Georgia’s senator Kelly Loeffler: a political novice with deep pockets

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, with First Lady Marty Kemp, Kelly Loeffler and husband Jeff Sprecher at the Georgia 4-H gala in August. On Wednesday, Gov. Kemp formally announced Loeffler as his selection to succeed Johnny Isakson as U.S. senator. SPECIAL to the AJC from Blane Marable Photography and Georgia 4-H

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, with First Lady Marty Kemp, Kelly Loeffler and husband Jeff Sprecher at the Georgia 4-H gala in August. On Wednesday, Gov. Kemp formally announced Loeffler as his selection to succeed Johnny Isakson as U.S. senator. SPECIAL to the AJC from Blane Marable Photography and Georgia 4-H

At a black-tie gala for Georgia 4-H in August, finance executive Kelly Loeffler told the crowd of farmers, instructors and students how she got her start — tending soybeans and corn and caring for cattle on her family’s farm in rural Illinois.

“Whether it’s memories of working with my dad in the feed lot with our cattle or sewing and baking with my mom, these are things, priceless memories, that have also helped me in the business world,” Loeffler said.

That night, the youth service organization announced a $200,000 donation from Loeffler to help restore a historic chapel that burned in February.

At the head table with Loeffler and her husband, Intercontinental Exchange CEO Jeff Sprecher, was another power couple they didn’t know well: Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp. It was just a couple of weeks before U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson would announce his retirement.

Nearly four months later, Gov. Kemp picked Loeffler to succeed Isakson. With the pick, Kemp bucked his ally, President Donald Trump, and some hardliners in his party who wanted a proven Trump loyalist such as U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, and who have painted Loeffler as a closeted liberal.

Lawmakers applaud as Kelly Loeffler, second from right, is introduced Dec. 4, 2019, by Gov. Brian Kemp, left, as his choice to succeed U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down for health reasons. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Loeffler flirted with a Senate run in 2014, but is largely a blank slate, sharing little publicly about her stands on policy in her 17 years in Georgia. She and her husband have done most of their political talking through six-figure checks to Republican candidates and causes, and smaller ones to a smattering of Democrats. Only recently have she and her husband donated to Trump.

Though largely unknown to average Georgians, the 49-year-old Loeffler is prominent in Atlanta business circles and beyond as an executive at Intercontinental Exchange, known as ICE, the publicly traded parent company of the New York Stock Exchange. Last year, she became CEO of ICE’s bitcoin trading subsidiary Bakkt. She’s perhaps best known to the public as a co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.

Her rise from Illinois farm hand to accomplished business executive reveals quintessential American virtues of ambition and hard work. Her personal financial success also captures the nation’s yawning income inequality.

Despite repeated requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Loeffler’s representatives did not make her available for this story. The AJC interviewed nearly a dozen people — some who went on the record, and others who declined to be named. Most all spoke of Loeffler as a tenacious and ambitious business executive who works hard and expects the same rigor from her staff. She’s said to be well-prepared, detail-oriented and a good listener, but few offered specific examples.

Loeffler will not be required to disclose her finances until later, but the available public record shows that she and her husband are worth in excess of $500 million, putting her among the one-tenth of one percent of richest Americans. The couple own million dollar-plus homes in at least three states, including a $10 million estate in Buckhead and a $4 million condominium on Sea Island.

Once sworn in, Loeffler will instantly vault to the top ranks of the richest members of Congress, a group that also includes Georgia Sen. David Perdue.

Kelly Loeffler’s Buckhead home is hidden by trees in this view of the front gate from the street. Loeffler is CEO of bitcoin trading company Bakkt and is an executive with Atlanta-based Intercontinental Exchange, the New York Stock Exchange parent company. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Political scientist Kerwin Swint at Kennesaw State University said rivals — particularly Democrats — will likely highlight Loeffler’s wealth to say she’s out-of-touch with average Georgians. But Swint said being rich isn’t “the stigma it was just a few years ago,” pointing to Perdue, a former CEO.

“If you look at the House and the Senate, millionaires tend to be more common than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” Swint said.

Politically, many observers hope Loeffler will help the GOP regain voters — particularly white suburban Atlanta women — turned off by Trump.

