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Troubled companies smell sweet to right buyer

Companies mired in bankruptcy and turmoil may look ugly to some investors, but to Ian Cumming and Joseph Steinberg, they're downright foxy.

Using their publicly traded investment firm, Leucadia National, the duo have built a reputation as master takeover artists who buy distressed companies at discount prices, revive them and sell them for hefty profits.

In many ways, Leucadia follows Warren Buffett's blueprint of buying on the cheap. Cumming and Steinberg even teamed up in 2001 with Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway to bail out a troubled lending operation, in a partnership called Berkadia.

Today, Leucadia controls a diverse stable of companies, including a fiber optic network operator, a health care services company, a plastic netting producer, a copper mine in Spain, wineries in California and Oregon and several real estate ventures.

Leucadia's long-term record is extraordinary.

When Cumming, 64, and Steinberg, 61, bought Talcott National, a flagging financial services company, in 1978, it had a negative net worth of $7.7 million. They renamed the company and transformed it into a buyout machine that today has a net worth of $3.5 billion. From the end of 1978 through the end of 2004, Leucadia's stock (symbol LUK) soared an annualized 33 percent (compared with 27 percent for Berkshire's A shares).

Together, Cumming and Steinberg own 25 percent of Leucadia, which has a market value of $4.7 billion.

Earnings aren't especially helpful in judging a company like Leucadia. Morningstar's Justin Fuller says that on the basis of Leucadia's balance sheet, investments and expected future acquisitions, the stock's worth $45 — barely above the recent price. "This company's strength lies in its ability to create value where others can't, and put its money to work when others are not," says Fuller.

Leucadia is no cheaper than Berkshire; both stocks trade at about 1.4 times book value. But at $44 a share, Leucadia is far more affordable than plunking down $2,725 for one Berkshire B share — or $81,400 for a single A share.