Day in the life of a fund manager at CES

Las Vegas Thu Jan 12, 2012 11:01am GMT

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Las Vegas (Reuters) - Hampton Adams has been one of CES' most loyal devotees for 15 years. But unlike a good chunk of the 140,000-plus who descend on the world's largest technology showcase every January, the portfolio manager is less keen on fiddling with cutting-edge technology than picking winners.

Adams, and thousands of his peers with real money burning holes in their pockets, dives gamely into the throngs of jostling gadget geeks and harried executives at the annual Consumer Electronics Show year after year. There, he kicks the tires on new gizmos; plies executives with tough questions; annoys a string of marketing reps; and tries to smash glass screens -- all in the name of seeing first-hand which technologies seem a good long-term bet

There's just no substitute for good old-fashioned touch and feel, argues the fund manager and head of research at Pasadena-based boutique firm Gamble Jones Investment Counsel, which manages over $1 billion (652 billion pounds).

"You ask people what they're showing, why they're excited about it, and about their competitors," he said as he embarked on the first of three days of touring the cavernous show floor. "You build a mosaic, getting bits and pieces of information wherever you can that will help you in the investment process. You try to put all those pieces together.

"That's what we've been trying to do."

The Consumer Electronics Show is in danger of shedding some of its allure. In addition to Apple's (AAPL.O) infamous absence, Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) is making this show its last.

Wall Street itself has long viewed CES primarily as an outsized dream factory, meeting and brainstorming venue. But others, like Adams, see a gigantic shop window for the singularly patient and longer-term minded.

CES spans venues all across the U.S. gambling capital, with a total surface area equivalent to over 30 football fields crammed with technophiles, industry insiders and booth babes. But navigating that morass of gadgets and humanity can be rewarding -- even for getting a read on companies that aren't represented.

"You always throw in a question about Apple. Apple is all that matters. It's the only thing all these people are competing against, whether it's the phones or the tablets."

ON THE FRINGES ... FOR ONCE

Last year, over 140,000 technophiles, industry insiders and the plain curious convened in Nevada. But joining them were a fringe group of an estimated 3,500 investment professionals, organizers estimate.

Investment banks host conferences and lavish cocktail receptions on the sidelines, lining up executives to speak and lure investors to step away from CES.

Many investors consider their annual walks around CES' exhibition floor invaluable for getting an up-close feel for new gadgets that are soon to hit store shelves, helping shape their longer term views about which companies to bet on.

Going into the show, Apple was one of Adams' favorite tech stocks along with Google (GOOG.O) and IBM (IBM.N), but he was looking for evidence to prove himself wrong. He was also on the prowl for companies poised to gain or lose from Apple's success.

Unlike many of the star-struck, critical or merely befuddled attendees drifting aimlessly between massive 3D television displays and scantily clad women, Adams wielded a yellow legal pad with a checklist of companies he wanted to hit.

Adams' first stop was Corning's (GLW.N) exhibit, where marketers invited attendees to try -- unsuccessfully -- to crack a plate of the super-strong glass that it makes for smartphone and tablet screens.

Employees at the booth were reluctant to talk about Apple but one hinted there was a strong chance that whatever smartphone Adams had in his pocket used Corning's glass.

BUSTLING BOOTHS

Adams, who got up at 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday to drive four hours to Vegas, said this year's event seemed the busiest since before the U.S. credit crisis threw the global economy into a tailspin.

He made it a point to stop by Intel (INTC.O), which this year is heavily promoting a new wave of super-thin laptops it has dubbed Ultrabooks to compete against Apple's Mac Book Air.

Intel wants the svelte, "instant on" laptop, drawing on features popularized by tablets, to make up 40 percent of notebook sales by the end of 2012, and is investing in marketing and research to cajole manufacturers into building them.

Intel hopes the snazzy new category will help staunch the loss of consumers to Apple's iPad.

Recalling Intel's demonstration at last year's CES of a slew of tablets that never quite saw the light of day, the 48-year old Adams was skeptical of the Ultrabook push.

"Last year, these displays were all tablets. Now they're gone. Now it's all Ultrabooks," said Adams, whose firm was originally founded to manage the fortune of one of the families behind Procter & Gamble.

But he admitted to being pleasantly surprised by a demonstration of a recently created demo model smartphone showcasing Intel's new Medfield processor, its latest mobile chip, after a string of false starts in the mobile market.

He noted the back of the phone remained cool to the touch after an intensive video demonstration.

"I've been negative on them for a long time. That phone makes me a lot more positive. I want to see design wins, see if it actually does take."

Tablet makers and Intel are anxiously awaiting the launch of Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system later this year, which the software company is betting will get it onto more mobile devices thanks to touch-screen technology and a refreshed user interface.

But at Microsoft's exhibit, Adams looked on aghast as marketers showed off Windows 8 in a tiny area, with no Windows 8-ready PCs to try out. That raised red flags in his mind as to the software's battle-readiness.

"They're dedicating the same amount of space to Windows 8 as they are to Hotmail," he said after walking around Microsoft's exhibition. "That's ridiculous."

Adams' critical eye sometimes annoyed company representatives more accustomed to starry-eyed technology fans fawning over smartphones, tablets, TVs and video game consoles.

He asked several representatives to tell him the main reasons potential customers gave for not buying their products, sometimes evoking blank stares.

And at one point, Adams managed to exasperate a Sony (6758.T) television rep and a web-TV application developer at the same time, as he badgered them to answer his hypothetical questions about Apple TV and the future of web TV.

After looking at manufacturers' latest versions of Google TV and talking to representatives, Adams said it looked better than earlier versions. But he remained unconvinced web TV is ready for prime time, and said Apple could disappoint investors if it fails to do better with its own eventual version.

"A lot of people think Apple TV is going to be the next big thing, but I don't understand how," he said. "The iPod, iPad and iPhones were brand new categories. I'm not sure how Apple is going to do that with TV and that concerns me."

Still, the lack of any evidence of strong new competition from Android tablets made him more optimistic about Apple.

"There's a lot of commitment to the Ultrabooks but that's a different world from tablets. As far as tablets, I still don't see anything that would lead you to buy anything other than an iPad," he proclaimed.

After nine hours struggling from booth to booth, Adams was ready to call it a day and return again the next day -- hoping to take something back to his trading desk.

And then he'll do it all over again in 2013.

"We're turning over a lot of stones here to see what we can find," he said.

"Sometimes you're lucky and other times you're not."

(Editing by Edwin Chan, Phil Berlowitz)