“We’ve got enough angry white men in the Republican Party,” said Jay Morgan, a lobbyist who has known Loeffler more than a decade. “We need some diversity.”

On Wednesday, in her introductory news conference, Loeffler  pledged allegiance to Trump and decried Democrats' efforts to impeach the president as a "circus."

She said she would defend the Second Amendment, support Trump’s border wall and conservative judges and will be a fierce opponent of abortion.

“Contrary to what you might see in the media, not every strong American woman is a liberal,” she said. “Many of us are conservative and proud of it.”

Farm values

Loeffler grew up in Bloomington, Ill., midway between St. Louis and Chicago.

“We lived simply. Life revolved around farming, church, school and 4-H,” she said in Wednesday’s press conference. “There was a rhythm to our lives: we planted in the spring, I showed cattle at the county fair in the summer and in the fall we harvested. Sundays were for church and family.”

Loeffler told the AJC in 2011 interview that by age 10 she filed a time card for her work weeding the soybean fields.

She knew more about commodity prices and futures than math because her mother wrote commodity prices down on a kitchen napkin every day for her father and grandfather when they came in for lunch, Kemp said Wednesday.

“That’s what interested her about working in the markets,” he said.

Loeffler said she waited tables to earn money in high school. On the basketball court, a teenage Loeffler, 5-foot-11 and thin as a string bean, earned the nickname NBC — “Newborn Calf.”

“I’d fall and pop back up,” she told the AJC in 2011 after buying a stake in the Atlanta Dream.

After high school, she made her way to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Later, she mortgaged family land to gin up $90,000 needed for her MBA at DePaul University.

Her resume is dotted with a who’s who of big-name companies, including Toyota, Citibank and investment bank William Blair.

Power couple

In 2002, she followed a boss to go work for the upstart ICE. There she met Sprecher, the founder of the company.

Loeffler ultimately became head of investor relations, marketing and communications. They wed in 2004.

Loeffler helped lead communications with the investment community when ICE went public in 2005.

Over the next 14 years, ICE gobbled up the New York Board of Trade and in 2013 closed on its largest-ever transaction, a $11 billion deal to acquire the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange.

The deal made ICE one of the world’s most influential companies, playing a critical role in the stock market, global finance and international trade. Trades across its networks influence the prices of everything from gasoline to groceries to the holdings of most people’s retirement accounts.

The company has dazzled Wall Street with its ability to streamline companies and make commodity trading smoother and more transparent.

From left in this 2009 photo are InternationalExchange CEO Jeff Sprecher, his wife Kelly Loeffler, who is an ICE vice president and co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, and her father, Don Loeffler.

Credit: Family photo

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Credit: Family photo

But critics are likely to focus on the fact that that modernization to electronic trading often came at the expense of slashing trading jobs.

In 2018, Sprecher chose Loeffler to lead a new venture, Bakkt, aimed at bringing cryptocurrency into the mainstream.

Pete Keseric, her mentor in business school and a former DePaul trustee, said Loeffler impressed him with her ability to move seamlessly from the auto industry to finance and into ICE’s world of commodity exchanges and now bitcoin.

“My eyes glaze over when someone starts talking about (bitcoin) and I’m in the banking business,” he said. “She understands it. … You can tell she knows what she’s talking about.”

Money and politics

Loeffler brings with her the means to self-fund not only a 2020 special election and potential runoff — she's said to have pledged $20 million of her own fortune to the effort — but also a 2022 primary and general election when Kemp will be up for a second term.

Securities and Exchange Commission filings show Loeffler earned $1 million in salary and bonuses in each of the past two years. She controls about $18 million in ICE stock and stock options and $15.6 million in long-term investments in Bakkt, a joint venture with ICE that’s supported by blue-chip names like Microsoft and Starbucks.

An AJC analysis of ICE regulatory filings shows Sprecher controls nearly $500 million in ICE stock, and Sprecher earned $39.7 million in total compensation from 2016 to 2018.

The couple owns a high-rise condo in Chicago valued at more than $4 million, real estate records show. Loeffler and Sprecher each own $1 million-plus houses on a golf course in The Villages, a giant retirement community in central Florida.

