This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.
"It sounds preposterous," the New York Times declared. “A businessman from Atlanta blows into New York and walks off with the colonnaded high temple of American capitalism. No more will New York be the master of the New York Stock Exchange.” And yet if regulators approve the $8.6 billion purchase of NYSE Euronext, then Jeff Sprecher, the founder and CEO of Atlanta’s IntercontinentalExchange, and Kelly Loeffler, his wife and ICE’s vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, will indeed have shifted the inner sanctum of the 221-year-old free market temple to a blocky glass building in an office park along the Chattahoochee.
The cultural significance is hard to overstate. A company that made its name by adopting twenty-first-century technologies will acquire an institution whose image seems positively quaint: blue-jacketed traders, ticker tape, the opening bell. Even though Sprecher says little will change initially, it’s hard not to take some civic pleasure in all this. Here is little old Atlanta, so often viewed by New York with a mix of derision and condescension, taking over the very symbol of American commerce. What’s next? The Yankees?
Sprecher’s acquisition comes at a pivotal time for the NYSE, which has seen its profits squeezed by competition from online exchanges. It’s also been plagued by volatility brought on by high-frequency, computer-generated trades. In the “flash crash” of 2010, the Dow lost nearly 1,000 points within minutes as lightning-fast trading algorithms echoed each other’s digital panic. Sprecher has made waves in the commodity markets by putting limits on high-frequency electronic trades, and he’s been outspoken on the need to reform what he sees as an equities market that is too fragmented and complex for its own good (and the average investor’s). Perhaps ironically, the man who made a fortune from electronic trading is bullish on the NYSE’s human touch.
Sprecher, fifty-eight, grew up in Wisconsin, studied engineering, and was recruited out of college by Trane, an air-conditioning company, ultimately opening a new office in Southern California. At night he earned his M.B.A. at Pepperdine; as part of his coursework, he studied a company that built power plants. One of the executives left to form a new company and took Sprecher with him. Sprecher eventually bought out his partner, and when the opportunity arose in the late 1990s to buy a small firm in Atlanta that provided power companies with a network to buy and sell power, he threw himself into creating an efficient online marketplace. The company was called Continental Power Exchange, but Sprecher wanted it to be an exchange for trading more than power, and he wanted it to be international, so IntercontinentalExchange (ICE) was born. Enron had an electronic platform, too, but once Enron imploded, the industry rushed to ICE. With 1,100 employees worldwide, and 383 in Atlanta, the company operates exchanges and clearinghouses for commodity trades and derivatives. By any measure, ICE’s success has been staggering. Last year ICE cleared $552 million in profit on $1.4 billion in business. In 2011 Sprecher’s total compensation was $8.7 million.
Loeffler’s family are grain farmers in Illinois. She followed job prospects around the country, moving up the ranks at Toyota and then, after business school, working on Wall Street. A job brought her to ICE in Atlanta, where she met Sprecher. They married nine years ago. In 2011 Loeffler and Mary Brock bought the Atlanta Dream WNBA team. Today, the forty-two-year-old Loeffler sits on the boards of the Atlanta Symphony, the Red Cross, Georgia Research Alliance, Skyland Trail, Central Atlanta Progress, and the Atlanta Sports Council. When Saxby Chambliss announced his current U.S. Senate term would be his last, the AJC floated Loeffler’s name as a potential candidate. (She didn’t appear entirely from nowhere—Loeffler gave $10,000 to the Georgia Republican Party last year, and $750,000 to Mitt Romney’s Super PAC, one of the largest individual gifts in the country.)
Four years ago, the couple bought their first house together. But it wasn’t just any house: The 15,000-square-foot mansion in Buckhead made history as the most expensive real estate transaction ($10.5 million) ever in the city of Atlanta. Modeled in the style of an old European estate, Descante (as it’s called) is a stucco, steel, and limestone structure that boasts Versailles parquet in the dining room, a library with a secret passage to the living room, and a nineteenth-century pool house from France.
Although increasingly active in Atlanta civic life, the couple haven’t sought a national spotlight. But the spotlight is catching up. We met in a modest corner office at ICE headquarters, where the most prominent feature was a whiteboard covered in basic arithmetic that likely represented the fate of millions (of dollars, if not people). Sprecher struck the more casual pose, Loeffler was a little more guarded. Both were still a bit bemused by all the attention.
(Editor’s note: Remarks are edited for clarity and length.)
You’re fifty-eight, your company is a huge success, you’re at an age when some people are starting to think about retirement. But instead, you’re taking on the symbol of American capitalism. Why?
Jeff Sprecher: The amazing thing about this company is that it keeps presenting really interesting intellectual challenges. And working with the NYSE and also with their foreign businesses just seems like a really interesting project. I’m an engineer; I like to fix things and organize things, and this just seems like a really interesting canvas to paint on.
Has that been a strong motivation at different steps of your career—this intellectual challenge as opposed to a purely financial one?
JS: Financially I was in a position that I could have lived a nice life without working many, many years ago. But life is kind of an adventure, and I don’t know what else to do, and what would bring me the kind of challenges and opportunity to meet interesting people and visit new places.
ICE has been known within the financial world for a while, but the New York Stock Exchange is recognized well beyond that. Do you feel like you’ve been under the radar?
JS: Yeah, absolutely—and there’s something nice to be said about that, by the way.
Kelly Loeffler: We have been under the radar, but in 2006, ICE was the best-
performing stock in the United States, so we got recognition for that. Jeff got recognition for being one of the top three CEOs. So there are times when it does pop up, which is just enough for us because we don’t really seek it out.