Timothy Brog grew up collecting baseball cards. His first was a Topps 1972 Vida Blue. Quickly, everyone found out that young Tim had quite the business acumen; he once paid $90 for a collection of cards he then sold, individually, for $4,000.
Predictably, Brog grew up to be an investment whiz, managing a hedge fund, Pembridge Capital Management LLC, for about two years now. Like the rest in his industry, Brog tries to pump up the value of the stocks owned by the fund.
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His latest target? Topps.
This Friday, at the company's annual shareholder meeting, a group made up of two hedge funds, Pembridge and Crescendo Partners, will try to place three members on the board. They call themselves the Topps Full Value Committee and, with their proxy battle, want to change the direction of the company. They own 7.4 percent of the stock.
"We are shareholders of Topps," Brog says. "We believe that the company is being mismanaged. We believe the board of directors is not doing what it needs to do to better manage the company."
At 42, Brog still collects baseball cards. He is, in many ways, the offspring of an industry that wanted people to see its product as an investment and not as something to put in your bike spokes. Baseball cards exposed many children to the idea of a market economy for the first time.
Well, it worked. Now those kids are all grown up and, as a recent Wall Street Journal story pointed out, some of them are running hedge funds. (A hedge fund allows a limited number of wealthy investors to pursue a much more aggressive plan of attack than a normal mutual fund. Or, in layman's terms, they're not scared to gamble $90 if they can make $4,000.)
At stake is the future of the baseball card industry. Topps' stock price has been flat for years. It's about $8 a share, almost half of what it was in the early 1990s. The industry as a whole has been struggling for even longer. The baseball card doesn't have the same cachet it once had. There's no disputing that. The question is: Can it be a cultural touchstone again?
"Baseball cards have become so expensive that a lot of kids can't afford them," Brog says. "They are no longer considered something fun. It's more of an investment and a collectible, instead of having cards of your superstar hero. There has to be some way to tie it in to what interests kids now. It might include some sort of Topps video game. It might include some sort of electronic baseball card. But you've got to adapt. You can't stick you head in the sand and say, 'Kids don't collect baseball cards anymore.'"
Fighting their attempt is 70-year-old chairman and CEO Arthur Shorin. He has been around cards his whole life. His grandfather started the company back in 1890. It specialized in tobacco then. Slowly, through the popularity of its two most famous brands -- Topps and Bazooka gum -- the company shifted.
In 1972, the same year a young kid named Timothy held that Vida Blue card, the company went public. At that moment, Shorin and Brog were on a collision course.
The process was accelerated when the stock market bubble burst about five years ago. When stock prices went down, investors looked up and found that many hedge funds hadn't lost value. In fact, some went up. Groups that traditionally had avoided the higher-risk, higher-reward funds got into the game. Even Harvard and Yale invested a portion of their endowments in hedge funds. With so many more people in the marketplace, the pressure went up.
"Right now, these hedge funds have more capital than they have ever, ever had," says Colin Blaydon, director of the Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "It is going on a lot, lot more. These guys have a lot of money. They can take very big bets and take very aggressive positions. These guys have a lot of money in the war chest."
Hedge fund managers have to make their clients money, even if that means taking control of a company and improving it or selling it. About a year ago, Brog and his group began saber rattling. Topps fought back, saying it would try to sell itself. Momentarily placated, Brog backed off. When those plans to sell were scrapped, the assault resumed.
Earlier this month, the Topps Full Value Committee sent a letter to all Topps shareholders. The first sentence set the tone: IT IS TIME FOR A CHANGE. It harped on the company's inability to capitalize on powerful brand names. It chastised executives for making so much money as the company was losing value.
On Friday, the company and its shareholders will find out whether that change is coming. Brog thinks a baseball card company still can survive and, although this is a business decision, it's a little bit fun, too.
"Would you rather work on a deal to buy a power plant or to represent Michael Jordan?" he says. "They're both contracts. You're doing the same type of work, but the subject matter is more interesting. I still have cards. Each year, I buy some boxes of baseball cards. I put them away and hope to give them to my kids."
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sound off to Page 2 here.