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She's a US senator. He's one of the most powerful men in finance. Meet the $500 million power couple getting slammed for stock trades placed as the coronavirus tanked markets.

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Kelly Loeffler and Jeff Sprecher

  • Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler grabbed headlines following a report by The Daily Beast that said she sold stocks immediately following a private meeting briefing senators on the impact of the novel coronavirus. 
  • Loeffler has said all trading decisions for her and her husband’s investment portfolio are made by multiple third-party advisors.
  • Loeffler, who was a long-time exec at the Intercontinental Exchange, is half of one of the most powerful couples on Wall Street. Her husband is Jeff Sprecher, the founder, CEO, and chairman of ICE and chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. 
  • As ICE has grown into one of the largest exchange operators in the world, so too has the couple’s wealth, which has been reported at more than $500 million. 
  • Business Insider spoke to a half-dozen people who either worked directly with Loeffler, Sprecher, or both, to understand how the couple operates. 
  • Sources painted a picture of two workaholics that rarely show any signs of their relationship at the company. 
  • And while Loeffler has long proven to be a successful executive on Wall Street, her stint in Washington has been bumpier. 
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

Kelly Loeffler knows how to tell a story.

An entire career working in investor relations and corporate communications will do that. From running both teams at Intercontinental Exchange, one of the largest exchange operators in the world and parent company to the New York Stock Exchange, to transitioning to chief executive at Bakkt, a startup owned by ICE aimed at making mainstream the use of digital currency, Loeffler understands the importance of strong messaging. 

It’s a skill that’s proved vital in helping her husband, Jeff Sprecher, the founder and CEO of ICE and chairman of NYSE, grow the company from the ground up. The two have built an incredible fortune, reportedly north of $500 million, while turning the exchange operator into one of the most vital market-structure players in the world and solidifying the couple as one of the most powerful on Wall Street.

December 2019 brought a new achievement for Loeffler: US Congress. Loeffler, a Republican, was selected as interim senator for her home state of Georgia. 

Yet, her personal foray into politics has proved bumpier han any story she faced at ICE or Bakkt. Loeffler, who was sworn into her seat in January, has faced a series of negative public headlines early in her political career. 

From an initial lack of support from the leader of her own party to questions around whether her oversight of a regulator that polices her husband’s business posed a potential conflict of interest, Loeffler’s four months in the political arena have been an uphill battle.

That culminated with a mid-March report by The Daily Beast about Loeffler’s sale of stocks following closed-door Senate meetings on the coronavirus. 

And while the senator has said her and her husband’s portfolio is managed by a third-party, it hasn’t removed the spotlight from one of the most powerful couples on Wall Street. Business Insider interviewed a half-dozen people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fears over potential repercussions, who dealt or worked directly with Loeffler, Sprecher, or both, about how the couple operates together. 

Those who spent time with them paint a picture of a balanced duo, with Loeffler as more goal-driven and professional and Sprecher easy going and laid back. 

“I entered the world of politics just three months ago as a businesswoman and political outsider,” Loeffler told Business Insider via an emailed statement. “I knew people would attack me for my success but that won’t stop me for fighting for results and the American Dream for all Georgians.” 

Loeffler helped ICE rise from startup to powerhouse

Unlike many of Wall Street’s elite, Loeffler and Sprecher’s backgrounds don’t include Northeast boarding schools or Ivy League universities. Born and raised Midwesterners — Loeffler from Illinois and Sprecher from Wisconsin — they both attended public high schools and local state universities.

Sprecher started his career in the energy sector while Loeffler had short stints at Citi, investment bank William Blair, and private equity firm Crossroads Group early on.

In 1997, Sprecher acquired the Continental Power Exchange for $1 plus its debt with hopes of transforming how electronic power was bought and sold, which was previously traded in a much more manual, less transparent way. Three years later, with backing from the likes of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, Sprecher officially launched ICE.

His timing would prove to be auspicious. A year after going live, Enron, which had a competing exchange that had significant market share, would collapse, paving the way for ICE. Loeffler came aboard in 2002, working on both investor relations and corporate communications.

Sprecher’s vision for ICE quickly evolved thanks to a string of acquisitions over the next two decades that would allow the exchange operator to grow into the behemoth it is today, which includes a market cap of around $45 billion and ownership of the iconic NYSE. 

It wasn’t just a flurry of dealmaking that was occurring at ICE in the early years. Loeffler and Sprecher also began a relationship, eventually marrying in 2004.Jeff Sprecher ICE

According to a source familiar with the couple, Sprecher had to clear it with ICE’s board before he could take her on a date. The relationship was kept private for the most part until in 2005, when ICE went public, a single sentence in the proxy indicated the two were married.  

In a 2011 story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sprecher, who is 16 years Loeffler’s senior, discussed the relationship. 

