The other day, a Madison kid named Jeff Sprecher bought the New York Stock Exchange.
No, he really did.
It's the same Jeff Sprecher who used to deliver the Wisconsin State Journal on his bicycle. He'd roll the papers up every morning and secure them with a rubber band. Football legend Elroy Hirsch was on his route.
A few years on, Jeff attended Memorial High School, then UW-Madison.
Last month, that same Jeff Sprecher, now 57, made headlines in newspapers around the world when his Atlanta-based company, IntercontinentalExchange, known as ICE — Sprecher is chief executive and chairman — announced the purchase, pending regulatory approval, of NYSE Euronext, the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
The price was $8.2 billion.
Jeffrey Sprecher was known before — Business Week profiled him in 2010 in a piece titled "The Sultan of Swaps" — but buying the NYSE, the symbolic heart of American capitalism, has upped the ante considerably.
"The brand is so recognized," Sprecher said recently, by phone from his Atlanta office. "It has been amazing."
Friends he hasn't heard from since high school and college have been in touch.
The funny thing is, until now, Jeff wasn't even the most famous one in his family. His sisters, Jill and Karen Sprecher — Memorial graduates themselves — are well-known independent filmmakers. Their movies — the sisters collaborate on the screenplays, and Jill directs — include "Clockwatchers" and "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," each of which was embraced by critics and festival audiences.
The sisters hosted the family in Southern California over the recent holidays. Jeff and his wife, Kelly Loeffler, were there. Kelly is an ICE executive and part owner of the women's pro basketball team in Atlanta, the Dream. Kelly played in high school in central Illinois, where her parents were farmers. She met Jeff when she went to work for ICE in 2002.
"I was a consummate bachelor," Jeff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2011, "who was never going to get married. But she really knocked me off my feet."
Also present at the holiday gathering in Studio City were the Sprecher siblings' parents, Pete and Phyllis Sprecher of Madison. Pete had a highly successful career in the insurance business and still sends a newsletter out to clients and friends. It's a work ethic he passed on to his son. Jeff told me he views his career as "a vocation and avocation." He's not kidding. When an Atlanta reporter asked Kelly late last month if ICE would celebrate the NYSE purchase, she said ICE employees celebrate by working harder.
There was a time — it has been decades — when Jeff Sprecher played almost as hard as he worked.
He was at UW-Madison, studying chemical engineering, and thinking, too, about medical school, when a recruiter came to campus and asked various individuals in the engineering school if they could recommend "an engineer with personality." To a person, they all said Jeff Sprecher, who wondered if it was a compliment or a nod to his "significant social life."
He ended up, in any case, with the company that recruited him hardest — Trane out of La Crosse. They had a management training program that allowed him to work and attend classes at Pepperdine University, where he got an MBA.
In 1983, when Sprecher was 28, he and a grad school friend started a company called Western Power Group. They developed power plants. Jeff moved to Los Angeles. Weekends, he raced cars.
"I was the world's worst race car driver," he told me.
Doubtful, but in 1997, Sprecher left racing, and eventually California, behind when he bought a small Atlanta company called Continental Power Exchange.
In 2000, he debuted ICE, an online energy trader — eBay for energy, if you will — having sold equity stakes to big hitters like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. The idea was to be a competitor to Enron. When Enron imploded, ICE soared.
The company has continued to expand in the years since. Sprecher, too, has prospered, of course. The Business Week story spoke of a European-style mansion in Atlanta and a $40,000 wristwatch.
"I don't enjoy it," Sprecher said, when I asked about the celebrity associated with being a high-profile business executive. But he's OK with it. He has to be. When you buy the New York Stock Exchange, these things happen.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or email@example.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.