Tweedy Browne Co. analyst Laura Jereski doesn't see herself as an attack dog. In fact, she spends most days poring over corporate financial data along with other analysts at the boutique brokerage firm.
However, her boss, Tweedy managing director Christopher Browne, has been the driving force behind the campaign urging Hollinger International Inc.'s board to investigate hundreds of millions of dollars in fees paid to chairman Conrad Black, a campaign that has disrupted the international career of the media proprietor.
And Ms. Jereski has often been the sharp-tongued public voice of criticism aimed at Lord Black's questionable financial strategy.
Her frequent jabs in the press prompted Mr. Black to lash out, calling her the "lead rottweiler" for the New York investment firm that he accused of being an overzealous shareholder advocate.
The analyst insists that Tweedy Browne was merely protecting the interests of its own investors last spring when Mr. Browne demanded the creation of a special committee to investigate management fees and non-compete fees paid to Lord Black and other senior executives at Hollinger International.
Lord Black's personal attacks on her, she said, were merely shooting the messenger -- and a fairly junior one at that.
"Despite Conrad's personality, it's not about his personality for us and it never has been," Ms. Jereski said in an interview yesterday.
"It is about money. And the personality is the reason the situation got as much coverage as it did, but it's not the reason we made our demands and are continuing to press for those to be answered."
Mr. Browne said Lord Black sought to cloud the issues by launching personal attacks against both him and his analyst.
"I don't really care what he says about me because there's no substance to it," Mr. Browne said in an interview. "If he wants to accuse us of being corporate governance terrorists, that's fine. It would indicate he is living in Elizabethan England and I'm living in the 21st century." Hollinger International executives would not comment on the feud with Tweedy Browne.
Ms. Jereski clearly made a better target for the embattled media baron than Mr. Browne.
He is a 34-year veteran of the establishment firm, a member of the board of trustees at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the faculty advisory committee at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
She is a 42-year-old former financial journalist who worked at Forbes, Business Week and The Wall Street Journal before joining Tweedy Browne five years ago.
Tweedy Browne is an unlikely protagonist in a battle that has seriously sidetracked Lord Black's storied media career, one that saw him build an empire from a single Eastern Township newspaper to one that controlled influential titles in Britain, the United States, Canada and Israel.
An 83-year-old Wall Street mainstay, Tweedy-Browne has a history of conservative money management focusing on undervalued stocks and taking long-term positions in the companies in which it invests.
Mr. Browne said he was following the company's long-standing investment strategy when he and his analysts identified Hollinger International as being undervalued and began buying stock in 1999.
At the time, Hollinger was selling for $11 a share and Tweedy valued it at $18 a share.
It is now the second-largest holder of Hollinger International stock with about 18 per cent of the shares outstanding, second only to Lord Black's holding company, Toronto-based Hollinger Inc.
Mr. Browne said Lord Black painted a beguiling picture, promising a commitment to growth and shareholder value.
"He used to write the most wonderful shareholder letters about how he was committed to building shareholder value, yadda yadda yadda, when in fact what he was doing was running the candy store for his own benefit," he said.
He began to be concerned when the amount of management fees Hollinger International was paying out to Lord Black and his executive team rose from $10-million a year to more than $20-million.
As well, it came to light that the executives were paid $80-million (Canadian) in non-compete fees in the deal that saw Lord Black sell Hollinger International's remaining Canadian newspaper interests to CanWest Global Communications Corp. The agreement precluded Lord Black and Hollinger International from competing in CanWest's domain.
Mr. Browne said it was unprecedented in his experience that a company would pay non-competition fees to individual executives rather than to the company that actually sold the assets.
Still, he insisted his dispute with Lord Black did not begin as a personal attack, but merely an effort to get answers to questions about rising levels of compensation and fees paid by Hollinger International to Lord Black and his associates.
Initially, Tweedy Browne sought Lord Black's agreement to set up a special committee to review the payments, but when the newspaper proprietor wouldn't agree on a nominee, the investment firm threatened legal action.