“If it didn’t work out, she’d be on the short end of the stick because I was founder and 100 percent owner of the company,” Sprecher told AJC in 2011.

“I was a consummate bachelor who was never going to get married, but she really knocked me off my feet.”

Sprecher and Loeffler kept things professional

Loeffler was eventually named to ICE’s executive management committee, often times putting her in the room on key decision-making meetings, in addition to being promoted to chief communications and marketing officer and head of investor relations. 

All of Loeffler’s former colleagues said her ascent at ICE had nothing to do with nepotism. Described as “bright,” “driven,” and “independent,” by multiple people, Loeffler was viewed as a star in her own right.

Those who worked with her also said Loeffler never looked to pull rank on employees despite the fact her husband was running the company. During meetings involving Loeffler and Sprecher, there was never indication the two were married, sources said. 

In many ways, working closely with a spouse was already embedded in Loeffler’s background. Raised on a farm, Loeffler’s parents had a similar dynamic where her father handled the manual labor while her mother kept the books. 

That being said, everyone at ICE was well aware of Loeffler’s relationship with Sprecher, even if it was never widely discussed or addressed by either.

One source who worked directly with Loeffler said that while Sprecher was never mentioned, there was no denying the situation was unusual compared to that of a typical employee.

“There was definitely an undertone of, ‘This is my company. Don’t f— it up,’ without actually saying that,” the source said. “It’s hard not to acknowledge that there is a lot more at stake than if it were just another non-interested employee. You felt the added pressure to get things right, to do things at the highest caliber and the highest credibility.” 

Those who worked with her said Loeffler takes a purposeful, goal-driven approach to things, always keeping a professional manner. Sprecher, meanwhile, has more of a laid-back style and is easy going, rarely raising his voice.

And while their personalities might differ, the couple share a common intensity over their work. The duo could be found responding to emails late into the night, sources said, rarely going on vacation. 

Loeffler’s intensity towards work has proven to be a dividing line for some employees. According to another source that worked with her, Loeffler had high expectations for those on her teams. Even people who were “good” at their jobs might not be up to Loeffler’s high standards, the source said.

Another source who worked closely with both Loeffler and Sprecher echoed similar sentiments, adding that the culture was felt throughout the exchange operator for a long time. 

“That is kind of the way it was at ICE. You were a workaholic,” the source said. “If you weren’t, you kind of didn’t enjoy working there.”

It wasn’t only about ICE business for Loeffler, though. In 2010, she bought a minority ownership stake in Atlanta Dream, a WNBA team, with Mary Brock, whose husband, John Brock, was chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE). 

The following year the duo took over full ownership, which they still maintain today. The Dream would reach the WNBA Finals two of their first three years of ownership.

Loeffler takes the helm at Bakkt

After 16 years at ICE, Loeffler stepped into a new role in August 2018. ICE announced plans to launch Bakkt, labeled “a global platform and ecosystem for digital assets,” with Loeffler at the helm.

Crypto experts lauded the announcement at the time as a big step for the mainstream adoption of digital assets.

Still, some in the space questioned what experience Loeffler had to run a startup focused on digital currencies. While ICE has always been a tech-first type company, Loeffler never held any technology roles at the exchange operator.

But Bakkt was a passion project of Loeffler’s she took incredibly seriously, source said. One source who spoke to Loeffler as she was building out Bakkt’s team said she was extremely well-versed in the tech and had a solid vision for how the platform could leverage ICE’s existing clientele. 

Another source, an investor in Bakkt, said Loeffler would lead detailed conversations going over specific nuances of how the exchange would operate, such as ways to encourage market-makers on the platform or how contracts should be margined. 

“She was as deep and substantive as you could get,” the source said. “It’s her vision, and she’s passionate about crypto.”

Still, the platform faced delays, having to push back its initial go-live goal of November 2018. And by the time it did launch in September 2019, interest in crypto currency from Wall Street had subsided significantly. 

To be sure, Bakkt’s success, or lack thereof, was irrelevant compared to ICE’s overall business, which was booming. From January 2018 to January 2020 the exchange operator’s stock rose nearly 30%, thanks in large part to its ability to profit off Wall Street’s obsession with data. 

A focus on Washington

Multiple sources said Loeffler always had a keen interest in politics. Loeffler and Sprecher had been involved in local politics and charities in Atlanta since 2006, but never pushed to hold any type of significant public office. 

In 2013 Loeffler reportedly flirted with the idea of running for senate, however a source familiar with the situation said it was the GOP, not Loeffler, that initiated the idea.

Still, Loeffler and Sprecher didn’t avoid politics altogether. In 2019, data from the US Federal Elections Commission showed the couple donated $390,000 to a variety of campaigns and political action committees, the majority of which were tied to Republican candidates.

