasdaq Inc's (NDAQ.O) Bob Greifeld to propose a counter offer.

While there was never a formal offer, the overture threatened Deutsche Boerse's plans and forced it to raise its bid. But both deals were eventually opposed by regulators, which said a Deutsche Boerse-NYSE marriage would have created a near-monopoly in European futures, while a Nasdaq-NYSE tie-up would have created a U.S. listings monolith. But that did not stop ICE from making a successful solo takeover months later.

Now ICE threatens to crush Deutsche Boerse's LSE romance.

Regulation has generally worked in ICE's favor. Following a short race car-driving career in the '80s, Sprecher spent nearly two decades building power plants at a time of deregulation in the electric industry.

When he started ICE, he could see that transparency and efficiency were sorely needed in the industry and along with moving to electronic trading, created standardized products that could be easily traded. As regulators began to talk about requiring more derivatives trades to be carried out on exchanges rather than in private deals, ICE began acquiring clearing houses.

In December, ICE spent $5.2 billion on data provider Interactive Data Corp and $650 million for energy broker Trayport.

ATLANTA POWER COUPLE

Sprecher’s wife, Kelly Loeffler, heads corporate communications and investor relations at ICE. The duo keep a low profile in New York, but are one of Atlanta’s top power couples.

Sprecher, who as of Feb. 24, owned $319 million worth of ICE stock, according to Thomson Reuters data, is said to look at any possibly deal.

In January, he and Loeffler were reported to have mulled a bid for the Atlanta Hawks NBA basket ball team, along with John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc CCE.N, and his wife. Loeffler and Mary Brock already co-own the Atlanta Dream WNBA team.

Loeffler considered entering the 2014 race for the U.S. Senate, but decided against it because she too busy finalizing the NYSE deal.

The couple contributed a total of $1,710,100 to the 2012 election cycle, with most of the donations going to a super PAC supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, according the website OpenSecrets.org. In 2014, the couple hosted a $25,000-a-head fundraiser with Romney and the chairman of the Republican National Committee at their Atlanta mansion. Loeffler declined to comment on whether the couple will support any candidates in the current presidential race.

Reporting by John McCrank; Editing by Carmel Crimmins, Bernard Orr

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