In 2009, the couple purchased a $10.5 million mansion and an adjoining property for $1.15 million along Buckhead’s exclusive Tuxedo Road, real estate records show.

Outside business, Loeffler and Sprecher rank among the Republican Party’s top donors in the past decade with nearly $4 million in contributions to federal campaigns and political action committees.

The headquarters of Intercontinental Exchange in Sandy Springs. Kelly Loeffler is CEO of bitcoin trading company Bakkt and is an executive with Atlanta-based Intercontinental Exchange, the New York Stock Exchange parent company. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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For the last seven campaign cycles the company operated the Intercontinental Exchange PAC, which has spent an additional $1 million in political donations.

The couple contributed nothing to the Trump campaign in 2016 and nothing to Kemp in his 2018 race for governor.

But in the weeks before she applied for the Senate seat, the couple reportedly each ponied up $100,000 for a recent Trump fundraiser in Atlanta.

Since 2011, ICE has spent on average $1.6 million annually on lobbyists to influence financial regulations related to the trading of securities.

As a senator, Loeffler will have a say over regulation and the appointment of regulators who oversee financial markets, which include her own companies.

Donald Sherman, deputy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Loeffler couldn’t trade on inside information, but Senate rules wouldn’t force her to divest her investments in her companies. Senate rules also wouldn’t prohibit her from serving on committees governing banking or energy or trade, which could affect ICE’s business.

“The Senate rules are so weak, and the bar for compliance is not very high,” he said.

Civic engagement

Loeffler serves on the boards of Grady Memorial Hospital, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, mental health treatment center Skyland Trail and the Georgia Research Alliance.

She and Sprecher also have played key roles with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which Sprecher chaired a few years ago. ICE was one of the first companies to contribute to Choose ATL, the chamber’s effort to recruit young professionals.

Paul Bowers, Georgia Power president and CEO, said the company picked Loeffler to be on the company’s board in October because of her knowledge of cryptocurrency, energy markets and European carbon trading markets.

“The first thing she does is she seeks to understand. She asks probing questions,” he said.

Newly appointed U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler waves toward supporters following a press conference in the Governor’s office at the Georgia State Capitol Building, Dec. 4, 2019. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler to take the place of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down for health reasons. An AJC analysis of public records and securities filings shows Loeffler and her husband, Intercontinental Exchange CEO Jeff Sprecher, are worth at least $500 million. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Loeffler joined the board of Skyland Trail in 2013 about the time she considered her first Senate run.

Beth Finnerty, CEO of Skyland Trail, said Loeffler cares about quality mental health care. Loeffler helped Skyland raise $1 million at its marquee donor event this year.

“She is gracious and kind and is a great listener,” said Finnerty.

Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen said Loeffler is a supportive owner of the WNBA team.

Loeffler, who owns the team with businesswoman Mary Brock, is a fixture courtside with Sprecher.

Collen said she suspects most WNBA players, including Dream players, lean left.

“They may not be too excited about her political views, but I don’t think that affects what they think of Kelly Loeffler,” said Collen. “Without owners like her and Mary, they wouldn’t have this job in this country.”

Meet Kelly Loeffler

Age: 49

Residence: Buckhead

Experience: CEO of bitcoin trading exchange Bakkt and an executive with Intercontinental Exchange; co-owner of the Atlanta Dream. She has held prior executive positions in finance and the automotive industry

Boards and philanthropic service: Georgia Power, Grady Memorial Hospital, Skyland Trail, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Georgia Research Alliance

Education: Bachelor's degree in business from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, MBA from DePaul University and is a Certified Financial Analyst from the CFA Institute

Church: Cathedral of Christ the King Church in Buckhead

Spouse: Jeff Sprecher, CEO of Intercontinental Exchange

Children: None

Pets: A cat named Sandra, named for retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hobbies: Running, reading spending time with family, hiking and shooting

The road ahead

General election November 2020 open to both parties; if no candidate exceeds 50%, top two vote-getters advance to a January 2021 runoff

Primary and general election in 2022 for a six-year term