One former senior ICE employee remembered an email that was circulated encouraging employees to contribute to the exchange operator’s political action committee. To be sure, ICE’s PAC is not tied to Loeffler or Sprecher. According to OpenSecrets.org, which is managed by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, ICE’s PAC donated $48,000 to Democrat campaigns and $89,500 to Republican campaigns in 2018. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., arrives for a re-enactment of her swearing-in, Monday Jan. 6, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

However, the true impetus for Loeffler taking action on her political aspirations appear to have occurred sometime in the summer of 2019. According to an AJC profile of her in December 2019, Loeffler and Sprecher attended a black-tie gala in August 2019 where the couple sat at a table with Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp. 

The event, which included a $200,000 donation from Loeffler to go towards rebuilding a chapel that had burned down, put Loeffler on Kemp’s radar. A few weeks later 74-year-old Republican senator Johnny Isakson announced he was stepping down at the end of the year over health concerns. Isakson’s departure meant Kemp was tasked with finding an interim replacement who would then be required to run in the 2020 general election.

In November, The Wall Street Journal reported President Donald Trump was pushing Kemp to pick representative Doug Collins, a staunch supporter of Trump, for the open seat. Kemp, however, reportedly was dead set on pushing forward with Loeffler, despite her having no experience in the political realm.

Trump eventually met with Kemp and Loeffler, according to The Wall Street Journal, but the private meeting “turned tense and ended quickly.” Still, Kemp refused to back down, officially picking Loeffler on December 4.

In her first statement following her appointment, with Sprecher by her side, Loeffler voiced supportt for Trump, saying she was “a lifelong conservative, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military, and pro-wall.”

It wasn’t long after being sworn into the Senate in January that Loeffler was drawing the spotlight again. Her selection to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, was criticized by some as a potential conflict of interest as the regulator polices many of the markets ICE operates in. 

To be sure, as a newly-minted junior senator, Loeffler didn’t necessarily have her pick-of-the-litter in terms of committees to take part in.

“I have worked hard to comply with both the letter and the spirit of the Senate’s ethics rules and will continue to do so every day,” Loeffler told The Wall Street Journal in a statement. “I will recuse myself if needed on a case by case basis.”

Later that month, Collins, Trump’s reported pick to fill the Senate seat, formally announced on ‘Fox and Friends’ he would be challenging Loeffler for her seat in November 2020. The Hill reported in December that Loeffler was prepared to spend $20 million of her own money on her reelection campaign

On February 8, she posted a video ad to her Instagram account showing her holding a gun in what appeared to be hunting attire. However, a records request from American Bridge, a liberal super PAC, found Loeffler wasn’t licensed to hunt in the state of Georgia. 

‘A political outsider’

For someone who built an entire career understanding the importance of messaging, Loeffler’s early days in Washington has found her in the headlines often. Some sources chalked it up to her inexperience in the political world, adding they expected her to adapt and evolve the same way she had during her two decades at ICE. 

Others, however, say the wealth Loeffler and Sprecher have accumulated has simply led to a disconnect with the average American. The pair are reportedly worth over $500 million with multiple houses and condos worth over a million dollars spread across at least three different states, according to AJC.  

The Daily Beast’s report, which was published March 19, is perhaps the best example of the criticisms laid out against Loeffler. The story reported a string of securities owned by Loeffler and Sprecher had been sold beginning January 24th, the day her and the rest of the Senate were briefed on the coronavirus. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) in Washington

Loeffler’s office did not respond to a request for comment in The Daily Beast’s report. But she did address the story via Twitter a few hours after it was published, criticizing the piece and stating her financial advisor, a luxury not enjoyed by most Americans, handles all her investments. 

“This is a ridiculous and baseless attack. I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement. As confirmed in the periodic transaction report to Senate Ethics, I was informed of these purchases and sales on February 16, 2020 — three weeks after they were made,” Loeffler said in a series of tweets.

The following day Loeffler was interviewed on Fox News by Tucker Carlson, who had previously called for fellow Republican Senator Richard Burr to resign after ProPublica’s report of Burr also selling off stock.  Republican Senator James Inhofe and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein also came under fire for trades they made as well.

Loeffler reiterated her portfolio is handled by third parties, a policy she and Sprecher had first adopted in 2015 when ICE acquired NYSE.

At the end of the 10-minute interview, Carlson asked Loeffler if she felt Burr should be forced to resign. 

“Look Tucker, I am a political outsider,” Loeffler said. “I am focused on working for the state of Georgia, for the American people, and making sure that we solve the coronavirus, and letting this play out in the proper venue.”

SEE ALSO: A UBS exec lays out the benefits and pain points of all-electronic trading after coronavirus concerns cleared the floor at NYSE

SEE ALSO: The CEO of the largest stock exchange group in the world says financial markets are ripe for disruption, and it’s never been a better time to be a fintech

SEE ALSO: An upstart exchange looking to elbow in on NYSE and Nasdaq just nabbed big buy-in from JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, and Jane Street and set a go-live date

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